Saturday, May 03, 2014

Ex Libris: Lucius Shepard's The Beast of the Heartland and Other Stories

I wonder if other readers feel the way I do, that I've come to a certain milestone when my favorite writers-- those whose books had changed my reading life-- pass on. I suppose I'm just feeling my age especially after I heard of Lucius Shepard's death this year.

I read his story collection The Jaguar Hunter first: strangely enough, I had no idea what to expect based on the recommendations I read-- except that he was a great writer. And maybe that was a good thing because when I did start reading him, I realized that he wasn't just writing speculative fiction, it was great Fiction that had the punch of several quick open-palm slams to the face, chest, and groin that would send you reeling to your knees but with tears of joy in your eyes.

His prose was a wonderful combination of hard-hitting, hardbitten, almost-practical realism with flashes of literary turn of phrases (what would be termed magical realism). His stories were mostly genre, sometimes with twists that would leave you gasping for breath, but otherwise were genre-less for the oh-so human characterizations of his protagonists.

So yes, I think that regardless of what I say or do from this point onward, I think I will always remain a fanboy of Shepard's work.

That's why in commemoration of the man, I dug out my still-to-be-read collection of his works and started reading his other story collection, The Beast of the Heartland and Other Stories. (On a side note, it took me a long while scouring the bargain bins for a copy of this collection. I once missed out buying the UK edition of this book, Barnacle Bill the Spacer and Other Stories, at the local Fully-Booked and I've always regretted it because it matches the third collection I have of his, The Ends of the Earth. But I digress.)

Regardless of how I felt about each story in this collection, every beginning of his stories was a wonder. That is, I would always think a few words into the story, "I wonder what this will be about." And why not, when you have such wonderful opening lines to begin with. To wit, from "Barnacle Bill the Spacer":
"The way things happen, not the great movements of time but the ordinary things that make us what we are, the savage accidents of our births, the simple lusts that because of whimsy or a challenge to one's pride become transformed into complex tragedies of love, the heartless operations of change, the wild sweetness of other souls that intersect the orbits of our lives, travel along the same course for a while, then angle off into oblivion, leaving no formal shape for us to consider, no easily comprehensible pattern from which we may derive enlightenment..."
Or, from "A Little Night Music":
"'Dead men can't play jazz.'"
Fascinating, no? Makes you want to read more.

Each story in the collection varies in genre: drugged-surreal religious horror in "A Little Night Music"; a post-apocalyptic tale "Human History" that seems to be the ancestor of Cormac McCarthy's The Road; the very noir "Sports in America" that calls up Raymond Chandler but reminds me of Patricia Highsmith as well; and a story about a boxer on the decline that seems to be ripped out of the pages of GQ or Esquire, "The Beast of the Heartland."

So yeah, I'm in like Flynn, regardless of how each story ends. Thus, rather than letting me blather on and on how wonderful this collection is, it's better if I'll sign off. Heaven knows if you don't think that I think the man was a great writer, then nothing I write will convince you.

Get thee to a bookstore and buy it! (Four paws out of four.)

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