Lucius Shepard published his first story of the immobilized, mountainous dragon named Griaule in 1984, and each of the four stories since "The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule" has furthered the purpose of showing up the evasive, escapist stupidities at the heart of the phrase once upon a time.
Or maybe that wasn't their purpose, in Shepard's mind. It doesn't matter. Purpose or not, it is their effect, and it is an effect that grows out of the stories' distant relation to fairy tales of dragons and maidens and gallant knights and, as a Shepard character might say, all that horseshit.
Thanks to Subterranean Press, we now have the five Dragon Griaule stories (novellas, mostly) together between two covers instead of scattered through various anthologies and magazines, along with a new novella, "The Skull." For the first time, it's easy to read them one after the other. We can spy on their correlations, theorize their conjunctions, and spelunk through the shadows linking their darkest caverns. On their own, the stories are moments of myth, shards of a fantasy land that, it turns out, is just around the corner from our own. Together with the added narrative iterations of "The Skull," the stories show themselves to be a tapestry of texts, histories, myths, horrors, deceits, contrivances, lies, illusions, and, in the end, hopes.
The first sentence of "The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule" (after an epigraph from a scholarly text) reads: "In 1853, in a country far to the south, in a world separated from this one by the thinnest margin of possibility, a dragon named Griaule dominated the region of the Carbonates Valley, a fertile area centering upon the town of Teocinte and renowned for its production of silver, mahogony, and indigo." Shepard stayed faithful to that sentence throughout the next decades of writing Dragon Griaule stories, but he also mined its many possibilities, producing a richly diverse series of stories that, for all their differences, still feel coherent.
Much of the coherence comes from the openness of the narrative structure. The faux-scholarly epigraph to "The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule" isn't a decoration. It frames expectations and potentials that determine much of the shape and meaning of the later stories. For while the Dragon Griaule stories work well as tales of a not entirely exotic place and a fascinatingly enigmatic central creature, their most effective and profound resonances derive from their own textuality—from the ways they work not just as engaging, imaginative, lyrical stories, but also from how they reveal the limitations and necessity of storytelling.
In "The Skull," one character says to another of Griaule, "Are you familiar with his history," and the other character responds: "All that crap about being paralyzed in a mystical battle, his mental powers becoming godlike? Sure, everybody's heard that fairy tale." By this point in the book, 333 pages in, we the readers have, indeed, heard the tale, and heard it a few times, because it is told repeatedly. We very much understand it as a history rather than a fairy tale: like history, it is full of gaps and varied interpretations, rich with characters and great events, but there is not enough magic for it to be a fairy tale, not enough wonder. It is more the history of people who search for fairy tales, people who gain and lose luck, who find a bit of magic but can't understand it and certainly can't control it. Life and lies shatter the fairy tales.
"The Scalehunter's Beautiful Daughter" ends:
From that point on little is known of her other than the fact that she bore two sons and confined her writing to a journal that has gone unpublished. However, it is said of her—as is said of all those who perform similar acts of faith in the shadows of other dragons yet unearthed from beneath their hills of ordinary-seeming earth and grass, believing that their bond serves through gentle constancy to enhance and not further delimit the boundaries of this prison world—from that day forward she lived happily ever after. Except for the dying at the end. And the heartbreak in between. (p. 114)
Happily ever after. Except . . .
The tale of Griaule is the tale of fate, not fairies. The universe under Griaule's influence is deterministic. Griaule is an inscrutable god, bending people's desires and destinies according to a will that no-one can entirely understand. The third tale, "The Father of Stones," has perhaps the most carefully complex plot of all the stories (which tend to be relaxed, circumstantial, a bit episodic), but once the whole plot is unwound, we and the protagonist are left to wonder how to find meaning within events manipulated by Griaule's scheming, mad chessmaster whims. The effect is unsettling and profound, because the question quickly opens itself wider than an individual story. How do we know that our own lives are not manipulated by forces well beyond us? Why do we trust in the meanings we find in the symbols and superstitions of our everyday encounters? It's the problem of free will, yes, but more painfully the problem of knowing another person, when at any one moment we might be unwitting con artists, pawns in a cruel force's games. In one story after another, the question arises: if it is a given that there is a force and it controls us and it can be neither defeated nor understood, does it matter whether the force that controls us is a sky-god or a scientific law or an ancient, giant, angry dragon?
These questions haunt the protagonist of "The Father of Stones," the lawyer Korrogly, after he has won a case that he later has doubts about:
Some nights he thought he would prefer to cling to the notion of free will, to think that he had been the victim of human wiles, not those of some creature as inexplicable as God; other nights he hoped that he had won the case fairly and freed an innocent man. The only thing he was certain of was that he wanted clarity. (p. 187)
He gains some clarity, but it isn't fulfilling. In the end, he finds peace by not caring about the ultimate forces. His philosophy in the last pages of the story is a kind of stoic hedonism, one infused with the pleasures of imagination.
In these first three stories, Griaule's intentions remain inscrutable, his only apparent emotion anger, his manipulations cruelly mercurial. His physical body can be explored and inhabited, turned into art, colonized; but though his mind extends through the dreams and desires of the people living around him, its meanings are indeterminate.
In the fourth story one meaning becomes clear: Griaule wants to procreate.
And so "Liar's House" becomes a tale of trangressed borders and permeable membranes: the grimy grit of a tough daily life is infused with romance and wonder, species intermingle, histories and legends flow through each other, creation and destruction twin their forces, the mysteries of magnificent birth leave a practical mess in their wake, new life leads to death, and death itself lives in the ambiguity between delusion and transcendence. Truth is unknowable, but lies have a location, a home of their own. Magali, who has been hero and villain in a plot he never for a moment controlled, and who has won and lost everything, ends fated by Griaule with a conclusion he cannot know: "this was his reward, this transformation, this was the fulfillment of every promise, or else it was the lie of it" (p. 239).
From miraculous birth and ambiguous death we then move on to Griaule's own death in "The Taborin Scale," wherein the dragon seems to bring people into a realm of his own mind as he is dying, to create for himself an audience, witnesses to his destruction, one last set of pieces to shuffle across his chessboard's mortal coil. (But we know, as readers holding a book called The Dragon Griaule with over 100 pages left after the end of "The Taborin Scale," that the death of Griaule mentioned from early in the story is likely more complex than the eulogies will admit.)
It is fitting that "The Taborin Scale" is peppered with footnotes. The longer a legend persists, the more diffuse and polyvalent it becomes, and thus the more fertile for study and annotation. The footnotes work in dialogic relationship with the story's text, but they also heighten a sense of verisimilitude. Writers have been using faux scholarly apparatus for centuries to make their wildest tales seem true—it's the noble con job of fiction—but the footnotes in "The Taborin Scale" also subtly remind us that these stories are not located entirely outside the world we live in. We may not know that the name of the town in the Griaule stories, Teocinte, is also the name of a place in Guatemala, but footnote number 4 keeps us from imagining only never-never lands:
Dragons bred in other climes displayed a variety of coloration, ranging from ivory-scaled snow dragons of the Antarctic to the reddish-gold hue of those dragons that once inhabited the wastes of north of Lake Baikal, a shade that deepended to a rich bronze at maturity. (p. 245)
Dragons are everywhere, but by the era of "The Taborin Scale" (or, at least, its footnotes, which of course exist at a time after the events described in the narrative) they and their stories have become objects of study. Indeterminacy fills those stories, though. Even the names of the characters are fluid, as shown by footnote 7:
She had adopted this nom d'amour after George expressed dissatisfaction with the first name she gave, Ursula, and a selection process that winnowed the choices down to three: Otile, Amaryllis, and Sylvia. He had settled on the latter because it reminded him of a grocer's wife he had admired in Port Chantay, a woman from the extreme south of the country, a region "Sylvia" also claimed as home. (p. 249)
As the story progresses, the footnotes grow more and more rhizomatic, with references to writers, researchers, philosophers, and theologians who have all in one way or another become chattering, signifying monkeys on the back of Griaule's myth. Every witness has their own story, and every story breeds stories of its own; or, as one of the footnoted scholars would have it, pocket realities.
The book's new novella, "The Skull," stands as a summing up, extension, and perhaps even a betrayal of all that has gone before. It begins with the words "This much is known" and ends with America and hope and delirium and imperfections and a ride off into a light fired from the flames of an old world's apocalypse.
At the end of "The Taborin Scale," Griaule's remains have been scattered across the world (like rumors, like secrets, like lies), and there is a suggestion that this may have been exactly what he wanted and needed to strengthen his power. Through dispersal, he becomes panoptic and insidious.
Griaule has always been acknowledged as manipulative, but the movement of his power from "The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule" to "The Skull" is a movement from obvious totalitarianism to decentralized influence. The realm of the possible is still controlled, but its subjects now perceive themselves as free.
"The Skull" is the first Griaule story to bring us into the twenty-first Century. Not only does it bring us to the present, but it drifts into a future roughly a decade hence. Its geography is more overtly ours, too, and yet also more specifically fantasized, with a fictional country of Temalagua where there have been kings and princes and an Onyx Throne.
The skull of the title is Griaule's, by the present of the story mostly forgotten in the overgrowth of a Central American jungle. A cult will grow up around it, and Griaule will once again exert his power, will once again transform and seek freedom for himself at the expense of all others, and once again a man and a woman will meet and love and suffer. There will be fortresses and armies, heroism and massacres. And then it will end with that new light and our heroes triumphing. It's the Love Conquers Griaule ending, the sort of thing best consigned to the Ninth Circle of Claptrap, a flourish so brazen in its sentimental hoo-ha that we can't help but think back to all the other endings in the book:
Perhaps our lives are contrivances of lies and illusions. ("The Taborin Scale")
. . . this was the fulfillment of every promise, or else it was the lie of it. ("Liar's House")
He laughed out loud, he winked at a pretty girl, he plotted violence and duplicity, all things that brought him joy. One way or another, the dragon was loose in Port Chantay. ("The Father of Stones")
Except for the dying at the end. And the heartbreak in between. ("The Scalehunter's Beautiful Daughter")
. . . knowing that we were living our happy ending in advance . . . ("The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule")
The end of "The Skull" and of The Dragon Griaule is, then, an ending in opposition to the others, a wilfully optimistic sendoff that clangs false and suggests a gambler's (or a liar's) tell.
Or perhaps something else.
Griaule may be god-like, but more than a sky-god he is an author-god. The characters in the stories are in every literal way characters in Griaule's stories: characters he manipulates in plots of his own, characters in the legends that are told, characters studied by scholars, and characters we read about and imagine in our minds. The quest at the heart of The Dragon Griaule is a quest for the death of the author. Author-gods are, like dragons, mythic—but their power is real and influential, and killing them is never as easy or conclusive as it seems.
The sunny sweet ending of "The Skull" is neither a truth nor a lie: it is the fairy tale ending that the stories have resolutely resisted until these final pages. We know it's a fantasy—the last words of "The Scalehunter's Beautiful Daughter" already reminded us that happy endings depend, as Orson Welles wrote in an unproduced film script, "on where you stop your story."
As the happiness of the end asserts its power, the protagonist himself pushes against it:
He wished he could resist these dour thoughts, but they were ingrained in him—he had too long cohabited with the idea that love born of illusion would never prosper, and the principle that every truth could be fashioned into the lie of itself. It seemed to him all they had undergone and felt and done would one day be diminished and relegated to mere narrative, its heroes oversimplified or their heroic natures overborne by the mundanity of detail, a story so degraded, so shorn of wonderment by telling and re-telling that—despite love and redemption, suffering and loss, mystery and death—it would be in the end as though nothing had happened. (p. 420)
We are all, of course, the protagonists of our own stories, the only stories we inhabit, and we narrate (and narrativize) our lives through memory, drawing up lists of heroes and villains, embroidering the better moments with romance and chivalry, casting the worst moments in melodramatic fog, gilding our nostalgia with an air of nobility, paving over each aporia with fortune cookie lessons and greeting card schmaltz.
The hopeful, fantasized ending of "The Skull" is a gift to us and a reflection of us. Dragons and maidens and gallant knights may be horseshit, but sometimes we call horseshit manure, and sometimes flowers, food, fields and, eventually, new worlds grow from it.
Lucius Shepard seems to me the closest thing we've got right now to an American Conrad. Not just for his love of travel tales or of tale-telling itself; not just for his fascination with the perils of desire, arrogance, machismo; and not just for his languid lyricism—but because, at heart, both writers are melodramatists of the highest order.
In The Life of Drama, Eric Bentley quoted a critic of Conrad as writing:
One word comes before long to haunt the mind of any persistent reader of Conrad's stories—the word Melodrama. Why does he do it? What has he got against life? What is the purpose of all these feuds, assassinations, revealing plottings, these fearful disasters and betrayals
To which Bentley responds (after noting that one of the sources Conrad likely drew on for his melodrama was his own young experience with suicide):
Only under the influence of a narrow and philistine Naturalism can we ask why an artist shows life at a remove and in some established genre. The transposition of an inner struggle to a duel between persons does not even need a convention to carry it: such changes are made nightly by everyone in his dreams. If one can make of one's tussels with suicidal wishes a drama of love and honor, one has given to private and chaotic material a public and recognizable form. One has made art out of fantasy and pain.
"The Skull" ends one strain of the Griaule narratives, and leaves an infinity more open for further exploration. It ends at a certain moment of happiness and heroism after many long journeys through sorrow, terror, and ordinary human failure. It dreams itself toward light. As does each story in the book, it makes art out of fantasy and pain.
And all of the stories together offer a single exhortation: do not give in to the narrow and philistine Naturalism that defines life only as quotidian, knowable, unheroic; free of hope and dreams; built from stories that never stop at happiness. The stories together here show that the last sentence of "The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule" was the truest one. Regardless of the forces determining our fates and telling our tales, we all live our happy endings in advance.
Matthew Cheney's work has appeared in a wide variety of venues, including English Journal, Locus, SF Site, Rain Taxi, Failbetter.com, and Rabid Transit. He writes regularly about SF and literature at his weblog, The Mumpsimus, which was nominated for a 2005 World Fantasy Award, and he is the series editor for Best American Fantasy from Prime Books. You can also find his work in our archives.