lew shiner, elvis, and “mystery train”

Es­ti­mated reading time is 5 min­utes.

I DON’T NOR­MALLY DO BOOK RE­VIEWS be­cause I find it dif­fi­cult to com­mu­ni­cate my en­thu­siasm without in­cluding spoilers. But here I offer a short story re­view. Twenty-five years ago, I was turned on to Lew Shin­er’s novel Glimpses. I loved the book and found Shiner’s other novels and read them and I be­came a fan.

To show you how big a fan, I be­came friends with him and we col­lab­o­rated on a huge writing project for the Tell It Like It Was pub­li­ca­tion on Medium. Heck, he came up with the name for the damn pub­li­ca­tion! But that’s an­other story.

Lew Shin­er’s “Mys­tery Train” is a journey into a won­drous land whose bound­aries are that of imagination.

A lot of Lew’s fic­tion in­volves music—mostly rock music. This in­cludes the fol­lowing novels:

 Slam (1990)
 Glimpses (1993)
 Say Goodbye: The Laurie Moss Story (1999)
 Out­side The Gates Of Eden (2019)

While Dark Tangos (2011) is not about rock music, it does in­volve music and dance. But it’s his short sto­ries that are cen­tered around rock & roll that I am fo­cusing on here. Well, ac­tu­ally it’s a short story about Elvis in a slightly dif­ferent al­ter­na­tive universe.

In this story, which the au­thor ti­tled after Pres­ley’s fifth Sun record, you’ll travel through an­other di­men­sion, a di­men­sion not only of sight and sound but of mind. It’s a journey into a won­drous land whose bound­aries are that of imagination.


Mystery Train: publicity photo of Elvis from the 1960 movie G.I. BLUES.

This is a pub­licity photo for G.I. Blues, prob­ably taken in May or June 1960. For his fans, this was the be­gin­ning of the bland new Elvis that would dom­i­nate the next few years.

Mystery Train

The short story “Mys­tery Train” first ap­peared in the May 1983 issue Oui mag­a­zine. Here is the opening scene of that story:

As he climbed the stairs, Elvis popped the cap off the pill bottle and shook a couple more Dexedrines into his palm. They looked like pink candy hearts, lying there. He tossed them into the back of his throat and swal­lowed them dry.

‘Hey, Elvis, man, are you sure you want to keep taking those things?’ Charlie was half a flight be­hind, drunk and out of breath. ‘I mean, you been flying on that shit all weekend.’

‘I can handle it, man. Don’t sweat it.’ Ac­tu­ally the last round of pills hadn’t af­fected him at all, and now his mus­cles burned and his head felt like a bowling ball. He col­lapsed in an arm­chair in the third floor bed­room, as far as pos­sible from the noise of the re­porters and the kids and the girls who al­ways stood out­side the house. ‘In three weeks we’re out of here, man. Out of Ger­many, out of the Army, out of these god­damn uni­forms.’ He un­tied his shoes and kicked them off.

‘Amen, brother.’

‘Charlie, turn on the god­damn TV, will you?’

‘Come on, man, that thing’s got a re­mote con­trol, and I ain’t it.’

‘Okay, okay.’ Elvis lunged for the re­mote con­trol box and switched on the brand-new RCA color con­sole. It was the best money could buy, the height of Amer­ican tech­nology, even if Ger­many didn’t have any color trans­mis­sions to pick up with it.

Charlie had col­lapsed across the bed. ‘Hey, Elvis. When you get home, man, you ought to get your­self three dif­ferent TVs. I mean, you’re the king, right? That way, not only can you fuck more girls than any­body and make more money than any­body and take more pills than any­body, you can watch more TV than any­body, too. You can have a dif­ferent god­damn TV for every channel. One for ABC . . .’ He yawned. ‘One for NBC . . .’ He was asleep.

‘Charlie?’ Elvis said. ‘Charlie, you light­weight.’ He looked around the edge of the chair and saw Char­lie’s feet hanging off the end of the bed, heel up and per­fectly still.

To hell with it, Elvis thought, flip­ping through the chan­nels. Let him sleep. They’d had a rough weekend, dri­ving into Frank­furt in the BMW and picking up some girls, skating on the icy roads all across the north end of Ger­many, hit­ting the booze and pills. In the old days it had an­noyed Elvis mightily that his body couldn’t tol­erate al­cohol, but ever since one of his sergeants had given him his first Dexedrine he hadn’t missed booze at all. Charlie still liked the bottle, but for Elvis there was nothing like that rush of power he got from the pills.

Well, there was one thing, of course, and that was being on stage. It was not quite two years now since he’d been inducted–since Monday, March 24, 1958, and he’d been counting the days. The Colonel had said no USO shows, no nothing until he was out. No­body got Elvis for free.

The Colonel had come to take the place of his mother, who had died while Elvis was still in basic, and his fa­ther, who had be­trayed Gladys’s memory by seeing other women. There was no one else that Elvis could re­spect, that he could look to for ad­vice. If the Colonel said no shows then that was it.”

The full story is 3,364 words long while the sec­tion above is only 555 words. To read Mys­tery Train in its en­tirety, click here.


Mystery Train: cover of Lew Shiner's COLLECTED STORIES from Subterannean Press (2015).

Lew Shin­er’s Mys­tery Train can also be found in Col­lected Sto­ries, pub­lished by Sub­ter­ranean Press in 2015.

Fiction Liberation Front

Here are a few words from Lew Shin­er’s man­i­festo for his web­site, Fic­tion Lib­er­a­tion Front:

“There’s been no living to be made from short sto­ries in my life­time. But short fic­tion en­dures be­cause it pro­vides a way of in­tro­ducing writers to new readers, and be­cause there are sto­ries that need to be told at that length.

For all these rea­sons I’ve de­cided to open my­self to this un­cer­tain fu­ture. Starting now, I plan to make all my short fic­tion and ar­ti­cles avail­able on the web, both in HTML for easy browsing and in typeset PDFs for those who might want to print them. The process of con­ver­sion will take a while, but I hope to get to every­thing even­tu­ally, in­cluding a number of pre­vi­ously un­pub­lished pieces and even some un­sold screenplays.

The dra­matic title I’ve given this project—Fiction Lib­er­a­tion Front—is a bla­tant at­tempt to at­tract at­ten­tion. The main reason I write these things, after all, is for people to read them. I hope you’ll come back reg­u­larly to see what’s new.”

This ar­ticle is not the first time that I have written about the writing of Lewis Shiner. In fact, “Lew Shiner, Elvis, And Mys­tery Train” is a com­panion piece to “Lew Shiner, Elvis, And Steam En­gine Time,” which you can read here.

Lew Shin­er’s short story ‘Mys­tery Train’ about Elvis in the Army is a journey into a won­drous land whose bound­aries are that of imag­i­na­tion. Click To Tweet

Mystery Train: scene of Elvisand fellow actors Mystery Train: scene with Elvis and James Douglas and Robert Ivers from the 1960 movie G.I. BLUES.

FEA­TURED IMAGE: The photo at the top of this page was cropped from this still from the 1960 movie G. I. Blues. The ac­tors playing Elvis’ Army bud­dies here are James Dou­glas and Robert Ivers. 


Elvis GoldSuit

POST­SCRIP­TU­ALLY, if you want to see ac­tual photos of Elvis during his final days as a member of the US Army in Ger­many and Fort Dix in March 1960, refer to “Re­turn of the King: When Elvis Left the Army.”



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