On Lucius Shepard, The Novella, and Weirdness

I’ve become moderately obsessed in the last few months with the writer Lucius Shepard. I was lucky enough to hear his name dropped on a weird fiction podcast, I’ve actually forgotten which, maybe Cromcast. I was initially underwhelmed when I had a look on Amazon – almost none of his work is in print, except in ebook editions whose design makes them seem, frankly, just short of amateurish.

Of course, many of you will know that Shepard was a luminary of sci-fi for a time. But, now that I’ve read a mid-sized sampling of his work, I find the fading of his star since then totally baffling. He was something close to a genius, and he demonstrated with blinding clarity the most profound potentials of weird fiction. His stories melded emotional depth with surreal imagery and supernatural happenings, using effortlessly beautiful and believable language to render the electrified ghosts of Vietnam casualties, a sleeping dragon casting subtle spells, a poisoned jungle plotting to save itself from destruction by man.

He manages the itself-supernatural trick of perfectly balancing finely detailed, realistic and emotionally weighty characters, substantive and propulsive plots, and unhesitant strangeness.

Shepard completely avoids cliche – none of the ghosts or dragons do quite what you expect them to. Even more impressive are the junkies and brain-damaged boxers and construction workers who themselves become implicated in the unreal, who slip into realms beyond and make that transition part of the still very real lives they lead.

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In his heyday, Shepard was hardly unknown – he won a Nebula award and a World Fantasy Award, among others. Yet his work is less visible than the latest “Cthulhu by Gaslight” schlockfest. There are several reasons for this, some perhaps inevitable and structural, but also some that fans and writers of weird fiction should pay serious heed to, if they care about the long-term health of this community.

It doesn’t help that he was an older (and now, tragically, dead before his time) writer, in a genre full of young-ish men and women who are at readings and on Twitter frantically clamoring for your attention. But he’s not, at the same time, old enough to join the mythical pantheon ala Lovecraft, Howard, or Clark Ashton Smith (the last of whom, by the way, Shepard is vastly superior to).

He was awkwardly in-between in another way. Shepard’s obituary pointed out that his taste for writing the novella helped keep him marginal. It’s the perfect length for what Shepard does, long enough to draw a reader into a very detailed dream-like world, to generate empathy for a central character, and to unfold a meaningful plot – but still lean, without, in particular, the novel’s lengthy dialogues.

It’s also, unfortunately, long been a wildly uncommercial form. Now that we live in the heyday of the edited volume, even short stories are far more marketable than novellas – a moderately successful writer and writing coach recently posited to me that 4,000 words is the most salable length for a short story. The best works in The Best of Lucius Shepard are closer to 12,000 words.

But that, I have some hope, might be changing – if not in time for Shepard’s own legacy, then at least for future fans of the novella. The rise of electronic publishing makes the physical dimensions of a book almost irrelevant. And novellas can be easily sold for the appropriate-seeming price of 99 cents or so.

(I’m actually about to experiment with this myself.  Before I had any sense that stories were things you sold, I would simply write them until they felt like they were done – which is how I ended up spending 12 years on and off trying to sell an 11,000-word story now called in night we coax things out of hidden shapes. I will be releasing it as the first Blown Horizonz publication in a few weeks – please sign up for our newsletter for updates and some upcoming giveaways.)

For another underappreciated genius, read here about M. John Harrison.

But there’s another, more deeply worrisome interpretation of Shepard’s marginality – one which might be blamed on one of Shepard’s own most important heirs. Jeff Vandermeer may be the living Weird writer whose command of the intersection of truth and weirdness is closest to Shepard’s. But it was also Ann and Jeff Vandermeer who – for a lot of very good and laudable reasons, and with a lot of laudable results – have really given life to The Weird as a genre. They’d maybe object to that characterization of their editorial project, but it’s essentially inescapable.

And genres, and their audiences, are inimical to writers like Lucius Shepard. He has been often compared to the Latin American writers of Magical Realism, and the contrast is productive. Those writers, from Marquez back to Cervantes sideways to Borges – are part of a tradition, not a genre. They have a command of a worldview, not a set of tropes. And a genre can’t be anything so nebulous or alive, because ultimately it’s a market category. A set of recycled tics and monsters and scenes and gestures. On some level, it’s a shell for mediocrity, in readers as well as writers.

Luckily, I don’t think weird fiction is there yet. There is undeniably a lot of lazy crap out there, in fact an increasing amount of it. But the darkness could be neutered, if we’re not careful. Probably the best insurance against that is to cast skepticism on mediocre recyclings of the predictable, to continue venerating uncomfortable freaks like Thomas Ligotti and Michael Cisco – and to add Lucius Shepard to that list.

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