“I’ve always hated dragon stories, hated the entire elf-dragon-unicorn axis. The very notion of high fantasy causes my saliva to get thick and ropy. But as an exercise, I was attempting to create a dragon whom I could respect in the morning.”
That’s what Lucius Shepard told an interviewer in 2001, seventeen years after publishing “The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule,” a much-praised (but too-little-known) fantasy story starring one of the best fictional dragons of all time. As it turned out, my first Christmas gift of the season came from someone who knew I’d love this new hardcover volume, which collects all six of Shepard’s hard-to-find “Dragon Griaule” stories for the first time.
Griaule the dragon is 6,000 feet long, 750 feet high, awake, seething, but magically immobilized. Over the course of centuries, communities spring up on and around him, ecosystems flourish in the shadows of his wings, and his very presence casts a pall over fretful locals who’ve repeatedly failed to kill him—until a young artist named Meric Cattenay convinces the town fathers to pay him to spend half a century slathering the ancient dragon in beautiful but highly toxic paint.
“I don’t believe Griaule will be able to perceive the menace in a process as subtle as art,” Cattenay argues, a line that earned a laugh from my students (and from me) when I taught this story in 2009, but “The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule” quickly grows far beyond its amusing premise to become an eerie cautionary tale about creativity and the human costs of artistic obsession.
Subterranean Press has given The Dragon Griaule a pretty standard fantasy cover, but don’t be fooled; this isn’t Wyverns of Wonder, Book XXVII, but something cleverer, richer, and far more strange. Reviewers like to claim that a good fantasy or science-fiction book “transcends its genre,” but that’s a dreadful backhanded compliment, and Shepard deserves better than to be compared to the worst. He writes wry, fresh fantasy that uses old tropes to say things few other fantasy writers have bothered to say. Ambivalent about the genre, he tempers wonder with nagging doubt, knowing how hard it is to get others to open their minds. As Meric Cattenay’s admonishes the bitter, dragon-dwarfed townsmen: “It astounds me that you can live next to a miracle, a source of mystery, and treat him as if he were an oddly shaped rock.”