The Kansas City Star Review

Small press making a fabled name for itself

Of all the genres practiced by writers, fantasy is the second-most disrespected. Only horror authors take more abuse.

Mystery novelists are blessed with legions of fans and sympathetic critics. Science fiction enjoys a cachet because it is viewed as cerebral, or at least fashionably nerdy. Then there's fantasy, often dismissed as escapist fare, not really germane to real life.

Golden Gryphon, a small press based in Illinois, is changing that. Its two most recent titles, one a novel and the other a story collection, fuse imagination with relevance for bookworms who demand more than a good read.

The novel is Lucius Shepard's Louisiana Breakdown, superficially a yarn of dark magic, but in reality a cautionary tale about the hazards of situational ethics. The collection is Howard Waldrop's Custer's Last Jump, in which Waldrop and several collaborators offer entertainments that turn out to be meditations on the absurdity of warfare and fragility of human life.

Both books do what good fantasy always does: It keeps you up half the night with an adventure, then gets you thinking deeper the next day.

Swamp things

Imagine this: You're a hotshot L.A. singer/songwriter fleeing a sour relationship in a BMW loaded up with a few possessions that include three expensive guitars. In Louisiana, though, the car sputters near a small town called Grail, and all of a sudden a cop is pawing your axes and practically accusing you of having stolen 'em.

That's the setup for Louisiana Breakdown, in which author Lucius Shepard serves up the trappings of that spicy Southern state without indulging in the clichés so many writers have fallen into when trying to capture it.

Sure, songwriter Jack Mustaine is out of his element — as most non-Louisiana residents are when they first encounter this Napoleonic territory ostensibly affiliated with the United States — but he doesn't spend the novel mopping his brow, wailing about the heat or gnawing crawfish.

What Mustaine does find is that the town of Grail has a nasty secret — one that's akin to the ritualistic superstition Shirley Jackson incorporated into her classic short story "The Lottery."

Jackson's piece involved a village that sacrificed one of its own each year in the name of maintaining good fortune. In Louisiana Breakdown, Shepard makes Jackson's abstract pantheism more specific: Every 20 years, the residents of Grail must appease a cryptic swamp spirit called "the Good Gray Man." To do so, they pick a 10-year-old girl to become the "Midsummer Queen." For two decades, this lass is to draw all the rotten luck so Grail's good times can keep rolling.

Mustaine, hitting town in his broken BMW, is befriended by residents who prove more friendly than the corrupt policeman. But that doesn't mean these folks are benign; some view outsiders with feelings bordering on xenophobia.

Mustaine, as a recent expatriate from L.A. and a member of the entertainment industry, is the perfect target for this distrust. It's a clever device on the author's part, as Shepard exploits the current trend that finds a sizable segment of the American population berating celebrities for their political views.

Yet Mustaine is an Everyman in the sense that he must weigh his own self-preservation against compassion. He falls in love with Vida Dumars, the woman whose reign as Midsummer Queen has almost reached its 20-year end. Extracting her from the town's vampiric need, though, might take more courage than Mustaine has.

Shepard's best bit in Louisiana Breakdown involves the spirit that haunts the swamps around Grail. This "Good Gray Man" is not as good as his name — else why would he demand that misfortune be poured onto a child until she reaches age 30?

Symbolically, that "Gray Man" is the gray area of decision-making that each person faces in life. In this post-Clinton age, many Americans yearn for stronger values, higher moral ground, better choices. Yet the sexual peccadilloes of the former president have given way to a world of corporate scandals, terrorism and war.

In life, as in Shepard's novel, it's tempting to wonder if there ever are any clear answers. But Shepard doesn't let us off so easily. As Louisiana Breakdown reaches its climax, the author forces Jack Mustaine to make a hard choice. And it's evident that, no matter which course the character pursues, there will be grave consequences.

So much for shades of gray.

. . .

While Shepard's Louisiana Breakdown works on an intimate level, emphasizing issues of individual responsibility and group psychology, Waldrop and his collaborators operate on a more global scale in the stories that constitute Custer's Last Jump. Amazingly, even with all these writers involved, a dominant theme emerges: Can human beings overcome their violent tendencies, or are we all just slaves to the base impulse?

As Shepard and Waldrop and friends demonstrate, it's hard to dismiss such thoughtful fiction as "escapist."

As for Golden Gryphon, publisher of both these works, it is emerging as one of the Midwest's finest small presses. These titles are the 23rd and 24th from the Illinois house since 1997, and nearly all those books have drawn rave reviews. A 25th, an anthology called The Silver Gryphon, is due in May.

There's only one way to characterize that kind of success: It's no fantasy.

— John Mark Eberhart, The Kansas City Star, Sunday, April 20, 2003


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