'The Jaguar Hunter'

Part of an irregular series of reviews of science fiction and fantasy works, celebrating MLK Memorial Library's ongoing Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Club. Previous entries here and here.

Cover of "The Jaguar Hunter" by Lucius Shepard.
Lucius Shepard’s first collection of short fiction, The Jaguar Hunter, is a remarkable introduction to the work of a major author of American science fiction, fantasy and horror, whose stories exist within the traditions of the pulp idiom while simultaneously interrogating the assumptions of that tradition. Shepard’s work is never less than immersive: He writes with a hypnotic intensity, and with an originality of vision that never compromises his attention to craft.

In “The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule,” Shepard creates a postmodern fantasy that rivals the creations of Michael Swanwick (The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, Stations of the Tide) and M. John Harrison (Viriconium, encompassing several earlier novels and stories). A dragon lies petrified by a wizard’s spell, its vast bulk sprawling across an entire valley, trapped but alive, as people build villages on and around his body, green things spring up to cover the scales, and life goes on, but Griaule’s influence lingers.

It’s a fabulous fantasy concept, echoed, perhaps, in the skeletal remains around which China Miéville’s Bas-Lag sprang up, and graphic novels like Gutsville. Catherynne M. Valente's novel Palimpsest, too, contains hints of Griaule, as does Jeff VanderMeer's Ambergris. Detectable influences on Shepard include the fervent novels of Angela Carter and the susurrant, haunted realities of Amos Tutuola, but there is almost no trace of homage in this book. There are more stories in the Griaule sequence, playing fast and loose with continuity but built around the same notion. Titles from DC Public Library's holdings include The Scalehunter’s Beautiful Daughter and The Taborin Scale.

The other standout of the collection is Shepard’s Nebula-award winning novella "R & R," the story of a psychic American soldier trapped in an inescapable war — this time in Central America. The story can be a bit disjointed, but the piece loses none of its authority in its hideous evocation of a world that seems all too possible, and in the characters with which Shepard populates the text. Shepard’s own knowledge of the region, and the searing viciousness with which he portrays the mechanics of war (when the story was written, the United States was funding attacks by contra groups throughout the region) make it an extraordinary achievement.

It has been rendered alternate history by the fall of Communism, and the preoccupation with psychic phenomena (convincingly and interestingly portrayed here) introduced a fantasy element even at the time, but the piece remains a viciously effective piece of if-this-goes-on dystopia, more acidic and less sentimental even than Catch-22, but with a similar attention to the deadly gravity of military bureaucracy. Shepard later expanded "R & R" into a novel, Life During Wartime, that warranted reissue as part of the SF Masterworks series. Be aware that the original novella isn’t included in all editions of The Jaguar Hunter: check against the Internet Science Fiction Datababase listing before you buy online, or check out the DC Public Library’s lovely Arkham House hardcover edition at MLK Memorial in the Popular Library. (We have the paperback too; it, maddeningly, excludes "R & R.")

The Jaguar Hunter is an important book, too rarely read, but a must for fans of intelligent and engaged science fiction, fantasy, and horror.