Lucius Shepard (1947 — ) is an award-winning American writer whose fiction often contains an element of supernatural horror and reflects personal experience from his extensive travels overseas. Briefly associated with the cyberpunk movement, Shepard quickly established himself as sui generis with novels such as Life During Wartime (1987) and The Scalehunter’s Beautiful Daughter (1988). More recently, novels such as Viator (2005) have confirmed Shepard’s status as one of his generation’s best writers of weird fiction. Long stories have been Shepard’s particular strength, collected in, among others, The Jaguar Hunter (1987), Trujillo (2004), and The Best of Lucius Shepard (2008). For more titles, check out Lucius Shepard’s Amazon page. His story “Shades” in our The Weird compendium is a unique and unflinchingly weird ghost story that also serves as a commentary on the devastation of war.
Editor’s Note: The image reproduced above and on our main page is John Picacio’s stunning cover art for Shepard’s Viator. You can view more of Picacio’s work at his website.
Weirdfictionreview.com: What weird writers did you grow up reading? How did they influence or not influence your writing?
Lucius Shepard: I read Tolkien when I was a kid, also a few random books like A. Merritt’s The Moon Pool, but they didn’t make much of an impression. I didn’t really like Tolkien. My father forced me to read James Branch Cabell, which almost ruined me for fantasy. Somebody, I forget who, wrote of his Dragon King trilogy that his dragon hunters had the personalities (I’m paraphrasing here) of desperate insurance salesmen. Most of my independent reading tended toward non-fiction travel books, mostly old ones, which are definitely weird by any definition, and adventure fiction, but I managed to sneak in a good bit of Jack Vance — with his ornate backdrops and lowlife picaresque heroes, he fired up my imagination. Then there was Lafcadio Hearn, the author of Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things. He was an ex-pat who lived in Japan and even published a good portion of his fiction under a Japanese pseudonym. The exoticism of his stories fascinated me and the awkward baroque-ness of his descriptions frustrated me — even at an early age I could almost see how to make them more precise. My genre reading in childhood and my teens was limited, so these men remained my strongest influences.
WFR.com: What’s the weirdest piece of fiction, story or novel, that you’ve ever read? Why?
Shepard: Probably The Erasers by Alain Robbe-Grillet. Robbe-Grillet was an experimentalist, a major figure in the French nouveau roman movement. Superficially, The Erasers is a detective story about a series of murders, with characters, events, meditations, etc., some of which are imaginary. Things dissolve into each other. There’s a scene, for instance, wherein someone is walking up a stair and that all of sudden changes to someone else walking up a different stair and you realize that one of these is a fantasy in the thought-processes of a character, though you’re not sure which is which. In a way it’s the most traditional of Robbe-Grillet’s work – it was his first novel and still had some traditional elements, something of a plot, an ending, etc., but that only makes it seem weirder. When you’re reading it, after a while everything — even the most ordinary object or occurrence — comes to appear suspect, mysterious. It was a huge influence on me — not that I write anything like Robbe-Grillet, but it served to set a boundary, a kind of buoy marking an intellectual channel that I might want to keep in mind while sailing in nearby waters.
WFR.com: Your story “Shades” is in our The Weird compendium Among other things, it’s a very unusual ghost story. Do you remember how you came to write it? And what was the toughest part of that story to get right?
Shepard: I remember thinking (facetiously) that with all the dying done in Southeast Asia there must be a superfluity of ghosts in that region. I’d been over there a couple of times and knew that belief in ghosts was a given among the general populace, and I thought that there might be an Asian man of science who, motivated by this belief, would have sought to investigate the phenomena. And then, of course, I came up with the idea of an American ghost, a soldier in the Vietnamese war, as the subject of his investigation.
“Shades” was a story that could have been very sentimental, and I had to constantly fight the tendency to let it drift into tearjerker territory. In fact the original narrator was a woman, an old girlfriend of the soldier, but I quickly understood that this was a mistake and changed her into a man who had emotional baggage relating to the war but mostly negative memories as related to the ghost soldier.
WFR.com: Another one of my favorites of yours, Viator, strikes me as just a brilliant example of weird fiction. Yes, there’s a horrific aspect, but there’s also a kind of strange beauty in the novel, too. Do you personally see a correlation between what’s weird and what’s visionary or beautiful?
Shepard: I think sometimes beauty is easier to perceive in a weird setting, when it’s highlighted in a weird way. I suppose that’s why I’ve always been attracted to a certain vein of cheap merchandise — metal rings with big fake rubies, poorly made Goth jewelry, T-shirts with images of monsters silhouetted by enormous full moons, that sort of thing. They’re not merely a signal of poor taste, I hope, but reflect a more subtle preoccupation.
A less superficial way of addressing your question…I’m a sucker for those physics-for-dummies TV programs and the other night I was watching a show in which six scientists gave their opinion on the nature of reality. The one I found most compelling was a man from MIT whose theory was that the universe was a living hologram that was being programmed by enormous sheets of data at its outermost edge. He believes that if he’s right, the closer a look we are able to get at the basic info of the universe, the more indistinct it will appear. As with a hologram. Now he may be full of it, but true or not that sort of sums up my aesthetic, especially as it pertains to Viator (which is a mainstream novel masquerading in turn as a horror novel, a science fantasy, etc) – I feel that when one focuses on the minutiae of a project, they can come to seem all things, to mean anything, and that notion resonates with MIT guy’s theory and strikes me as elegant, visionary, and terrifyingly strange.
WFR.com: Finally, if you had to pick one weird writer who is overlooked and needs to be resurrected and better appreciated, who would it be and why?
Shepard: Alejo Carpentier, a Swiss-born Cuban journalist, ethno-musicologist, and novelist who died in 1980. Early on he lived in Paris and was connected to the Surrealists, but he grew disenchanted with surrealism and traveled to Cuba, where he wrote his best books and took part in Castro’s revolution. A direct precursor of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, he wrote in a rich baroque style and according to a philosophy he called lo real maravilloso (in essence, magical realism), It’s said that Marquez read Carpentier’s novel, Explosion in a Cathedral and immediately threw away the draft of 100 Years of Solitude on which he had been working for some years and started all over. His masterpiece, The Kingdom of This World , about the fantastic events surrounding the life of Henri Cristophe, the first black ruler of Haiti, is perhaps the seminal work of the magical realism movement. The first novel of his I read was The Lost Steps, a strange little book that I found utterly seductive. A wonderful writer celebrated in the Spanish-speaking world, but generally overlooked internationally.