Vale, Lucius Shepard

As reported in various places, Lucius Shepard died today. I’ve said many times before that I am crap at writing obituaries, but I can reprint the following review of Shepard’s short collection, Two Trains Running. The original appeared in Emerald City #106, dated June 2004.

Riding the Rails

Lucius Shepard is, I think, a very brave man. There are a lot of dubious things that journalists have to do in order to get stories. I’m not entirely sure I’d want to be in Iraq right now. But I think I would rather be there than do what Shepard did. He was contracted by a magazine to do a story on an organization called the FTRA (Freight Train Riders of America). Talk to certain law enforcement officers and you will be told that this is a well-organized clandestine operation specializing in drug running with close links to the mafia. In actuality they turned out to be more like a dissolute and geographically dispersed biker gang, with neither the money nor the ability to stay sober for short periods that are required to own and maintain a bike. Two things are clear, however. Firstly, in order to gain their confidence and get them to talk to him, Shepard had to be prepared to get as drunk and stoned as the hoboes themselves. And secondly, at any moment one of them was liable to have turned nasty and tried to kill him.

Still, a story is a story, and Shepard duly produced his. What is more, being a writer as well as a journalist, he also produced two more stories, of the fictional type. The whole collection is now available in a single volume from Golden Gryphon called Two Trains Running. And very good it is too.

The non-fiction piece is a fascinating study of a little-known part of American life. Particularly bizarre is the police officer from Spokane who is convinced that the FTRA is the biggest conspiracy since the Rosicrucians and Mafia decided to hook up with Fu Manchu. Having been to Spokane (and briefly to its even less pleasant neighbor, Boise), I can understand this. There are parts of America that would breath a huge sigh of relief if there was a military coup because at last they would be able to get to grips with the fiendish commie subversives in their midst. But the hoboes are fascinating too, particularly the way that they invent new identities for themselves when they begin to ride the rails, as if to protect the core of their being from the person that they must become in order to survive.

As for the fiction, “Over Yonder”, by far the longer piece, won the Theodore Sturgeon Award for the best short fiction of 2002 I am at a loss to know how it didn’t even appear on the Hugo nomination long list. The other piece, “Jailbait”, is much shorter and unpublished. Both of them are fantasy, of a sort, but of course there’s not an elf in sight. Shepard is a great writer. What more can I say?

Two Trains Running – Lucius Shepard – Golden Gryphon – hardcover