Friday, September 2, 2016


One of the coolest things in the 1980s was the surfeit of awesome shorter fiction that came through snail mail in the form of fantastic little digest-sized magazines like Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and many others. Some of them still exist and circulate today, some even in physical form like they did when I was a spec-fic-hungry teenager, but it's not quite the same in this instant-on world. I can read their contents online the second they're published.

But I used to have to wait a whole month between hits. That's just how it was, kids. And believe me, growing up in tiny rural Wyoming, where there are only three malls in the whole state and I only got to visit them and their B. Dalton's, their Waldenbooks, three or four times a year (in a good year) meant that these magazines were my lifeline, yo!

It was in those pages that I first discovered Lucius Shepard. The story was "The Jaguar Hunter." It blew me away, and I promised myself that someday I'd read every damn thing this guy published. But none of it ever showed up in those mall bookstores, and then college happened, and then life happened, and I sort of forgot about him. It happens.

But somewhere along the way, I came across, probably in a buddy's collection of magazines at college, "The Man who Painted the Dragon Griaule" and that story has stuck with me all of these years. So when I found out untold years later that this was just one of several stories about this particular dragon, I dropped everything and got my grubby e-hands on the e-book collecting them all, this book right here. Because wooooooo!

The Dragon Griaule contains that first story I stumbled across way back when, and five more that were brand new to me. They're all of tremendously high quality*, as you might expect. They're also tremendously inventive, taking the idea of a gigantic (as in mile-long and 700 foot high) dragon that has been stunned paralyzed by a wizard's spell and lies in stasis on the ground for over a thousand years while towns spring up next to his body and even on his back, all manner of plant and animal life use his inert bulk as a habitat, and humans do things like scrape off bits of him to sell as medicines or charms or jewelry. All with the dragon fully aware, but unable to move, slowed down so that decades pass between beats of his enormous heart. The Dragon Griaule is a world, an ecosystem unto himself, and is utterly and uncannily alien, throbbing at the heart of every passage in these stories.

The stories in this volume show us the passage of, I'm guessing at least a century, possibly two, in the dragon's half-life, but really start with the killing -- but not the death -- of Griaule. "The Man who Painted the Dragon Griaule" is really a slow-motion dragonslaying, as an artist convinces the city fathers of Teocinte (the chief population center in the dragon's vicinity) to pay his expenses over a decades-long project to paint a mural on the side of the dragon's body, deliberately using all the most toxic pigments to color his paint and laying it on thick so that the dragon is very, very slowly poisoned. This is the story that started it all, and many might say it's the best, but it does have a little competition; it's one of three stories that I found absolutely brilliant and unique (the other three were merely interesting and good).

"The Scalehunter's Beautiful Daughter" focuses on a young woman who, being beautiful and poor and motherless, naturally grows up to be a bit of a tease and a stealer of other women's lovers and generally just kind of a horrible Heather type, but then circumstances drive her to hide deep inside Griaule's body, where she discovers a whole new world of plants, parasites, fungi, animals and even people who have made the dragon's guts and cavities their home. She winds up living there, too -- and discovers that she's there for a reason, because, see, Griaule is aware, and while paralyzed, he's not helpless. Lying there hating, and hating hard, has given his will tremendous amplification and power and subtlety, and he manipulates the world around him according to his alien and inimical whim. Whew!

The limits of that whim are the subject of the other brilliant story, "The Father of Stones," in which a pretty bauble harvested from one of Griaule's teeth is used as a murder weapon in a town somewhat outside the dragon's generally understood sphere of influence, and the accused insists that the dragon made him do it. But the accused is not the protagonist; his lawyer is. Yes, this is not a bog standard pseudo-medieval fantasy world, but one that is fairly advanced, perhaps not quite industrialized, but perhaps on a par with, for this story, the early 19th century or so. The legal system is sophisticated and complex, the economy mercantile, the civil structure fairly egalitarian and maybe even democratic. This lawyer has to work hard to investigate the case, find grounds to defend his client, and grapple with the big question of just how powerful Griaule's evil will is. Can it be borne and imposed via pieces of his body or bits of his secretions?

The other stories explore this last question in interesting ways. A scale from the dragon's back seems to function like a genie's lamp -- rub it and be transported back in time to when Griaule was much smaller and flying free, for instance. In another story, Griaule manages, in a weird, unpleasant and creepy way, to make a baby via a human surrogate. And in the final story, The Skull, Shepard brings the dragon up to modern times**, as dismembered bits of dissected giant dragon make their way all over the world, with the dragon's skull serving as a vehicle to haunt a fictional banana republic and keep on making us puny humans miserable.

The imagination at work in all of these stories is fantastic, taking the idea of dragons way beyond what Tolkein or Martin or even, say, Anne McCaffrey ever did. Shepard does an amazing job of integrating his ideas into the history of our own world -- not in a doofy way like "dragons vs the U.S.S. Nimitz" or "President Reagan meets a dragon" -- and weaving moving human stories around the dragon and his baleful influence.

I will say that it's all a bit heavy going to read all of these stories in one go, like I started to. Some unpleasant themes and authorial ticks (see asterisk note below) start repeating and becoming more noticeable, and I finally had to put the book aside after the fourth story "The Liar's House"

*But all of them have a slight tinge of -- misogyny is too strong a word, especially with the gold standard of Robert Silverberg still polluting my memory -- but a certain unpleasant attitude toward women that came really close to spoiling every story but the original. There is at least one fully realized female character in each story (again, except the first), and one of them is even a protagonist, but none of these women are likable or even trustworthy. They are unknowable alien beings or haughty bitch queens or amoral sluts or (the protagonist) spoiled little teases who have some growing up to do but don't really stop being nobody one would care to know. And I wish I hadn't read the story notes at the end and realized the kind of bad girlfriend stories Mr. Shepard might have told over a highball or two. Sigh.

**Indeed, as I learned in the after-notes, Shepard conceived the idea of Griaule as a sort of monster embodiment of all the ugliness of the Reagan era.

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