Two Trains Running
(Golden Gryphon, $22.95, 112 pages, hardback.)
Several years ago, Lucius Shepard accepted a commission from Spin
magazine for an article on a hobo gang called Freight Train
Riders of America (FTRA). According to the police, the FTRA are responsible
for murders, drug running and train wrecks. As a result Shepard spent
a couple of months riding the rails, speaking to many of the men and
women he found there. Much of what he saw had little to do with the
Depression-era myth of the hobo as a romantic outlaw. Many of the people
he met had simply decided, for one reason or another, to drop out of
society and live a life on the margins of society, a life that is as
dangerous as it may be romantic. Two Trains Running contains
an expanded version of the magazine article ("The FTRA Story") and two
stories derived from the material, a novella "Over Yonder", previously
published online, and a novelette "Jailbait", original to the collection.
Shepard also provides an introduction.
"The FTRA Story" is a long article in which Shepard interviews the
hobos and also people involved in law enforcement. It's a compelling
piece of reportage, and also fascinating to read as the source of the
two stories which follow it in the book.
In the last few years, Shepard has been highly prolific, with a quarter
of a million words of new fiction -- apart from the short novel Floater,
all of it novella-length or shorter -- appearing in the calendar year
2003 alone. Even one full-scale collection (Trujillo, published
by PS Publishing in 2004) isn't enough to contain it all. Hence this
themed mini-collection, to take up some of the slack.
Shepard's short-fiction output over the past few years is notable for
both quality and quantity. To my mind some of those stories tend
to be a little familiar, revisiting certain Shepardian themes and tropes,
however much these stories would grace the work of other writers. On
the other hand, certain patterns recur in the work of all writers. A
typical Shepard story will feature a somehow alienated protagonist,
usually male, either living on the margins of society or living in a
foreign country or society. The story will involve, at least partly
or mostly, some kind of transcendence or transportation into a different,
or a higher reality.
However, taking all that on board, certain recent stories do still
stand out, and "Over Yonder" (originally published online at Scifiction
in 2002 and winner of the Sturgeon Award) is certainly one of them.
Billy Long Gone takes a train and finds himself in Yonder, a strange
land populated by men and women who are mostly ex-hobos like himself.
No-one knows quite what Yonder is: an alternate world, or maybe Purgatory.
Strange flying creatures called "beardsleys" and poisonous airborne
"fritters" threaten the inhabitants and trains are living creatures.
Finally, Billy and Annie, a woman with whom he has a past connection
and with whom he has fallen in love, leave Yonder for whatever lies
... beyond. "Over Yonder" is a compelling story that crams more invention
into its 28,000 words than would fit into many a novel.
"Jailbait" is a shorter story (though only by its author's standards
-- it's still novelette-length) about the encounter between a hobo called
Madcat and a young woman whose nickname gives the story its title. Although
there's no fantasy content, it's still a Shepard story following the
template above. This book gives you the chance to read the story next
to what inspired it, and you'll spot many correspondences in names and
details of places. "Jailbait" feels a little like a first pass at converting
this raw material into fiction. In "Over Yonder" it seems more assimilated,
more of a piece. "Jailbait" is as vividly written as you might expect,
interesting if minor Shepard.
Two Trains Running will certainly be a collectible for Shepard's
fans, collecting a fine article, a major novella and an interesting
novelette between hard covers.
Elsewhere in infinity plus: