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:
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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
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.
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.”
Mystically liberal Virgo enjoys long walks alone in the city at night in the rain with an umbrella and a flask of 10-year-old Laphroaig who strives to live by the maxim, “It ain’t what you know that gets you into trouble; it’s what you know that just ain’t so.
I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn, and a college dropout (twice!). Occupationally, I have been a bartender, jewelry engraver, bouncer, landscape artist, and FEMA crew chief following the Great Flood of ’72 (and that was a job that I should never, ever have left).
I am also the final author of the original O’Sullivan Woodside price guides for record collectors and the original author of the Goldmine price guides for record collectors. As such, I was often referred to as the Price Guide Guru, and—as everyone should know—it behooves one to heed the words of a guru. (Unless, of course, you’re the Beatles.)