Beast of the Heartland and Other Stories

by Lucius Shepard

Published by Four Walls Eight Windows

292 pages, 1999

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Beastly Beauty

Reviewed by Claude Lalumière


In his story "Campbell's World," Paul Di Filippo postulated a world transformed into a sensual utopia of wonder and compassion by the benevolently insidious agenda of Joseph Campbell, editor of the pulp science-fiction magazine Astounding. The real-world editor of Astounding was a Campbell of a different stripe than the famous mythology scholar. John W. Campbell promulgated the problem-solving, competent-hero, technophilic brand of science fiction that has become the mainstream of American SF. But what if popular imagination had, instead, been fed by a transcendent vision that embraced science, compassion, love, sex, and human diversity... a world where popular fiction dealt with painful human problems in a powerfully resonant way that inspired deep social change... a world where the editor of a magazine that featured such fiction found a way for his publication to reach the whole world?

Lucius Shepard writes in the real world, but his fiction would have been at home in Joseph Campbell's Astounding. With flawless elegance, he writes adventure stories in which characters go through shattering transformations and in which (to evoke Ornette Coleman) "beauty is a rare thing" and compassion even rarer. His tales transmute mythic and popular archetypes into a strange alchemical potion that worms into readers' guts. His stories are unabashedly engaged, contemptuous of the cowardice that hides behind cruelty, and intolerant of intolerance. In his work, pulp fiction and high literature combine to thrill and disturb, to surprise and astonish, and -- most of all -- to matter.

His fourth collection, Beast of the Heartland and Other Stories (called Barnacle Bill the Spacer and Other Stories in the UK), is more of a mixed bag than the previous three. Included are two of his most popular stories ("Barnacle Bill the Spacer" and "The Sun Spider"); both are atypical forays into space fiction. (No doubt the fact that these tales are outwardly closer to mainstream SF accounts for their wider popularity.) I found them less intense than the usual Shepard fare, which usually puts to good use a chaotic tension between the real world and the fantastic -- a device that would have been out of place in these otherwise fine stories. Two other stories center in some way around sports, a subject that usually leaves me cold. Nevertheless, I enjoyed both "Sports in America" (a snappy crime short) and "Beast of the Heartland" (a sad, lyrical portrait of an aging boxer). "A Little Night Music" is a horror story about a music journalist which should tickle jazz lovers.

The remaining two stories ("Human History" and "All the Perfumes of Araby") are more consistent with the author's larger body of work: stories of painful transformation and lazy cruelty; journeys through strange worlds, hybrids of dream and technology, where characters face truths from which they'd fled their whole lives and where they lose much of what they believe makes up their identity but only barely grasp what they have now gained through their travails. "Human History" is both the longest and best of the tales collected in Beast of the Heartland and Other Stories. It's an 85-page novella set in a devastated far future where small human outposts are kept low-tech by some mysterious agreement with a group of cosmonauts called The Captains. The story tells of a family (a man, a woman and their son) tearing itself apart and how their resulting adventure makes them come face-to-face with hidden aspects of their society and its true history while simultaneously confronting hidden aspects of themselves they may or may not be able or willing to acknowledge.

Unlike in "Campbell's World," compassionate fiction that disturbs, provokes, and transforms has not altered reality in any appreciable way. The real world, filled as it is with the ugliness and pettiness that motivate the passionate fury of Shepard's best work, will continue to provide raw matter for Lucius Shepard, a weaver of tales that matter, of tales that, in the face of indifference, scream for a better world. | September 1999