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Lucius Shepard

Night Shade Books

US Hardcover First Edition

ISBN 1-892-38944-4

Publication Date: 10-01-2004

170 Pages; $25.00

Date Reviewed: 02-09-05

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2004



Horror, Science Fiction, Fantasy, General Fiction

Some twenty years ago, the freighter Viator was driven like a spike into a remote section of the Alaskan coastline. It didn't just run aground. It plowed up onto the land, buried itself in the forest, which has grown lush and luxuriantly around it in the intervening years. The one-time captain, Jochanan Lunde, has hired a crew of five men to assess the viability of salvaging the wreck. As Lucius Shepard's novel from Night Shade Books begins, the new nominal captain, Thomas Wilander, has already settled into an increasingly peculiar regimen with his oddball crew. Each of them seems to be spiraling off into some obsessive behavior, but he's fine so long as he's left largely alone. Wilander is frankly quite happy to kill time while making tentative moves on Arlene Dauphinee, the attractive red-head who runs a trading post in Kaliaska, the tiny settlement nearest the wreck. When Wilander's dreams take a turn for the strange, he thinks himself immune to whatever is affecting the other men living aboard Viator. Of course, anyone who thinks himself immune to anything is most likely its next victim.

From the second sentence onwards, readers of 'Viator' will know that they're in for a very different sort of novel. Shepard, who has always written gorgeous prose, lets loose with the prose equivalent of a wailing, soulful saxophone solo, a strung-out, run-on wonder that leaves the reader positively breathless. It's like plunging into the freezing cold, crystal-clear water that Viator itself once plowed through. And, like the wreck in the forest, it's just the tip of the iceberg.

'Viator' is a novel that both is and is about a descent into madness. It's a pretty mad gamble on Shepard's part, a blustery bet that he can write the longest, most oblique sentences and still drive home his point with even an impatient reader. It's also a bet he wins, hands down, page after page, multi-page paragraph after multi-page paragraph. But the writing here is more than a bravura stunt. This writing is clearly at the service of the story and characters, both strong enough to give the gorgeous prose a run for its money.

Though it's more than mad -- it's dangerously hallucinatory -- 'Viator' is quite clear when it comes to creating characters. Wilander is one of those nice guys who finished up last. Thus he finds himself on a wrecked ship in the Alaskan wilderness. He's smart, but not too smart. If he were as smart as the readers of Shepard's novel, he'd never leave the cleverly drawn Arlene's side to go back to Viator. There, his company consists of four madmen with varying delusions. Peter Halmus is studying, is collecting Viator's glass. Arnsparger is in charge of metals, Nygaard the fixtures, the galley, and the miscellaneous while Mortensen has in interest in the hold -- he thinks he can read it like a book. The others have even more fascinating tweaks. The longer he stays on board, the more Wilander can understand their obsessions. He's beginning to have a bit of a fixation himself. It seems as if Viator, though fixed in the forest, is still in the midst of a journey, a journey to an exotic world that each of the men may be catching a very different glimpse of. In the midst of a maze of sentences, Shepard creates seven very fully drawn characters -- the five men on the ship, Arlene and her employee, a young man named Terry. They emerge, they interact, they take on lives of their own as much as the other character in the novel, Viator itself. Readers will have to reach back to 'Solaris' to find a comparable set of entertaining nutcases studying something that might be either their own madness or simply, inscrutably alien.

As Wilander becomes more and more enmeshed in the world of Viator, the reader will become more and more entranced with Shepard's novel. One must give credit where credit is due, and one of the things that make 'Viator' so pleasurable to read is Night Shade's generous printing. Reading Shepard's ornate and increasingly surreal prose is much more of a pleasure in Night Shade's huge font. It's perfectly pitched to make the words slip by in a mad rush to a startling finish. Some readers might find themselves nonplussed by the direction that Shepard takes here, but it's practically impossible not to succumb to his lush, cacophonous climax.

It's clear that Shepard had a very definite bee in his bonnet with 'Viator'. It's the kind of singular novel that the small press was born to print, and we have to thank Night Shade for doing so. It's a 170-page risk, a searing solo by one of literature's most powerful prose stylists. Reading 'Viator' may feel like a long walk off a steep cliff, but by the time you hit that doozy of a first step, you're so dosed by Shepard's prose you won't know whether you're falling up or down. Until the splat, Shepard's skills ensure that it won't matter what direction you're falling. After the splat, you're on your own.