Locus Review

Two Trains Running, Lucius Shepard (Golden Gryphon 1-930846-23-1, $22.95, 249pp, hc) March 2004. Cover by John Picacio.

The reprint essay and novella and original novelette gathered in Lucius Shepard's Two Trains Running represent not so much a collection as a demonstration of the way experience mutates into art in the hands of a gifted storyteller. (As he puts it in the introduction, "I hoped the process by which the real is transformed into the fictive might be thereby illustrated, at least as regards my own work.") The subject, seldom explored and even more arcane today, is hobo life on the rails. Immediately, it's clear that Shepard has come to know it inside and out, getting close enough to talk with its denizens man-to-man (or woman), following up on the more alarmist theories of journalists, and sifting through a host of myths and lies. Spin magazine hired him to investigate "The FTRA Story," briefing him with paranoid tales of a hobo mafia, its horrific initiation rites and multiple murders — the alleged doings of a secretive group whose initials stand for Freight Train Riders of America. If any of this pans out, it could be the stuff of screaming headlines or a bestselling noir thriller; add in a few eldritch critters, and you'd have Lovecraft updated for the 21st century. But Shepard probes deeper and discovers a complex society of rail-riders: punk teens, yuppie day-trippers, nomadic homeless losers, petty desperados, not many women but lots of dogs (the dogs more prized and fought-over). It's a world unto itself, messy, contradictory, perceived by many of its inhabitants through a haze of hard liquor, bad drugs, and addled passions that leave them too cracked to engage in any organized activity, including crime. Exit the monolithic conspiracy theory. Enter the perfect opportunity for a writer of dark fantasies to plunge into a realm unlike any seen before.

In "Over Yonder," Shepard takes that opportunity and runs with it. He mingles the personae of author and wasted tramp by starting out in third person with the crude, nearly illiterate rail-rider Billy Long Gone, then switching to first person as the mysterious place called Yonder both restores and improves Billy to the point where he can engage in philosophical debates and describe his new surroundings in an odd amalgam of gutter-mouth slang and nuanced musings that could come from the pen of Henry James — Shepard's own schizoid style, cranked up to maximum dissonance. Accessible only via an eerily organic black train, Yonder consists of a marshy plain that doesn't seem to belong to the human era, a vast tree house inhabited by former rail riders, a view of distant mountains, and some crazy, dangerous wildlife like nothing known on Earth. Once they're restored enough to talk in coherent sentences, most newcomers join the ongoing debate about their surroundings, which a female resident wryly describes as "a buncha tramps settin' round philosophizin'." Afterlife? Virtual reality la The Matrix? Alternate world a few skips of the dial forward in the Multiverse? Billy eventually comes to believe Yonder is a realm of both transformation and choice, what the old religion would call Purgatory where one might languish forever or break through to heaven . . . or hell. In his words, "maybe the world was so painstaking and intricate in its wisdom that part of its process was to prepare those who failed it for a wild ride into an unknown land." Shepard wisely leaves the outcome of Billy's ride, or leap of faith, unresolved.

"Jailbait" tackles some of the same big questions minus the overt fantasy, as a grizzled tramp who suffers from hallucinatory bad spells meets a runaway girl who's no stranger to the rough life but comes across as "the picture of innocence freshly corrupted." In the course of 20-odd pages, they reveal themselves to the reader and each other: their past missteps and disasters, means of survival in a world all gone to hell, and dreams of something better (whether the prime mover is said to be God's will, or a wealthy uncle in California). Here the schizoid prose, redneck, junkyard, and punk cheek-by-jowl with exquisitely described glimpses of scenery and sunsets, takes on even more power. Like some dangerous psychedelic drug, it plays with the head, heart, and gut, producing a kind of queasy hungover feeling shot through with lucid transcendence. Careful — it may be addictive.

— Faren Miller, Locus, April 2004


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