Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Lucius Shepard - The Dragon Griaule (1984 - 2012)

"'Griaule... God! I used to feel him in the temple. Perhaps you think that's just my imagination, but I swear it's true. We all concentrated on him, we sang to him, we believed in him, we conjured him in our thoughts, and soon we could feel him. Cold and vast. Inhuman. This great scaly chill that owned a world.'
   "Korrogly was struck by the similarity of phrasing with which the old woman Kirin and now Mirielle had referred to their apprehension of Griaule, and thought to make mention of it, but Mirielle continued speaking, and he let the matter drop.
   "'I can still feel his touch in my mind. Heavy and steeped in blackness. Each one of his thoughts a century in forming, a tonnage of hatred, of sheer enmity. He'd brush against me, and I'd be cold for hours."'

Lucius Shepard wrote the first story about the Dragon Griaule in 1984 near the beginning of his career as a writer of genre fiction, and continued to write about him on and off throughout his career. The central idea is so compelling that you can understand why he kept coming back to it: Griaule is a massive dragon, thousands of feet long, paralyzed by a spell that was meant to kill him. Overgrown with trees and foliage and home to wondrously bizarre parasites, Griaule exudes malevolence into the surrounding countryside and towns, and psychically manipulates the people who live there to do his bidding. It's a wonderfully elegant idea that takes one of the staples of the Fantasy genre and twists it into an unfamiliar new context. Griaule is both an imaginative and compelling setting, a hallucinogenic psycho-geography reminiscent of M. John Harrison's Viriconium (with its well drawn characters, inventive setting and lyrical writing, perhaps the only thing other than themselves that the Griaule tales much resemble), and a character in his own right. Through his machinations and the human characters who live off him, Griaule's vicious, arrogant and hateful character permeates the stories. Yet what makes the Griaule stories stick in the mind is how artfully Shepard exploits the ambiguity of his presence. The exact extent of Griaule's powers are never fully explained, leaving it to the reader to determine how much of the characters' frequently unpleasant actions are the result of Griaule's manipulations, how much Griaule's character accentuates the dragonish aspects of their own natures, and how much the Dragon's presence acts as a handy excuse for their bad behaviour, a chance for them to waive responsibility for their own actions due to a malevolent higher power.

The Man Who Painted The Dragon Griaule (1984)

"Strange, that it has taken me all this time to realize it was not Jarcke, not you or I who was culpable, but Griaule. How obvious it seems now. I was leaving, and he needed me to complete the expression on his side, his dream of flying, of escape, to grant him the death of his desire. I am certain you will think I have leaped to this assumption, but  I remind you that it has been a leap of forty years' duration. I know Griaule, know his monstrous subtlety. I can see it at work in every action that has taken place in the valley since my arrival. I was a fool not to understand that his powers were at the heart of our sad conclusion."

The original Dragon Griaule story tells how the Dragon was killed by the artist Meric Cattanay painting a mural on his side with toxic paint. It is appropriate to the twisted logic of the Griaule stories that they should start with what seems like the Dragon's defeat, an event that later turns out to have been orchestrated by Griaule himself all along. It also speaks to the incisive and violent nature of Shepard's writing that they open by depicting art as an act of violence. Cattanay is a grim, intense young man who is utterly consumed by this one huge idea, to create a work of art worthy of Griaule both by matching his natural splendor but also his deviousness and violence. Shepard explores how the entire project warps and shapes the surrounding land and peoples. In order to produce all the paints necessary, the town of Teocinte which lives in the shadow of the Dragon destroys the surrounding forests and countryside, and embarks on a series of wars and invasions to fund its economy. In this way, the method of Griaule's demise, whilst artistic in nature, winds up spreading the Dragon's hatred and destruction throughout the region. Cattanay's relationship to Griaule develops; in the beginning he views the people who live near the Dragon as superstitious for regarding Griaule as almost god-like in his power. However as his passion in his work swallows him up, and his love life ends in jealousy, violence and heartbreak, he begins to see more and more of the Dragon's influence over the seemingly random events of his life. By the time his work reaches its conclusion, he finds that he has developed a deep empathy for Griaule, as a powerful being trapped in his own destiny, and feels nothing but disgust for the people of Teocinte, who use Griaule as a symbol of their petty military strength now that he is dying and they no longer fear him or hold him in awe. 
   The context of the story is shifted by the sections of letters and faux historical documents that proceed each chapter. They hint at Cattanay's feelings of imprisonment in his own life, at the lack of agency he feels in his own work, at his feelings of helplessness in the face of the power of the Dragon. However the last section reveals that the entire ploy was conceived by Cattanay and his art college friends on a drunken night out as a scam to win the reward for killing Griaule from the city fathers of Teocinte. Thus how much of the story's events were genuinely manipulated by Griaule, how much this has been later mythologized, and how much is Cattanay's own paranoia and neuroses, is thrown into question.
   From the beginning, the elements that make the Griaule stories so fascinating are all in place. Shepard's writing is lucid and lyrical, his descriptions of the fauna and flora living on the dragon and the people who live nearby, from the faded squalor of Hangtown to the more prosperous streets of Teocinte, are detailed and intelligently thought out. The story is set in a slightly different world to ours, in an alternate 1800s, and makes good use of its Central American-ish location. Shepard's characters are well fleshed out, and he has a canny understanding of politics and how they shape both worlds and world views. For all that it manages to achieve, the story is quite brief. The ideas and themes it explores would be expanded in later stories.

The Scalehunter's Beautiful Daughter (1988)

"There was no choice, she realized; over the span of almost eleven years she had been maneuvered by the dragon's will to this place and moment where, by virtue of her shaped history and conscience, she had only one course of action."

'The Scalehunter's Beautiful Daughter' fleshes out the menagerie of parasites and symbiotes living in and on Griaule. Shepard lets loose his imagination, fully realising the wondrous and hallucinatory venue of Griaule's body. It also shows the extent and subtlety of the Dragon's manipulations, as the entire events of the story are set in motion by the Dragon to temporarily evacuate his symbiotes before one of his millennial heartbeats floods the chambers of his stomach. Catherine, the daughter of a man who makes a living scavenging Griaule's fallen scales, was made to sleep directly on Griaule's back when she was a child so that she might form a protective bond with him. After she kills one of the men from the village for attempting to rape her, she hides in the forest in the Dragon's mouth from his vengeful brothers and finds herself taken into the community of the Feelys, the descendants of outcasts from the village who live symbiotically in Griaule's stomach, and who believe that Catherine has come to them to serve a great purpose for Griaule.
   Trigger warning: there is a fair amount of sexual violence in the Griaule stories. Seeing as Catherine's descent into Griaule is set off by an attempted rape, this seems like an appropriate place to try to grapple with what's going on here. The Griaule stories all feature sex, but in ways that is intentionally off-putting. Most of the sexual relationships in these stories are deeply unhealthy, from the creepy father-daughter incest between Lemos and Mirielle in 'The Father Of Stones' to Hota's position as sexual surrogate for Griaule in 'Liar's House' to Peony's history of abuse at the hands of her family in 'The Taborin Scale'. To Shepard's credit, the female characters in theses stories who suffer sexual abuse are not defined by it; whilst Shepard treats the subject seriously and explores the psychological impact it has on his characters, the characters are able to overcome these experiences. Human sexuality becomes another aspect of life to be corrupted by Griaule's malevolent influence; what should be an expression of love or affection becomes twisted into a tool for power and domination over another. There is shading in how this is portrayed; Griaule seems naturally attracted to people who have had traumatic and damaging experiences, and this is true of the men as well as the women in these stories. However for all that there is reason for it being there and it is sensitively explored and portrayed, I could understand if readers found it upsetting or off-putting.
   Catherine's flight into the Dragon allows Shepard to expand on Griaule as a fantastical setting, and show off the power and inventiveness of his imagination to its full extent. It's reductive to label Griaule as a Big Dumb Object, especially with the extent to which his character colours these stories, but in his awe-inspiring size and the alien environment he provides, he evokes much of the same sense of wonder and unknowable mystery. Shepard's descriptions are vivid and striking, from the poisonous forests in Griaule's mouth to the dwellings of the Feelys hanging off the inside of his stomach wall. There is a particularly wonderful scene in which the Feelys hunt a gigantic tapeworm in Griaule's stomach.
   'The Scalehunter's Beautiful Daughter' explores Griaule both as a scientific phenomenon, one whose biology can be explored and mapped, his parasites catalogued, and also as a mystical, almost god-like power. Interestingly, Shepard doesn't separate these out. The Feelys regard Catherine's great purpose as almost messianic, and hold her in the awe befitting a religious figure, because Griaule has selected her especially to carry out his will, and will communicate it solely to her. Yet this great purpose is purely physiological, utterly without a spiritual element. Griaule goes to all this trouble to save the Feelys not out of magnanimity, but because they carry out a convenient symbiotic duty in keeping his stomach free of parasites, and it would be an inconvenience to replace them. Catherine undergoes a lot of suffering to achieve this purpose, yet the experience does afford her the chance to grow and develop as a character in a way that her previous life didn't. When she completes her purpose and returns to confront her previous tormentors, she realises that she doesn't need to take revenge on them, she is able to move on with her life and gains some semblance of happiness and satisfaction. This is an indication that she genuinely is finally free of Griaule's influence.

The Father Of Stones (1988)

"I find it simplistic that passion and premeditation are deemed to be mutually exclusive."

While 'The Scalehunter's Beautiful Daughter' is concerned with Griaule's biological and metaphysical nature, 'The Father Of Stones' explores the pervasiveness of his influence, and what this influence means for the people who come into contact with it. Lemos, a jeweler, is accused of murdering Mardo Zemaille, the priest of the Temple of the Dragon, with the Father of Stones, a precious stone said to be produced by Griaule, and claims as his defense that he was manipulated to do so by Griaule. The story focuses on Korrogly, Lemos' defense lawyer, as he attempts to disentangle the truth and save his client's life. Korrogly is a young, working class man struggling to make it in a middle class profession, and 'The Father Of Stones' is the story of his moral decay and degradation. Lemos' case comes to him at a point in his career when his faith in the law is floundering, and his experience of being lied to and manipulated, by Lemos and his daughter Mirielle on a small scale, and by Griaule himself on a larger scale, completes his disillusion, leading to his slide into amorality.
   'The Father Of Stones' is a fantastical murder mystery, an elegantly constructed whodunnit in a Fantasy world. One of the themes running throughout the Griaule stories is the slipperiness of objective truth, especially where motivations are concerned; people may think they are doing things for one reason, excuse their actions with another reason, and have a hidden underlying motivation they aren't even aware of. Griaule's purpose is to simply throw all these possibilities into confusion. If it is impossible for any character to truly understand their own motivation, then for all they know Griaule might well be secretly pulling the strings behind them all.
   By extension this calls into question if any of the characters can have free will while Griaule exists. It is appropriate that 'The Father Of Stones' features the Temple of the Dragon, and the cult that has been built up around worshiping Griaule, so prominently, as one could reasonably ask the same question with regards to any higher power. For Korrogly, the existence of Griaule's all powerful and all pervasive will becomes an excuse for him to waive responsibility for his own actions and abandon the moral reservations that have been holding his career back. The Temple's doctrines consciously echo those of Aleistair Crowley's "Do what thou wilt," a motto that Korrogly himself takes to heart at the end of the story. Interestingly, whilst Shepard here has drawn a direct line likening Griaule to Satan, the priest Zemaille was actually working on a spell to reawaken the wizard who originally paralyzed Griaule so that he would be able to complete his work and kill the Dragon. Once again people's apparent motivations and their hidden agendas are at odds with each other.
   Because of the subtlety of Griaule's manipulations, and because his very existence seems to encourage the spread of violent, selfish and destructive behaviour in people, the actual mystery of the story ends on an ambiguous note. Korrogly is manipulated by Lemos and Mirielle, but it's not clear to what extent his actions, and indeed Lemos' and Mirielle's, are being manipulated by Griaule as well. Either way the Dragon gets what he wants. It's actually far more disconcerting to leave this unresolved, to leave the reader wrestling with to what extent humanity's evil is internal or external.

Yeah, there's a lot of text in this article. Enjoy this crude drawing of Griaule to break it up a bit.

Liar's House (2004)

"To find your way to freedom in what is inevitable, within the bonds of your fate ... that, for me, is love. Only when you accept a limitation can you escape it."

'Liar's House' sees Shepard return to Griaule after a number of years. This story shows us how Griaule is able to carry out his biological urges to reproduce, showing again the power and precision of the Dragon's influence. It's also another exploration of the objective truth's slipperiness, and to what extent free will and freedom are possible in the face of such a vast and inescapable power. Hota Kotieb, the story's protagonist, is chosen by Griaule to father his child with the dragon Magali, who is also summoned to Griaule for this purpose. As the story unfolds, we see that the pub Hota and Magali have been staying in, nicknamed Liar's House, was specifically constructed to Griaule's specifications to be a nest for his child.
   Hota is stolid, unimaginative, angry and prone to violence. Following an incident in which he murders some people, he becomes and outcast and a loner. The qualities that mark him out for Griaule's choice to father his child tell us a lot about Griaule's own personality. However, we also get a bigger glimpse than we have done before at the personalities and outlooks of dragons through the character of Magali, who must manifest as a human for Hota to impregnate her. Magali, like Griaule, is arrogant and demanding, and utterly without social graces. Shepard manages to make her behaviour convincingly alien, a being with a very different set of values and priorities than humans. But she is also a sympathetic character; like Hota, she is subject to Griaule's will, being a less powerful dragon, and her attitude of finding her own kind of freedom within the allowances of a restrictive set of circumstances is in many ways the best that any of the people who live under Griaule's influence can hope for. It's a powerful metaphor for living and surviving under oppression. But Migali also reminds us that Griaule himself is as trapped as any of the characters in these stories. Migali describes the ecstasy and joy dragons feel when flying:

"Each flight is like the first flight, the flight made at the instant of creation. You're in the dark, maybe you're drowsy. Almost not there. And then you wake to some need, some urgency. Your wings crack as you rise up. Like thunder. And then you're into the light, the wind... The wind is everything. All your strength and the rush of the wind, the sound of your wings, the light, it's one power, one voice."

For all Griaule's subtlety, his vast influence and his meticulous control of the lives of others, he is trapped immobile in his own body, denied of these simple pleasures. No wonder he's so malevolent towards the rest of creation.

The Taborin Scale (2010)

"'The city's of no consequence. As for Griaule...' He chuckled. 'We've always underestimated him. By hacking him apart and carrying the pieces to the far corners of the earth, we did exactly what he wanted. Now he rules in every quarter of the globe.'"

'The Taborin Scale' answers the question raised by the original Griaule story - how do you tell if a giant paralyzed Dragon is dead - and in the process reveals more about Griaule's powers and his personality. We know that Griaule deals in morbidity and death, and also that he theatrically arranged his own death. It is fitting that he would want so spectacular an event to have an appreciative audience, But, in keeping with the ambiguity of the Griaule stories, what appears to be Griaule's demise may have only increased the range and scope of his dominion. The story also provides the fullest depiction of Griaule's character so far.
   In 'The Taborin Scale', George Taborin, a coin collector, finds an old scale shed by Griaule when he was young, which transports him and the prostitute Sylvia back in time to when Griaule was young, where the Dragon has collected various groups of damaged individuals to bare witness to something important. This is the first time in the book we get to see Griaule moving, and it's linked to his final awakening at his death. The young Griaule, much smaller than we're used to seeing him but vital and still powerful, is contrasted with his agonizing collapse and death, a stark reminder of the universality of old age and death. Giving Griaule his movement back allows us to experience him more as an active presence in events, rather than slyly manipulating events behind the scenes. With all his strength behind him, he is much less, subtle, using his roar and his physical presence to frighten and coerce the people to go where he wants them. At the end, in order to herd everyone to the amphitheater back in the present where they will bear witness to his death, he uses his fire to send everyone in the right direction. Thus we learn that while Griaule's arrogance and violence have remained the same, his legendary subtlety has been learned since his paralysis, a necessary development to allow him to exercise his power without his physical strength to back him up.
   'The Taborin Scale' also illustrates the way Shepard uses the continuity between the Griaule stories. While Cattanay doesn't physically appear, his prediction that Griaule would collapse from the inside is finally realised. With its wry historical footnotes, 'The Taborin Scale' recalls the chapter prologues from the original story, albeit in a more humourous way. In 'The Father Of Stones', Korrogly calls Catherine to the stand as a witness to talk about her life and convince the jury of the power and precision of Griaule's manipulations. These callbacks are precise enough to remind us that all the stories are indeed set in the same world, without needing to erase the ambiguity that runs through them, or corroborate any of the various unreliable viewpoint characters' perceptions.
   The relationship between George and Sylvia also recalls Cattanay's relationship with Jarcke, as again the two characters go in opposite journeys with respect to their views about Griaule. While Sylvia loses her almost religious belief in Griaule's power by seeing the horrific destruction wrought by his death and dealing with the aftermath, George goes from being a cynic to being utterly convinced that Griaule's power has only been increased by the dissemination of his body parts following his death. This is symbolic of the two character's different journeys set off by the same experiences, an example of how different people experience the same cataclysmic event.

The Skull (2012)

"He felt he would have been able to see through this deception without Yara's help, and he speculated that Griaule may never have been a subtle creature, that his reputed prowess in this regard had been exaggerated due to his bulk (even a gross manipulation would be perceived as a subtlety when the manipulator was roughly the size of a county in Rhode Island) and to the ease with which people could be manipulated, thanks in large part to their eagerness to absolve themselves of responsibility and shift blame for their behaviour onto an outside influence, as if they were at the mercy of forces beyond their control."

The final Dragon Griaule story has the largest scope, the Dragon's destruction finally allowing Shepard to move beyond the confines of Teocinte, Hangtown and Port Chantay. Its realistic setting and its unflinching exploration of poverty, fascism and cultural privilege make it the most disturbing and haunting of them. Set in Temalagua, a slightly disguised Guatemala, and influenced by Shepard's real life experience of living and working there, the story describes the misfortunes that have plagued the country since it came in possession of Griaule's skull. The story sensitively and intelligently portrays the climate of need and desperation that allows fascism to arise, as well as showing how a white, heterosexual male character can be written about in a context that fully shows his entitlement and privilege. It's a powerful piece of writing that explores concerns far removed from those usually found in stories with dragons.
    In 'The Skull', everything Griaule has represented to different people throughout the preceding stories comes together, and in doing so illustrates the potency of the stories' central concept. To different characters, Griaule may represent the sins of the past, their own moral corruption, the forces of oppression and stagnation. There's an extent to which whatever any character sees in Griaule is a reflection of themselves, their own worst instinct amplified and played back to them. The beauty of this is that it robs neither Griaule nor the human characters of their agency. Griaule always remains his own entity, with a powerful sense of agency despite his paralysis. But crucially his presence doesn't explain, mitigate or wash away the evil committed by humans. This is especially important when dealing with such heavy subjects as Shepard engages with here.
   Following his death and dismemberment, Griaule's skull is transported to the court of the despotic king of Temalagua. From there Shepard takes us through the history of the skull, which becomes the history of Temalagua's turbulent history from the 1800s through to the present day. The interesting thing about 'The Skull' is that, apart from the presence of dragons, the history of Griaule's world unfolds much the same as ours. The history of Temalagua's rulers shows a Central America disrupted by Spanish and then USA imperialism, leaving Temalagua a country struck by poverty and bloody revolutions.
   Shepard explores the social and political ramifications of this in great detail, with an emphasis on how this affects the people who live there. He depicts a country run by gangsters, the drug trade and prostitution rings, in which the majority of people live in poverty, and extremist political parties like the incredibly nasty right wing Party of Organised Violence, or PVO, are on the rise. We get to see the country through the eyes of both Craig Snow, a North American expatriate, and Yara, a Temalaguan woman who has grown up in the slums. This is an effective choice, as it shows just how much Snow's viewpoint is shaped by his privilege as a well off white male US citizen. As much as he shows moral outrage at the rise of fascism and the poverty he sees around him, he is blind to the desperation in the people around him, his country's role in perpetuating it, and is feckless about how much danger his actions put other people in. Yara calls him out on this:

"You've been here how long? Four years? Five? Long enough to realize that any change is welcome in Temalagua. Any chance that things will improve, however slight, is welcome. You can't impose your American logic on us. You people are smothered by the media, by lies, by silk sheets and fatty foods. Most of you don't notice how fucked you are. Here the government doesn't bother to hide things from us. Savagery, poverty, and injustice are shoved in our faces every day. We're fucking desperate! If change makes things worse... so what?"

Yara is central in a cult which is dedicated to bringing back Griaule. As the result of human sacrifices, Griaule is brought back in human form, as Jefe. The PVO has been set up according to his plan, to allow Jefe to take control of Temalagua in a fascist coup. Yara helps Griaule because she believes that once he has transformed back into his dragon form, he'll leave the Temalaguans alone, and in the process his coup will have destroyed the corrupt government and will have left the PVO in too much disarray to function without him. Shepard boldly draws connecting lines between real life monsters and the monsters of Fantasy. In the aftermath of the 20th Century, the spectre of fascism haunts the world. Its poisonous doctrines fit in well with Griaule's character and world view, Because we recognise him from history books and news reports, Griaule as Jefe is much more frightening than he ever was in his Dragon form, an arrogant sociopath who has people killed on a whim. Snow and Yara succeed in killing Jefe while he is still in human form, thus preventing his rebirth as a Dragon, but his legacy lives on in the "ordinary monsters", the other, merely human fascists and would-be-demagogues waiting in the wings to take power in the vacuum left by his death, and in the lives ended, uprooted and destroyed by his tyranny.

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