I was not expecting to be gobsmacked while taking my Wee Lass to the library late last Saturday afternoon, but there it is. I was really just looking to read some books to her, pick some out for her to take home while The Spouse did some browsing of her own. Truly I did not need any books for myself, I have at least two or three months backlog of material on my nightstand and beside it. The books on the stand are threatening to take over, they are starting to block out the light from the bedside lamp! I need to get cracking; otherwise the books will probably bury me in a landslide soon.
Wee Lass and I journeyed down the ‘tunnel’ to the children’s area, a passageway that has a series of small tree trunks forming arches overhead from which hang banners in the shapes of leafy trees. They are festooned with little stuffed birds to enhance the forest effect. Wee Lass likes to follow the curvy line in the carpet, like she is swimming towards the open area with the books. We sit at a small table and read a delightfully illustrated ABC’s book, and then start in on one about a witch with some sort of self-esteem issues and an inferiority complex. I am a little disconcerted to note that the witch book was first published in the year of my birth. Ouch.
The Spouse finds us after she finishes browsing, and graciously relieves me of book recital duties, so that I can do a little investigation of my own. As I mentioned, I wasn’t looking to bring home any more books, so I thought I would wander up and down the aisles to skim some titles, maybe refresh my memory regarding what was up in the world of fiction and the like. This was my first trip to the library in years, a bit like a trip to the candy store.
For me, walking into a library with no specific titles in mind is akin to doing the same thing in a music store: I immediately cannot recall all the artists or works I want to get. I know I have a working list, I keep adding to it in my head, and I always tell myself “Don’t forget these next time!” I am rarely if ever successful. This time was no different. What occurs is that I start walking slowly up and down the aisles, quickly scanning the spines for catchy titles or familiar names. I started alphabetically in the A’s, drifting up and down, stopping occasionally to check out a cover blurb or read a paragraph or two. It was an amusing enough way to pass the time, and I was reasonably certain by the time I made it into the M through P sections that I would definitely not be taking anything home. There was a lot of cool stuff but nothing that really reached out and grabbed me enough to make it a ‘must read’, in light of the books I had at home. It was about that time I had the beginnings of an idea in the back of my head. Sort of like a “mind itch” tickling my brain. There was a faint memory of someone whose work I really admire, and I knew it was close by, but I was having trouble remembering his last name. Why I don’t know, because his novels and stories I used to avidly devour. As a tangent to that, I was of a mind to amuse myself by looking for authors having the same last name as me. So I ambled over to the S shelves and began to browse. Instead of looking up to where my name would have been I looked down, and that’s when the memory clicked back into focus as I spotted the book. It was The Best of Lucius Shepard, released in 2008 by Subterranean Press. Somehow I missed it last year.
Lucius Shepard. Oh, man. I read a lot of his work in the late 80’s and early 90’s, and quite frankly I found him to be one of the best writers I ever had the pleasure to encounter. His work is hard to describe: magical realism, sci-fi, speculative fiction, horror and even political works fall into his purview. The first story of his that grabbed me by the brain and wouldn’t let go is called “R & R”. It was first published in 1986. It is a near future story about a soldier with a peculiar ability, set in Central America. I found it to be powerful on so many levels: great sci-fi, a tinge of the fantastic, political commentary and some gritty detailed writing. I read it multiple times, and then found he had expanded it into a full length novel called Life During Wartime. One of the best books I have ever read by far. Think Gabriel Garcia Marquez meets Robert Heinlein, with a dash of P.J. O’Rourke.
“R & R” was included in the Best Of, along with another great story* called “Salvador”. But the one that caused me to take a deep breath in surprise, really grabbed my attention, is a fantastic and powerful short story called “The Jaguar Hunter.” I nearly dropped the book in surprise, and I am sure my jaw sagged. I may have even grunted out loud; the lady a few feet down the aisle certainly gave me a funny look.
The Jaguar Hunter. I had read that some years ago, and found it quite good then, but for some reason it slipped out of my consciousness later in the 90’s. I truly hadn’t thought about it in longer than I could remember. The title alone was enough to give me a jolt, and I read half the story standing right there in the stacks. I finished it later that evening, after we all returned home. It was even better than I thought so long ago.
I have written a lot recently about jaguars and Jaguar Man. The subject is something that will not seem to leave my imagination. I think I know why, in part, the jaguar has stuck in my subconscious, has become totemic for me. All that power, grace and mystery wrapped up in such a breathtaking package, and “The Jaguar Hunter” quite simply sums up how such a creature affects me, even if I cannot adequately explain. Actually, Lucius Shepard has done it for me. I’ll quote a short passage from the story, where the protagonist Esteban (the jaguar hunter) has realized something terrifying and beautiful about a Truth:
“…It was everywhere, and he had always known it: if you deny mystery – even in the guise of death – then you deny life and you will walk like a ghost through your days, never knowing the secrets of the extremes. The deep sorrows, the absolute joys.”
Oh, sweet baby Jay-zus, that nearly caused me to faint. I literally had to close my eyes for a few seconds and I pinched the bridge of my nose while massaging my temples. I read the paragraph leading up to that phrase four more times before finishing the story. The ending shortly thereafter was even more powerful, I think, at this time than it had been so many years ago. I nearly wept when I was done, for two reasons; the first was that it was so beautiful and powerful. It captured so much I what has been swirling around in my head and placed it right there for me to savor.
The second reason: I realized without a doubt that, as a writer, I have a very long way to go. There will always be someone who is better, brighter and smarter than I am. Lucius Shepard just gave me a master class in the art. The story is everything I have been trying to achieve, have been striving for, and it made me want to just back away from the keyboard and find something else to do with my time and energy.
“The Jaguar Hunter” is a story I wish I had written, and hopefully someday I will have one of my own to compare, but it’s a long way to the top. This is what it must feel like to launch into a pole vault, only to see the bar raised higher as you are hurtling through the air.
*Although they are all great stories, hence the ‘Best Of’ moniker.