Dust jacket by J. K. Potter
Five Autobiographies and a Fiction, the long-awaited new collection from master storyteller Lucius Shepard, is a significant publishing event, a volume equal in every way to such earlier Shepard classics as The Jaguar Hunter and The Dragon Griaule. Its six long stories offer narrative pleasures as diverse and profound as anything to be found in modern imaginative fiction.
“Ditch Witch,” set in rural Oregon, concerns a young man on the run in a stolen car, a hitchhiker who may or may not have witch-like powers, and the bizarre inhabitants of the seemingly innocuous Elfland Motel. “The Flock” is a tale of high school football and small town malaise set against an impossible intrusion from the natural world. A washed-up actor and a Malaysian “woman of power” stand at the center of “Vacancy,” the account of a man forced to confront the very real demons of his past. “Dog-eared Paperback of My Life” follows a writer (Thomas Cradle) on his erotically charged journey down the Mekong River, a journey enveloped in a maze of multiple, interpenetrating realities. “Halloween Town” tells the story of a small, extremely strange town and one of its denizens, Clyde Ormoloo, a man who sees too deeply into the “terrible incoherence” of human affairs. The final story, “Rose Street Attractors,” takes us into 19th century London and the heart of the steampunk era—in the richly atmospheric tale of a most unusual haunting. Rounding out this generous volume is an Introdution in which Shepard offers a startlingly frank assessment of his own troubled adolescence, identifying the “alternate versions” of himself that appear in these pages and illuminating those points at which fiction and “near-autobiography” converge.
Lyrical, brutal, and always powerfully composed, Five Autobiographies and a Fiction is something special. Each of these six novellas speaks in its own distinctive voice. Each one takes us into the heart of a thoroughly imagined world. Only Lucius Shepard could have created those worlds. Only Lucius Shepard could have given us this book.
Limited: 250 signed numbered copies, bound in leather
Trade: Fully cloth bound trade hardcover
Table of Contents
- Ditch Witch
- The Flock
- Dog-Eared Paperback of My Life
- Halloween Town
- Rose Street Attractors
From Publishers Weekly:
“Nebula winner Shepard (Life During Wartime) often steers his fiction toward faraway shores, but the bulk of this collection directly targets the American heartland. A painfully confessional introduction sets the stage for five ‘autobiographies’—might-have-been stories exploring facets of the author’s personal journey… This honestly titled collection deals well and satisfyingly with deep truths.”
"Lucius Shepard’s new collection Five Autobiographies and a Fiction is required reading for fans of the author. People who have never read anything by Shepard may love it too, but because of the specific nature of this set of stories, it’ll definitely have more impact on readers who are familiar with the author. If that's you, I’d go as far as saying that this is nothing less than a must-read, because it will dramatically change and enrich your understanding of the author and his works."
Doyle Mixon and I were hanging out beneath the bleachers at the Crescent Creek High football field, passing a joint, zoning on the katydids and the soft Indian summer air, when a school bus carrying the Taunton Warriors pulled up at the curb. Doyle was holding in a toke, his eyes closed and face lifted to the sky; with his long sideburns, he looked like a hillbilly saint at prayer. When he caught sight of the team piling off the bus, he tried to suppress a chuckle and coughed up smoke. The cause of his amusement—Taunton had three monstrously fat linemen, and as their uniforms were purple with black stripes and numerals, they resembled giant plums with feet.
One lineman waddled over, his pod-brothers following close behind. “You guys got a problem?” he asked.
Doyle was too stoned to straighten out and he kind of laughed when he said, “We’re fine, dog.”
Standing in a row, staring down at us, they made a bulging purple fence that sealed us off from the rest of the world. Their hair had been buzzed down to stubble, and their faces were three lumpy helpings of sunburned vanilla pudding. Tiny round heads poked up between their shoulder pads. They might have been some weird fatboy rap act like that old MTV guy, Bubba Sparxxx.
“What’s so fucking funny?” a second one asked, and Doyle and I both said, “Nothing,” at about the same time.
“We got a couple of stoners, is what we got,” the first one said, showing Doyle a fist the size of a Monster Burger. “Want to trip on this, freak?”
I kept my mouth shut, but Doyle, I guess he figured we were safe on neutral ground or else he simply didn’t give a damn. “You guys,” he said. “If beer farts were people, they’d look like you guys. All bloated and purple and shit.”
The third lineman hadn’t said a thing—for all I knew, he might not have possessed the power of speech; but he could hear well enough. He yanked Doyle upright and slammed an elbow into the side of his jaw. All three of them went to beating on us. It couldn’t have been more than ten seconds before their coach dragged them off us; but they had done a job in that short time. Doyle’s eyelid was cut and his lip was bleeding. They hadn’t gotten me nearly as bad, but my cheekbone ached and my shirt was ripped.
The coach, Coach Cunliffe, was a dumpy little guy with a torso shaped like a frog’s and a weak comb-over hidden beneath a purple cap. “Son-of-a-buck!” he kept saying, and pounded on their chests. They didn’t even quiver when he hit them. One said something I was too groggy to catch and the coach calmed down all of a sudden. He took a stand over us, his hands on hips, and said, “You boys intend to make a report about this, I expect we got something to report on ourselves. Don’t we?”
Doyle was busy nursing his eye, and I didn’t have a clue what Cunliffe was going on about.
“I was to search your pockets, what you reckon I’d find?” Cunliffe asked. “Think it might be an illegal substance?”
“You lay a hand on me,” Doyle said, “I’ll tell the cops you grabbed my johnson.”
Cunliffe whipped out a cell phone. “No need for me to search. I’ll just call down to the sheriff and get him on the case. How about that?” When neither of us responded, he pocketed the phone. “Well, then. Supposing we call it even, all right?”
Doyle muttered something.
“Is that a no?” Cunliffe reached for his phone again.
“Naw, man. Just keep these fuckwits out of my face.”
The fuckwits surged forward. Cunliffe spread his arms to restrain them. “You’re number twenty-two for the Pirates,” he said to Doyle. “I remember you from last year. Cornerback, right?” He gave us both the eye. “You boys down here doing a little scouting?”
Doyle spat redly, and I said, “Uh-huh.”
“That’s gonna help!” one of the linemen said, and his buds laughed thickly.
Cunliffe shushed them and locked onto Doyle. “You played some damn good ball against us last year, Twenty-two. You figger marijuana’s gonna enhance your performance next month?”
“Not as much as the juice made these assholes’ nuts fall off,” said Doyle.
The linemen rumbled—Cunliffe pushed them toward the field, and they moved away through the purpling air. “Better get that eye took care of,” he said. “Get it all healed up by next month. My boys are like sharks once they get the smell of blood.”
“Those are some fat god damn sharks,” Doyle said.
The towns of Taunton, Crescent Creek, and Edenburg are laid out in a triangle in the northeast corner of Culliver County, none more than fifteen miles apart. My mama calls the area “the Bermuda Triangle of South Carolina,” because of the weird things that happened there, ghosts and mysterious lights in the sky and such. Now I’ve done some traveling, I understand weirdness is a vein that cuts all through the world, but I cling to the belief that it cuts deeper than normal through Culliver County, and I do so in large part because of the chain of events whose first link was forged that evening in Crescent Creek.
Doyle and I hadn’t gone to the game to scout Taunton—we knew we had no chance against them. Only ninety-six boys at Edenburg High were eligible for football. Most of our team were the sons of tobacco farmers, many of whom couldn’t make half the practices because of responsibilities at home. Taunton, on the other hand, drew its student body from a population of factory workers, and they were a machine. Every year they went to the regional finals, and they’d come close to winning State on a couple of occasions. It was considered a moral victory if we held them to thirty points or under, something we hadn’t managed to do for the better part of a decade. So what we were up to, Doyle and I, was looking for two girls we’d met at a party in Crescent Creek the week before. We were only halfheartedly looking—I had a girlfriend, and Doyle was unofficially engaged—and after what the linemen had done to us, with our clothes bloody and faces bruised, we decided to go drinking instead.
We picked up a couple of twelve-packs at Snade’s Corners, a general store out on State Road 271 where they never checked ID, and drove along a dead-end dirt road to Warnoch’s Pond, a scummy eye of water set among scrub pine and brush, with a leafless live oak that clawed up from the bank beside it like a skeletal three-fingered hand. There was a considerable patch of bare ground between the pond and the brush, littered with flattened beer cans and condom wrappers and busted bottles with sun-bleached labels. Half a dozen stained, chewed-up sofas and easy chairs lined the bank. The black sofa on the far left was a new addition, I thought—at least it looked in better shape than the others.
The pond was where a lot of Edenburg girls, not to mention girls from Taunton and Crescent Creek, lost their cherry, but it was too early for couples to be showing up, and we had the place to ourselves. We sat on the black sofa and drank Blue Ribbon and talked about women and football and getting the hell out of Edenburg, the things we always talked about, the only things there were to talk about if you were a teenager in that region, except maybe for tobacco and TV. Doyle fumed over the fight for a time, swearing vengeance, but didn’t dwell on it—we’d had our butts kicked before. I told him that big as those linemen were, vengeance might require an elephant gun.
“I hate they kill us every year,” Doyle said. “I’d like to win one, you know.”
I cracked a beer and chugged down half. “Not gonna happen.”
“What the hell do you care? Only reason you play so’s you can get a better class of woman.”
I belched. “You know I’d lay me down and die for the ol’ scarlet and silver.”
Annoyed, he gave me a shove. “Well, I would for real. Just one win. That’s all I’m asking.”
“I’m getting a special feeling here,” I said.
“I’m getting all tingly and shit…like God’s listening in. He’s heard your voice and even now…”
He chucked one of his empties at me.
“…universal forces are gathering, preparing to weave your heartfelt prayer into His Glorious Design.”
“I wish,” said Doyle.
Darkness folded down around us, hiding the scrub pine. Though it had been overcast all day, the stars were out in force. Doyle twisted up a joint and we smoked, we drank, we smoked some more, and by the time we’d finished the first twelve-pack, the dead live oak appeared more witchy than ever, the stars close enough to snatch down from the sky, and the pond, serene and shimmering with reflected light, might have been an illustration in a book of fairy tales. I thought about pointing this out to Doyle, but I restrained myself—he would have told me to quit talking like a homo.
Clouds blew in from the east, covering the stars, and we fell silent. All I could hear were dogs barking in the distance and that ambient hum that seems to run throughout the American night. I asked what he was thinking and he said, “Taunton.”
“Jesus, Doyle. Here.” I flipped him a fresh beer. “Get over it, okay?”
He turned the can over in his hands. “It ticks me off.”
“Look, man. The only way we’ll ever beat them is if their bus breaks down on the way to the game.”
“What do you mean?”
“If they show up late, they’ll have to forfeit.”
“Oh…yeah,” he said glumly, as if the notion didn’t satisfy him.
“So get over it.”
He started to respond but was cut off by a shrill jee-eep, a sound like a rusty gate opening; this was followed by a rustling, as of many wings.
I jumped up. “What was that?”
“Just a grackle,” Doyle said.
I peered into the darkness. Though it was likely my imagination, the night air looked to have taken on the glossiness of a grackle’s wing. I didn’t much like grackles. They were nest robbers and often ate fledglings. And there were stories…A droplet of ice formed at the tip of my spine.
“City boy,” said Doyle disparagingly, referring to the fact that I had spent my first decade in Aiken, which was a city compared to Edenburg. “Is Andy scared of the birdies?”
There came a series of jee-eeps, more rustling. I thought I detected almost invisible movement in every direction I turned.
“Let’s get out of here,” I said.
“Want me to hold your hand?”
“Come on! We can drive over to Dawn’s and see if she wants to do something.”
Doyle made a disgusted noise and stood. “Something’s about to poke a hole in my ass, anyway.” He touched the back of his jeans and then inspected his finger. “Christ, I’m bleeding. I think something bit me.” He kicked at the sofa. “I could get an infection off this damn thing!”
“I bet you can get Dawn to suck out the poison,” I said, hurrying toward the car.
As I backed up, the headlights swept across the bank, revealing the row of thrown-away sofas and chairs. I could have sworn one of them was missing, and as I went fishtailing off along the dirt road, the more I thought about it, the more certain I became that it was the one we had been sitting on.
If it hadn’t been for football, I would have been an outsider in high school, angry and fucked-up, a loner whom everyone would have voted the Most Likely to Go Columbine. People said I took after my mama—I had her prominent cheekbones and straight black hair and hazel eyes. She was one-quarter Cherokee, still a beauty as she entered her forties, and she had a clever mind and a sharp tongue that could slice you down to size in no time flat. She was a lot quicker than my daddy (a stoic, uncommunicative sort), way too quick to be stuck in a backwater like Edenburg. Some nights she drank too much and Daddy would have to help her upstairs, and some afternoons she went out alone and didn’t return until I was in bed, and I would hear them fighting, arguments in which she always got the last word. When I was in the eighth grade I discovered that she had a reputation. According to gossip, she was often seen in the bars and had slept with half the men in Taunton. I got into a bunch of school-yard fights that usually were started by a comment about her. I felt betrayed, and for a while we didn’t have much of a relationship. Then Daddy sat me down and we had a talk, the only real talk we’d had to that point.
“I knew what I was getting when I married your mama,” he said. “She’s got a wild streak in her, and sometimes it’s bound to come out.”
“People laughing behind your back and calling her a slag…how do you put up with that?”
“Because she loves us,” he said. “She loves us more than anyone. People are gonna say what they gonna say. Your mama’s had a few flings, and it hurts—don’t get me wrong. But she has to put up with me and with the town, so it all evens out. She don’t belong in Edenburg. These women around here don’t have nothing to offer her, talking about county fairs and recipes. You’re the only person she can talk to, and that’s because she raised you to be her friend. The two of you can gab about books and art, stuff that goes right over my head. Now with you giving her the cold shoulder, she’s got no outlet for that side of things.”
I asked straight out if he had slept with other women, and he told me there was a time he did, but that was just vengeful behavior.
“I never wanted anybody but your mama,” he said solemnly, as if taking a vow. “She’s the only woman I ever gave a damn about. Took me a while to realize it, is all.”
I didn’t entirely understand him and kept on fighting until he pushed me into football at the beginning of the ninth grade; though it didn’t help me understand any better, the game provided a release for my aggression, and things gradually got easier between me and Mama.
By our senior year, Doyle and I were the best players on the team and football had become for me both a means of attracting girls and a way of distracting attention from the fact that I read poetry for fun and effortlessly received As, while the majority of my class watched American Idol and struggled with the concepts of basic algebra. My gangly frame had filled out, and I was a better than adequate wide receiver. Not good enough for college ball, probably not good enough to start for Taunton, but I didn’t care about that. I loved the feeling of leaping high, the ball settling into my hands, while faceless midgets clawed ineffectually at it, and then breaking free, running along the sideline—it didn’t happen all that often, yet when it did, it was the closest thing I knew to satori.
Doyle was undersized, but he was fast and a vicious tackler. Several colleges had shown interest in him, including the University of South Carolina. Steve Spurrier, the Old Ball Coach himself, had attended one of our games and shook Doyle’s hand afterward, saying he was going to keep an eye on him. For his part, Doyle wasn’t sure he wanted to go to college.
When he told me this, I said, “Are you insane?”
He shot me a bitter glance but said nothing.
“Damn, Doyle!” I said. “You got a chance to play in the SEC and you’re going to turn it down? Football’s your way out of this shithole.”
“I ain’t never getting out of here.”
He said this so matter-of-factly, for a moment I believed him; but I told him he was the best corner in our conference and to stop talking shit.
“You don’t know your ass!” He chested me, his face cinched into a scowl. “You think you do. You think all those books you read make you smart, but you don’t have a clue.”
I thought he was going to start throwing, but instead he walked away, shoulders hunched, head down, and his hands shoved in the pockets of his letterman’s jacket. The next day he was back to normal, grinning and offering sarcastic comments.
Doyle was a moody kid. He was ashamed of his family—everyone in town looked down on them, and whenever I went to pick him up I’d find him waiting at the end of the driveway, as if hoping I wouldn’t notice the meager particulars of his life: a dilapidated house with a tar paper roof; a pack of dogs running free across the untended property; one or another of his sisters pregnant by persons unknown; an old man whose breath reeked of fortified wine. I assumed that his defeatist attitude reflected this circumstance, but I didn’t realize how deep it cut, how important trivial victories were to him.
The big news in Culliver County that fall had to do with the disappearance of a three-week-old infant, Sally Carlysle. The police arrested the mother, Amy, for murder because the story she told made no sense—she claimed that grackles had carried off her child while she was hanging out the wash to dry, but she had also been reported as having said that she hadn’t wanted the baby. People shook their heads and blamed postpartum depression and said things like Amy had always been flighty and she should never have had kids in the first place and weren’t her two older kids lucky to survive? I saw her picture in the paper—a drab, pudgy little woman, handcuffed and shackled—but I couldn’t recall ever having seen her before, even though she lived a couple of miles outside of town.
During the following week, grackle stories of another sort surfaced. A Crescent Creek man told of seeing an enormous flock crossing the morning sky, taking four or five minutes to pass overhead; three teenage girls said grackles had surrounded their car, blanketing it so thickly that they’d been forced to use a flashlight to see each other.
There were other stories put forward by more unreliable witnesses, the most spectacular and unreliable of them being the testimony of a drunk who’d been sleeping it off in a ditch near Edenburg. He passed out near an old roofless barn, and when he woke, he discovered the barn had miraculously acquired a roof of shiny black shingles. As he scratched his head over this development, the roof disintegrated and went flapping up, separating into thousands upon thousands of black birds, with more coming all the time—the entire volume of the barn must have been filled with them, he said. They formed into a column, thick and dark as a tornado, that ascended into the sky and vanished. The farmer who owned the property testified to finding dozens of dead birds inside the barn, and some appeared to have been crushed; but he sneered at the notion that thousands of grackles had been packed into it. This made me think of the sofa at Warnoch’s Pond, but I dismissed what I had seen as the product of too much beer and dope. Other people, however, continued to speculate.
In our corner of South Carolina, grackles were called the Devil’s Bird, and not simply because they were nest robbers. They were large birds, about a foot long, with glossy purplish black feathers, lemon-colored eyes, and cruel beaks, and were often mistaken at a distance for crows. A mighty flock was rumored to shelter on one of the Barrier Islands, biding their time until called to do the devil’s bidding, and it was said that they had been attracted to the region by Blackbeard and his pirates. According to the legend, Blackbeard himself, Satan’s earthly emissary, had controlled the flock, and when he died, they had been each infused with a scrap of his immortal spirit and thus embodied in diluted form his malicious ways. No longer under his direction, the mischief they did was erratic, appearing to follow no rational pattern of cause and effect.
Some claimed they had poison beaks and could imitate human speech and do even more arcane imitations. A librarian sent a letter to the paper citing an eighteenth-century account that spoke of a traveler who had come upon an ancient mill where none had stood before and watched it erode and disappear, dissolving into a flock of grackles that somehow “had contrived its likeness from the resource of their myriad bodies, as though shaped and given the hue of weathered wood by a Great Sculptor.” Her account was debunked by a college professor who presented evidence that the author of the piece had been a notorious opium addict.
Jason Coombs’s daddy—Jason was our strong-side tackle, a huge African-American kid almost as imposing as the Taunton linemen—preached at the stomp-and-shout church over near Nellie’s West Side Café, and each year he delivered a sermon using the Devil’s Bird as a metaphor, punctuating it with whoops and grunts, saying that evil was always lurking, waiting for its opportunity to strike, to swoop down like an avenging host and punish the innocent for the failures of the weak, suggesting that evil was a by-product of society’s moral laxity, a stratagem frequently employed by evangelists but given an inadvertent Marxist spin by the Reverend Coombs, who halfway through the sermon took to substituting the word “comrade” for “brother” and “sister.” He had a field day with the Carlysle murder. Jason broke us up after practice one afternoon with an imitation of his old man (“Satan’s got his flock, huh, and Jesus got his angels! Praise Jesus!”), an entertainment that caused Coach Tuttle, a gung-ho Christian fitness freak in his thirties, to rebuke us sharply for making fun of a God-fearing man such as the Reverend. He ordered us to run extra laps and generally worked us like mules thereafter.
“You boys better flush everything out of your heads but football,” he told us. “This team has a chance to achieve great things and I’m prepared to kick your tails six ways from Sunday to see that you get the job done.”
I wasn’t fool enough to believe that we could achieve great things, but it was a heady time for Pirate football. We were assured of having our first winning season in four years. Our record was 6-2 going into the Crescent Creek game, and if we won that, our game with Taunton would actually mean something: win that one and we’d play in the regionals up in Charleston.
I did my best to focus on football, but I was experiencing my first real dose of woman trouble. My girlfriend, Carol Ann Bechtol, was making me crazy, saying that she didn’t know anymore if we had a future and, to put it delicately, was withholding her affections. She wanted more of a commitment from me. I envied those city kids who had friends with benefits, who could hang out and have sex and stay commitment free, because in Edenburg we still did things the old-fashioned way—we dated, we went steady, we got all messed up over one girl or one boy. Mama warned me not to let myself get trapped.
“You know that’s what Carol Ann’s doing,” she said. “She knows you’ll be off to college next year, and she wants to catch onto your coattails and go with you.”
“That’s not such a bad thing,” I said.
“No, not if you love her. Do you?”
“I don’t know.”
She sighed. “You can’t tell anybody what to do, and I’m not going to try and tell you. You have to work it out on your own. But you should ask yourself how Carol Ann is going to fare away from Edenburg, and whether she’s going to be a burden or a partner. Will she try and pull you back home or will she be glad to put this sorry place behind her?”
I knew the answers to her questions but kept silent, not wanting to hear myself speak them. We were sitting at the kitchen table. A steady rain fell and the lights were on and the radio played quietly and I felt distant from the gray light and the barren town outside.
“She’s a sweet girl,” Mama said. “She loves you, and that’s why she’s manipulating you. It’s not just a matter of desperation. She’s convinced you’ll be better off here in the long run. Maybe she’s right. But you’re bound to try your wings and you have to decide if you can get off the ground with Carol Ann along.”
“Is that what happened to you?” I asked. “With Daddy, I mean.”
“It’s some of it. I’ve had regrets, but I’ve lived past them and learned to make do.”
She flattened her long-fingered hands on the table and stared down at them as if they were evidence of regret and love and something less definable, and I saw for an instant what a wild and lovely creature it was that my daddy had gentled. Then the radio crackled and she was just my mama once again.
“What I wonder, Andy,” she said, “is if making do’s a lesson you need to learn this early on.”
I broke up with Carol Ann the Wednesday before the Crescent Creek game, at lunchtime in a corner of the practice field. She accused me of using her for sex, of ruining her life. I didn’t trust myself to speak and stood with my head down, my face hot, taking her abuse, wanting to say something that would make her stop and throw her arms around me and draw me into a kiss that would set a seal on our lives; but I couldn’t pull the trigger. She ran off crying, looking for her friends, and I went off to American history, where I listened to Mrs. Kemp tell lies about South Carolina’s glorious past and doodled pictures of explosions in my notebook.
Friday night, I played the best game of my career. I played with hate and self-loathing in my heart, throwing my body around, slamming into the Crescent City corners with vicious abandon, screaming at them while they lay on the ground—I scored three times, twice on short passes and once on a fumbled kickoff, threading my way through tacklers and plowing under the last man between me and the goal with a lowered shoulder. In the locker room afterward, Coach Tuttle was inspired to curse, something he rarely did.
“Did you see Andy out there tonight?” he asked the gathered team. “That boy played some damn football! He wanted to win and he did something about it!”
The team roared their approval, sounding like dogs with their mouths full of meat, and pounded me on my pads, doing no good to my bruised and aching shoulder.
“You know what next week is?” he asked, and the team responded on cue, “Taunton Week!”
“If y’all play like Andy did tonight, and I know you can”—he paused for effect—“thei
- J. K. Potter
- Lucius Shepard
- 368 pages
- United States