When I think of Lucius Shepard’s writing, I think first of a voice. It’s a voice filled with experience and confidence, speaking in long, fluid sentences, knowing that it’s telling me a story I need to hear. It’s the voice of stories like “Barnacle Bill the Spacer” or “Jailwise“. Of course, Shepard modulates this voice according to the character using it (Senor Volto, for instance, uses almost as many long words as the narrator of either story above, but clearly to somewhat different effect), and on occasion he uses other, more colloquial voices as well. But it’s that rich, mellifluous tone I think of first when I think of Shepard, to the point where it comes as a bit of a shock to start reading “The Lepidopterist” and encounter (after a brief opening paragraph that frames the story as a transcript of a recording made thirty years ago, and the narrator we’re about to hear as “short, in his sixties, as wizened and brown as an apricot seed, and […] very drunk”) this:
I’m goin to tell you bout a storm, cause it please me to do so. You cotch me in the tellin mood, and when John Anderson McCrae get in the tellin mood, ain’t nobody on this little island better suited for the job. I been foolin with storms one way or the other since time first came to town, and this storm I goin to speak of, it ain’t the biggest, it don’t have the stiffest winds, but it bring a strange cargo to our shores.
It’s different, but well-executed. There’s still poetry here, albeit of a rougher kind than is usual for Shepard — “I been foolin with storms one way or the other since time first came to town” is a lovely, clever expression, and there are lines like it throughout the story. But while McCrae is clearly still a Shepardian storyteller, experienced and confident, to me at least he never rang as true as someone like Tommy Penhaligon or Billy Long Gone. That’s partly because I never quite got the hang of the dialect — as with any writing so stylised, you expect it to take a few pages to get acclimated, but I found myself re-reading passages even up to the end — but also, I think, a function of the relative brevity of the tale. Shepard always seems most comfortable to me with some elbow-room in his stories, but he doesn’t (arguably can’t allow himself to) have any here, and beyond being a storyteller, it’s never really clear who McCrae is. A voice is an indication of character, but also a vehicle; which is to say that what the voice says matters.
So my problem with McCrae is compounded by the fact that the plot is nothing to write home about. Indeed, if the voice is something of a departure for Shepard, the story it tells verges on being overly familiar. The trajectory is one we’ve followed before, a tale of an encounter with the fantastic: the protagonist is drawn by stages away from the consensus reality we know, is confronted by a hallucinatory vision, and dazedly withdraws into normality. This is the basic shape of Shepard stories such as “Eternity and Afterward”, “The Park Sweeper”, and “Crocodile Rock”, and even “Only Partly Here” (probably the best thing Shepard has written in the past five years, though “Over Yonder” runs it close). In “The Lepidopterist” McCrae tells how, as a youth, he worked with his father as a wrecker, drawing storm-lashed ships astray onto rocks; how on one such job they encountered Arthur Jessup, an American transporting some unusual butterflies (“Whether they the Devil’s work or one of God’s miracles, I cannot tell you,” McCrae says. “But it for certain they unusual butterflies”); how the butterflies wove silken cocoons large enough to hatch a person; and what happened next.
But at no point does “The Lepidopterist” have the astonishing intensity of a story like “Eternity and Afterward”, or, at the other end of the scale, the delicacy of a story like “Only Partly Here”. What’s left? There’s a nod to the politics of the situation in the fact that Jessup engineers McCrae’s encounter with one of the butterfly-creatures as a gift, saying that he wants to take away some of the boy’s courage for his own good. But McCrae’s subsequent assessment — “So if Mister Jessup make me a present, it were like most Yankee presents and take away more than it give” — feels oddly half-hearted. As allegory it doesn’t catch, and the sense that McCrae hasn’t lived the life he was meant for doesn’t sting as it should. So while my presumptuous guess would be that it’s the voice for which David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer have picked the story up for their year’s best fantasy, I can also see why some reviews haven’t mentioned the story at all. It’s strange: McCrae’s voice is classic Shepard in a number of ways, but seems to be missing the one thing that can usually be taken for granted: a burning need to tell. I enjoyed “The Lepidopterist”, but I don’t know why it had to be told.