BEAUTIFUL BLOOD, the new, short novel from the late, great Lucius Shepard, is the story of a Latin American drug dealer. Although trained as a physician, the book’s protagonist, Richard Rosacher, stumbles upon a substance whose efficacy suggests an alternative, and far more lucrative, career path. He follows this path, gaining in wealth and influence, eventually joining the ranks of the local political elite. Yet Rosacher’s position is far from secure, and by the novel’s end, his fortunes have undergone a dramatic reversal.
Such a narrative arc, the rise and fall of a criminal, is a familiar structuring device in crime fiction and film. It is a less familiar feature of fantasy fiction, and Shepard exploits this in Beautiful Blood. The novel is his latest fiction set in his invented version of Teocinte, Honduras, a location he first imagined in his 1984 story, “The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule.” The landscape of Teocinte is dominated by the form of the titular beast, who is a mile long and paralyzed after his conflict with a powerful magician millennia before. The residents of the town have constructed it on and around the dragon’s body. The enormous Griaule is the kind of sublime image found in much of the literature of the fantastic, the dragon to end all dragons. But it is typical of Shepard’s sensibility that, having envisioned this titanic creature, he subverts it by presenting it as immobile, a feature of the landscape. Griaule seems cousin to the dormant volcano, the slumbering fault line, possessed of the potential for cataclysmic violence, but of little daily concern to those living in his presence. At the end of that first story, Shepard would kill the dragon, but its hold on his imagination was such that, over the next three decades, he returned to it seven times, writing stories set before and alongside the events of that inaugural one. In the process, Griaule’s symbolic dimensions would expand. The dragon would come to represent the figurative terrain upon which the structures of our lives are constructed, and which therefore exerts a profound influence upon the shapes they assume. Indeed, the later stories in the sequence explicitly raise the question of Griaule’s effect upon the characters’ actions. In this way, Shepard makes the notion of fate, a staple of so much fantasy narrative, one of the central concerns of the stories.
To this unique setting, Shepard brings the character of Richard Rosacher, a newly-graduated doctor with an interest in hematology. Beautiful Blood begins with Rosacher’s investigations into the properties of Griaule’s blood, samples of which can be drawn from the dragon’s great tongue. A disagreement with the man Rosacher has hired to retrieve the blood for him leads to Rosacher being beaten by the man’s associate and injected with the subject of his research. The substance acts as a powerful hallucinogen; Rosacher experiences a vision of his mundane surroundings supercharged with beauty, in a passage that allows Shepard to demonstrate his gifts for description:
“Everything in sight had acquired a luster. Spiderwebs glistened like strands of polished platinum; the boards gleamed with the grainy perfection of gray marble; his broken glassware glittered with prismatic glory, a scatter of rare gems; his possessions scattered across the floor seemed part of a decorative scheme, as if the apartment’s sorry condition were the work of an artist who, guided by a decadent sensibility, had sought to counterfeit shabbiness by using the richest of materials.”
After the blood’s effects have subsided, Rosacher hits on the idea of selling the substance, and while he feels a momentary qualm at so profound a betrayal of his professional ethics, his reservations are quickly overwhelmed by the prospect of the enormous wealth awaiting him.
And wealthy Rosacher becomes. The lower classes in particular take to the drug he offers them, which they christen “mab.” The name, Shepard explains, is an acronym for “more and better,” a succinct description of the substance’s effect on individual perception, but the word also evokes the queen of the fairies whom Malvolio describes in the first act of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Queen Mab roams through the sleeping minds of various types of people, from lovers to lawyers, bringing them pleasing dreams. In a similar fashion, Rosacher’s drug brings its users a pleasant illusion. (It is possible the name points in the direction of Percy Shelley’s Queen Mab; A Philosophical Poem; With Notes , but if so, the allusion is deeply, even savagely, ironic, as Shelley’s poem envisions the ways in which humanity’s lot will be improved in the future, a concern at odds with the substance of Shepard’s narrative.)
For Rosacher, however, there is an unexpected and disconcerting side-effect to his own indulgence in Griaule’s blood, namely, that at unexpected moments, times seems to skip ahead for him, often for a period of years. These blackouts have a peculiar nature. Once aware of the future moment into which he has awakened, Rosacher finds himself possessed of memories of the time that has elapsed. Yet the retrospective view of an experience is not the same thing as the original experience, and these gaps in his life become a source of anxiety for Rosacher. The side-effect serves as a counterweight to the blood’s immediate effect—the price, as it were, that its bliss requires. It also permits the narrative to leap forward, showing us the progression of Rosacher’s career in condensed and accelerated form.
This career is impressive. The former doctor succeeds in having his drug business recognized as a legitimate and lawful enterprise by the town council. In the process, he convinces the members of the council to authorize the creation of a town militia, with one of Rosacher’s men in command. Subsequently, he negotiates with an official of the local religion—a hybrid of Catholicism and animism—to endorse the use of mab by granting Griaule a place in its pantheon. (Seldom has Marx’s famous aphorism about religion as the opiate of the masses been so trenchantly illustrated.) Although Rosacher’s activities are thoroughly criminal, his motivations cynical, he pursues his goals with a calm reasonableness that makes him seem almost admirable. Later in the narrative, Rosacher will encounter the ruler of a neighboring municipality, Carlos, an enlightened monarch who seems his double, a version of what he might have become had his interests tended in a more benevolent direction. But Carlos does not survive the novel, a fact to which we are free to attach whatever significance we choose.
In the midst of his rise to power, Rosacher meets Meric Cattanay, the protagonist of the original Griaule story. Prior to Rosacher’s first audience with the town council, he and the artist discuss Cattanay’s scheme to kill Griaule by painting a huge mural on the dragon’s side using paint laden with toxic chemicals, in order to poison Griaule slowly. During his meeting with the council members, Rosacher voices his support for Cattanay’s project, thus helping to set in motion the events of the story to which his own is the bookend. Given that Beautiful Blood is likely the last of Shepard’s tales of Griaule—unless another should be discovered in his files—it seems fitting that it should cycle back to the beginning of the sequence.
While Shepard works with many of the familiar images and concerns of the fantasy genre in Beautiful Blood, he does so in a manner that constantly holds them up for examination and interrogation. The novel’s central conceit, of the dragon’s blood as a powerful drug, evokes the generic device of the magical element that transforms daily life in order to treat it as escapist in the worst sense of the word. This impulse to upend the traditions of fantasy fiction appears to lie behind Shepard’s decision to give us Rosacher’s adult life from start almost to finish. Rather than fitting his protagonist’s experience to a ready-made, three-act drama, Shepard allows it to follow a more episodic course. In so doing, he echoes the design of “The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule,” which traces Meric Cattanay’s adult years from beginning to end. Both narratives display an underlying concern with time, and it may well be that time in its myriad of dimensions is one of the threads that runs through the Griaule stories.
With Beautiful Blood, Lucius Shepard demonstrates the ability of a fantasy narrative to address the complexities of human experience. That the novel is Shepard’s last is cause for sorrow, as it displays his considerable gifts for language, the portrayal of character, and philosophical rumination as well as anything he wrote. That we have the book—that we have all of Shepard’s work—is a cause for joy. Shepard’s words burn like the blood of a dragon, racing through fantastic narratives that coil their muscles, open their wings, and leap into flight.
John Langan is a writer whose most recent collection of stories, The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies, was published by Hippocampus Press in 2013.