The freight train was the imaginative forerunner of the rocket ship, a techno-marvel that could take a wanderer to new worlds. And the hobo, riding those magic rails without anyoneís permission or approval, is an acknowledged model for the wanderings of the beats and hippies, not to forget generations of malcontents before them. Hundreds of folk tales and songs (such as the Muddy Waters blues from which Shepardís new collection takes its title) have built up the resonance of the railroad, even in an era when the trainsí role in the national life has shrunk to a pale reflection of what it once was. So itís no surprise that Lucius Shepard has managed to inject a mythic buzz into the three pieces (two stories and an essay) that make up this collection.
The essay relates Shepardís investigation of the Freight Train Riders of America. This is a hobo organization described by law enforcement agencies, in terms they might use of Hellís Angels, as ruling the hobo jungles by murder and extortion. Most of the hobos Shepard talks to are skeptical of the lawmenís claims; hobos are by nature anarchists, allergic to any kind of social organization. While the FTRA undoubtedly has its share of nasty characters, as one hobo points out, so does your neighborhood bar. Shepard uses the essay to show enough of the hobo world to let the reader guess at the rest, then goes ahead to put it to use in fiction.
The longer of the two stories, "Over Yonder," features a burned-out wino, Billy Long Gone, who at first appears to have little in life to care about. Then in Klamath Falls, a stranger steals his dog, Stupid, and Billy chases him onto a strange black freight train. This starts him on a boxcar odyssey through surreal landscapes where savage creatures called Beardsleys attack the train. He ends up at a sort of magical hobo jungle — quite literally built in an enormous tree. Shepard uses this bizarre situation to highlight the reactions of thoroughly believable, if not quite everyday, people. The story won the 2003 Theodore Sturgeon award for short fiction.
The third piece, "Jail Bait," is without overt fantastic elements. The protagonist of the story, Madcat, is another burned-out loner. He meets an underage runaway girl who wants a manís protection while riding the rails. Again, the story deploys the elements of the hobo life to throw a harsh spotlight on the things comfortable middle Americans are likely to take for granted. Not a pleasant story, but a thought-provoking one.
Shepard remains a distinctive voice, whether heís writing fantastic fiction or straight journalism. Worth checking out.
— Peter Heck, "On Books," Asimov's Science Fiction
"On Books" by Peter Heck, copyright © 2004.