Ostensibly fantasy stories, these fictions are intensely relevant, both politically and morally. Using the arsenal of his imagination, Shepard discusses drugs and addictions, sex, love, war, colonialism, barbarism, magic, ghosts, and solipsism. Shepard, a Southern writer, moves his stories from the Atlantic Northeast (Maine and New York) through the Southwest (Arizona, Texas, and Mexico) and Latin America (Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Panama) to the Far East (Vietnam).
Most of the stories contain some form of magic. As one character says, “Where I see the workings of gods or devils, you may see the actions of logical consequence. For me, the world is a vast spell, for you an intricate coincidence.” There’s scarcely any distance between those poles. Shepard erases that distance entirely.
These stories are, in tone, style, and content, reminiscent of Joseph Conrad’s fiction. Shepard is a Vietnam veteran enraged by U.S. colonialism, particularly in South America, which he perceives as an unspoiled garden of evil and beauty. He reworks hackneyed horror tropes and the Southern gothic to snare his readers. His fevered writing conjures the dark nastiness of Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville. “The Ends of the Earth” is a typical Conradian story, in which all are guilty and none deserve to live. “Delta Sly Honey” proposes that no one is more evil than a shy American boy with a big gun. “Nomans Land” is one of the most remarkable evocations of Melville’s Nantucket coast, offering oceans of solipsism in which to drown. Astrid believes that the lack of humane acts in the twentieth century is a result of humans dying out. “The Scalehunter’s Beautiful Daughter” is an extended allegory (related to Grimms fairy tales) about aging and growing up. The stories all are allegories about the world and its destruction. Throughout his fiction Shepard’s characters try desperately to reach love through sex, occasionally succeeding (most notably in “Life of Buddha”).
Some may find Shepard’s prose too purple or antique, yet the style is grippingly luminous. These are stories of passion, excess, and hopelessness. They are about the small deaths people suffer. The narrator says about Catherine, the scalehunter’s daughter, “From that day forward she lived happily ever after. Except for the dying at the end. And the heartbreak in between.”