The Jaguar Hunter
by Lucius Shepard
Four Walls Eight Windows
This collection of short stories is an exciting and exotic experience. Every single one is set in an unexpected locale — from the heights of Katmandu to the jungles of Guatemala, Lucius Shepard manages to not only paint a vivid environment, but carefully weave it into the tale he spins. And if the strange locales aren’t enough to pique your interest, Shepard’s knack for the subtly supernatural is a formidable force; as a reader, you feel like a tourist finding yourself way over your head in a place where you’re not exactly on sure footing. Take for example “The Night of the White Bhairab,” where a disaffected American expatriate in the Himalayan foothills finds himself enmeshed in a battle between the native spirits and a foolishly imported poltergeist. Shepard’s description of Aimée Cousineau’s possessive spirit — “her eyes were dead-black ovals” — gave me shivers I haven’t felt since I first read Lovecraft.
Which is an apt touchpoint. Like Lovecraft, Shepard’s spirits are more than just supernatural — they’re terrifying and unearthly. A vicious elemental wind becomes infatuated with a young writer in Cape Cod, brutally disposing of an entire town in order to guarantee its unwilling master’s attentions. A pair of parallel-universe Nazi experiments not only disrupt the cozy indolence of a Mediterranean resort town, but unleash a horror far worse than could be expected of this universe’s Third Reich. I lost a couple nights of sleep pondering the alternate reality of “A Spanish Lesson,” which features a Hitler not quite dead and not quite alive, commanding a squadron of implacable ghasts.
Though all the stories here are unsettling, not all is gruesome and horrific. The title tale is a beautifully rendered parable of man against mythology, as a dispossessed indio is forced to hunt a supernatural black jaguar in order to pay off his rootless wife’s debt for a battery-powered television. “The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule” is a fantastic story about a con man whose swindling art becomes real art, unfortunately at a great cost to the world. Finally, “Radiant Green Star,” a novella which won Shepard a Nebula award, is a masterful blend of human frailty and cyberpunk, something I haven’t read since William Gibson’s early days.
Every single story here will imprint vivid memories in your mind — some will be gut-wrenching sensations of fear, others masterfully-painted visions of exotic places and unnatural forces. No matter what, you’ll turn the last page with no doubt of Shepard’s mastery.
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