To read his latest work, the novella The Abimigique, is to witness a master at the top of his game. For its near 50-page length, Sheperd hypnotizes us with what is usually considered literary suicide --writing in the second person -- as he tells the story of a 23-year-old, Seattle graduate student's obsessive relationship with massage therapist Abi (short for Abimagique). Abi has an intuitive sense of a pending apocalypse and partakes in strange rituals, but seems like "typical Goth material."
One of Sheperd's most staggering skills is his ability to effectively depict exotic locations. He's best known for tackling seedy South American locales (see my favorite book of 2004, Trujillo and Other Stories), but here he turns his sharp eye for the everyday on a decidedly domestic location. It first becomes clear that Abi is anything but "typical" when Shepard fastidiously describes the interior of her "frame house on a fir-lined street in fremont."
"On the walls of her house hang classic representations of the angels, Tibetan and Native American masks, curious constructions of dried vegetable matter and silk ribbon, ankhs, crosses, and backwards sevens and other symbols less readily identifiable...you realize that these arcana don't announce her character, they merely reflect it..."
In the hands of another author, I would have had my doubts about this early passage. Clearly, Abi is aligned with some malign force, manipulating the young protagonist with witchcraft or magic, right? Fortunately, Shepard doesn't deal in absolutes. He always emphasizes his character's psychology over typical plot conventions, causing his stories to retain an element of ambiguity. This is also why his fiction is so hard to pigeonhole -- just because it looks like fantasy fiction, science fiction, or horror fiction doesn't necessarily mean it is.
Just because six of Abie's former lovers are crippled, doesn't necessarily mean the graduate student is next. (This story could have easily gone in the direction of Takeshi Miike's grotesque film Audition.)
Due to space restrictions, Ellen Datlow at SCIFICTION.COM published The Abimigique in two parts. Coincidence or not, the division highlights the story's deft transition from realistic-psychological horror story to an out-and-out, imaginative piece of dark fantasy. For most writers, this plot and tonal shift would represent a bold move, for Shepard it's another day at the office.
Another one of Sheperd's strengths is his ability to expertly blend timely and topical current events into his plots, which give his stories an immediacy that is sorely lacking in many texts of fantasy. In The Abimigique, Abie serves as a reminder of the palpable fear extant in this post-9/11 environment, and of the cults and evangelical religions that capitalize off of this strained atmosphere. Shepard even incorporates the Christmas, 2004 Indonesian tsunami into the story’s underlying mythology.
I love the way Shepard introduces the fantasy elements into his story; the way the Fallen Angels, the Grigori, and “the Bottom” grow out of a perverse love story. The only drawback was the ending which, while emotionally satisfying, left me wanting more -- the "real" story seemed to be just beginning; the complex mythology of the angels and apocalypse just touched upon.
The Abimigique is a story I will definitely return to. Shepard has already announced on his Night Shade message board that there will be a "director’s cut" in his next collection, The Iron Shore (PS Publishing, 2006). One can hardly wait. Until then, this is one of my favorite stories to be published in 2005.