Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Book Review: 'The Jaguar Hunter' by Lucius Shepard

3 / 5 Stars

The best way to describe Lucius Shepard is to say that he writes the way other authors – and Gene Wolfe comes most readily to mind – have been struggling to write for all their professional lives. Lucius Shepard writes the way many New Wave SF writers desperately wanted to write, but couldn’t.

What do I mean by these remarks ? I mean that with Shepard, metaphors and similes are used with deliberation and care. By and large his stretches of figurative prose – and these are prevalent in these stories - are reined in before the reader becomes exasperated (‘Black Coral’ is the only real exception). His narrative style is clear and direct, devoid of the studied opacity that (for example) mars so much of Wolfe’s output. 

The many prose contrivances used by SF writers hoping to generate ‘speculative fiction’ are rarely present in Shepard's stories.

This isn’t to say that Shepard’s work is for everyone. The SF element is scant in these stories, and many of them are an Americanized approach to the ‘magic realism’ genre so beloved by South American writers. Most of the momentum in a given narrative is generated from psychological or moral conflicts among the characters, as opposed to the external forces (space aliens, technology, pollution, Dark Lords, spells gone wrong) acting in traditional SF and fantasy fiction. 

And, set as they are in locales in Central and South America, East Asia, and the Caribbean, the stories in ‘The Jaguar Hunter’ often hinge on a confrontation between the American protagonists and the older cultures and mysteries attendant to the Foreign Place.

 ‘The Jaguar Hunter’ is a 1987 Bantam Trade paperback (356 pp.) with cover art by Barry Phillips. All of the stories first appeared in SF magazines in 1984 – 1985. The lineup:

‘The Jaguar Hunter’: in an unnamed Central American country, Esteban Caax agrees to hunt a notorious man-killing jaguar in order to settle a debt. After encountering a mysterious woman he begins to question his purpose, but it may be too late to turn back….

‘The Night of White Bhairab’ : in Kathmandu, dissipated hippie Eliot Blackford takes a job as a caretaker for Mr. Chatterji. When a malevolent ghost from Europe takes up residence in Chatterji’s house, Eliot must cooperate with the local spirits to prevent ectoplasmic mayhem from descending on the neighborhood.

‘Salvador’: in a near-future conflict in El Salvador, a drugged-out US soldier engaged in a brutal pacification campaign has a fateful encounter with the spirits inhabiting the remote countryside.

‘How the Wind Spoke At Madaket’: in a small village on Nantucket Island the wind suddenly seems possessed of malevolent intent. This novelette has affinities with something Stephen King would write. Featuring the wind as the monster in a horror story seems dubious, but Shepard does succeed to some degree in making it a legitimate 'monster'. However, the frequent intervals in which the author explores the psychological states of his characters tended to impede the narrative and prolong the story too much for its own good.

‘Black Coral’: on the island of Guanoja Menor (a fictional counterpart of the island of Guanaja, located off the coast of Honduras), Prince, a thuggish American expatriate and Vietnam War veteran, makes a fateful decision to smoke a local blend called ‘black coral’. He winds up on a very, very bad trip. The story suffers from belaboring the psychedelic imagery plaguing the hapless Prince, although it delivers a quirky, but satisfactory, ending.

‘The End of Life As We Know It’: an American couple, their marriage crumbling, visit a town in Guatemala and encounter a Don Juan character with mystical revelations about the fate of the Universe. One of weaker entries in the anthology.

‘A Traveler’s Tale’: Also set on the island of Guanoja Menor, drifter Ray Milliken decides to establish a Saucer Cult based on an entry in the 18th century journal of pirate Henry Meachem. Is Ray insane, or is an alien entity actually stranded on a snake-infested plot of swampland called the Burial Ground ?

‘Mengele’: a pilot in distress is forced to make an emergency landing in the jungles of western Paraguay. The nearest place of civilization turns out to be a village governed by a man with a past best left ignored. An offbeat, effective horror story.

‘The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule’: A fantasy story dealing with the comatose body of a dragon over a mile long. A young artist named Meric Cattany proposes to kill the dragon by covering it in a coating of paint, in a sort of Christo project gone amok. The story has a quirky premise but never really does much with it, as the narrative devolves into a soap opera involving romantic rivalries.

‘The Spanish Lesson’: it’s 1964 and a callow Young American named Lucius is bumming around the Mediterranean coast of Spain, seeking enhanced status in the expat community. He befriends a thoroughly creepy brother-and-sister pair who claim to be from Canada. But their notebooks tell of a more unbelievable point of origin....

’Lesson’ is the best story in the anthology. It takes a tried and true SF cliché and breaks new ground by propelling the trope  into far-out realms flavored with quasi- Lovecraftian elements. 

I thought the last few pages had the unfortunate effect of blunting the impact of the story’s climax, but overall, ‘Lesson’ stands as one of the more accomplished SF short stories of the 80s.

1 comment:

Will Errickson said...

I loved LIFE DURING WARTIME back in the day but haven't reread it. Tried to read his vampire novel THE GOLDEN but it was rather overwritten.