Short Fiction of Peter S. Beagle (various publishers, 1957-2008)

 

 

Short fiction is not the medium for which Peter S. Beagle is best known. For one thing, his novels are of such imposing stature that they have overshadowed his briefer works. For another, he hasn't written very many short stories over the last 50 years (yes, 50 years — his first story was published in 1957). And for a third thing, maybe the most important one: more than half of these stories have been written only in the last 7 years.

Why is this? Mr. Beagle is demonstrably not a late bloomer; his first novel was published in 1960, when he was 21. And yet there was only one short story in 1957; another in 1959; only 8 more during the ‘60's and ‘70's. Then, nothing more until 1992, 21 years after the publication of the legendary "Lila the Werewolf."

His first published story was "Telephone Call.". It's a set piece, a brief, bright tableau vivant presented in mid-movement: you're dropped in with no explanation. But so deft is the characterization and tidy the exposition that the plot unfolds with complete clarity. It is also a terrible little tale, an emotional horror story about the casual destruction of a young woman's hopes. It left me with goose-bumps.

The second one, "My Daughter's Name Is Sarah," was published in 1959. It too is a small, exquisite story, a mosaic portrait of a moment in time. A father's daughter is disappointed in puppy-love; a daughter's father tries, and fails, to prevent the first real pain of his child's life. Here, once again, is the economy which is one of the hallmarks of Mr. Beagle's storytelling. Every word is necessary, evocative and accurate.

Reading these stories, one is made aware of why Peter S. Beagle was hailed as a young genius of mainstream American literature. These are the kind of stories that made The Saturday Evening Post, The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly the icons they were and are.

His first novel, A Fine and Private Place was enthusiastically received, and not as genre fiction — it was one of the earliest examples of what is now called "magical realism", and was rightly praised for the depth and skill of its prose. However, mainstream critics were horrified by the subject matter of his second novel, The Last Unicorn. Despite its being every bit as brilliant as A Fine and Private Place, despite its destiny as one of the most enduring works of American fantasy, reviewers refused to regard The Last Unicorn as a work of serious literature and Peter S. Beagle fell off the radar of modern criticism. The earlier short stories, for all their skill, were forgotten. Only two more found publication in the next two decades: "Come Lady Death" in 1963, and "Lila the Werewolf" in 1971.

"Come Lady Death" is a chill, beautiful fable, wherein Death — a beautiful maiden — accepts an aging noblewoman's invitation to a ball in Her honor. The rich and powerful guests are enamored of Her beauty and eventually beg Her to stay among them; however, for Death to resume a human life, someone must take Her place. She finally chooses Her hostess as Her replacement, judging her to be the only one there cruel enough to do the job. The story is bitter and elegant, as finely balanced as an orrery of skulls. When a young poet begs Death to stay on earth, he declares, "We have become blind … especially to poetry."

One wonders what Mr. Beagle was thinking when he wrote that line. He himself says the story was written during his Wallace Stegner Fellowship course. His second-semester teacher was the Irish writer Frank O'Connor, who systematically managed to alienate every student in the class. Mr. Beagle was finally outraged at O'Connor's rejection of a fellow student's story "...which O'Connor brutally trashed because it was a fantasy." Peter wrote "Come Lady Death" (in a day and a half) to produce a fantasy O'Connor could not reject. O'Connor's final judgment: "This is a beautifully-written story. I don't like it."

Actually, I guess we do know what he was thinking...and maybe this is why we saw so few short stories until the 1990's.

Darkly scintillant, mordantly funny, "Lila the Werewolf" may be his most well-known short story. The prose is particularly well-crafted, sweeping the reader along on a marvelous tidal wave of domestic weirdness mixed with the mundane. Lila is neither especially sexy nor bright; her lover remembers her fondly, but mostly because he has since met women with stranger hang-ups. Lycanthropy is the least of Lila's problems, in the end. If she is cursed, it is only the standard mother-driven curse of most young women; which is somehow worse.

When I read it, it amazed me as a paradigm of modern fantasy, a truly fresh look at some of the bedrock tropes of fantastic fiction. And, looking back through the subsequent decades of fiction starring urban vampires, werewolves and ghouls, I see that I was correct. Mr. Beagle wrote the one of the first examples of the type, and it is still one of the best.

1992 saw "The Naga", a multi-layered explication of the nature and necessity of love. It's a beautiful retelling of Hindu legend, told in the voice of the Roman historian Pliny (Caius Plinius Secundus). Fallout from a combined television show/book that never got off the ground, it was finally published in The Rhinoceros Who Quoted Nietzsche. "Professor Gottesmann and the Indian Rhinoceros" (1995) and "Julie's Unicorn" (1996) were first published in Peter S. Beagle's Immortal Unicorn — an anthology that Mr. Beagle ostensibly co-edited, but to which in fact he only contributed these two stories. They make the book.

He was producing exquisite short tales, but they were getting lost in the labyrinthine courses of publishing, when they saw the light of day at all. However, in the 1990's Mr. Beagle also began his series of stories set in the universe of The Innkeeper's Song. Innkeeper's World stories have proven to be a magic mirror: not only for the readers who enter that wonderful place, but for the storyteller who has stepped back into the world of literature through them. From 1992 through 1997, nine stories were written, more than doubling Mr. Beagle's output to that date.

For those of you into the word count thing, consider this : 45,689 published words in eight pieces of published short fiction appeared between 1957 and 1996. Then the six Giant Bones stories all hit in one two-year writing period, and added up to 93,658 words. If you are a writer, this might be likened to the first spears of crocus emerging from the snow of your garden. And in this time, and in this metaphor, Mr. Beagle started to garden in earnest.

Late in 2001, Connor Cochran became Peter S. Beagle's friend and manager and set to work rehabilitating his career. The results have been miraculous.

In the six years since, 20-odd stories have been written and two-thirds of them have already been published. There are also a dozen or so in progress, commissioned by avidly desirous editors and slated for publication over the next two years:

— "Gordon, the Self-Made Cat" (in Peter's The Raven newsletter and The Line Between)

— untitled Monster short story (coming in 2009 from Blue Sky Press: Peter's first illustrated children's book)

— "Mr. Sigerson" (in Sherlock Holmes: The Hidden Years edited by Michael Kurland, and The Line Between)

— "Quarry" (an Innkeeper's World story, in F&SF magazine and The Line Between)

— "Two Hearts" (the Hugo and Nebula-winning coda/sequel to The Last Unicorn: in F&SF magazine, The Line Between, several Best Fantasy of the Year anthologies, and Nebula Awards Showcase 2008)

— "Barrens Dance" (an Innkeeper's World story, in Wizards: Magical Tales from the Masters of Modern Fantasy , edited by Gardner Dozois & Jack Dann)

— "Chandail" (an Innkeeper's World story, in Salon Fantastique, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, and We Never Talk About My Brother)

— "Eisenmacher" (short-short, not yet published)

— "El Regalo" (in F&SF magazine and The Line Between)

— "Salt Wine" (in Fantasy magazine and The Line Between)

— "The Fable of the Octopus" (written for The Line Between)

— "The Fable of the Ostrich" (Ibid.)

— "The Fable of the Tyrannosaurus Rex" (Ibid.)

— "Up the Down Beanstalk: A Wife Remembers" (for The Cinderella Game and Other Villainous Tales, an upcoming anthology edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling)

— "The Last and Only, or, Mr. Moscowitz Becomes French" (in Eclipse 1, edited by Jonathan Strahan, and We Never Talk About My Brother)

— "We Never Talk About My Brother" (in Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show #5, online, and We Never Talk About My Brother).

— "Spook" (a story inspired by the art of Lisa Snellings-Clark, in a chapbook from DreamHaven Books called Strange Roads, and We Never Talk About My Brother)

— "Uncle Chaim and Aunt Rifke and the Angel" (Ibid.)

— "King Pelles the Sure" (Ibid.)

— "What Tune the Enchantress Plays" (an Innkeeper's World story, in A Book of Wizards, edited by Marvin Kaye)

— "The Rabbi's Hobby" (for Eclipse 2, edited by Jonathan Strahan)

— "The Tale of Junko and Sayuri" (in Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show #9, online, and We Never Talk About My Brother)

Something organic has been happening with Mr. Beagle's writing. It's evolving. Birds do it, bees do it, fish in alien seas do it — but there is no guarantee that a writer's work will mature and grow. When a writer is already good, especially, there may be the tendency to homestead that plateau of excellence and not expand any further. This is not the case with Peter S. Beagle. His work has been marked from the first with extraordinary wisdom and beauty, which was remarkable in a writer who began so young. Now, the harvest of a full life has begun to spill out of his stories.

Consider "A Dance For Emilia" (2000). This is contemporary, not classic heroic fantasy; it's set Now, in the town of Avicenna, California, Mr. Beagle's version of his personal Here (the cities of Berkeley and Oakland). It's a ghost story, a love story, and a great cat story as a bonus. Sam, who wanted to be a dancer and was instead an Arts Critic, dies unexpectedly, leaving an old buddy, a young girlfriend and a geriatric cat. Ultimately, Jake (the old friend) and Emilia (the young lover) pull Sam back into the word with their desperate and incessant talking about him. He reappears for a strange, lovely 10 days of conversation and dance in the body of Millamant, the ancient Abyssinian cat. Sam dances like Shiva making the world; he returns to eternity pledging that he will forget every detail of himself before he forgets loving Emilia...and years later, he proves it. This is a powerfully wise story about life and the beloved dead, about how much they take away with them and how they give it back, if we are strong enough to live after them. The physical descriptions of the world and its temptations — silk suits, Whiskas cat food and omelets, baseball — are precise and perfect; one recognizes the lusts and longings of one's own life, in a kind of hyper-reality. And the image of Millamant dancing in the moonlit Avicenna kitchen will haunt me for a long time.

"Gordon The Self-Made Cat" (2003) could be presented as a children's story, but has much greater depth than most adults think kids understand. (Most adults are wrong.) A young mouse is told about cats, and decides this business of being prey sucks. He goes to cat school, becoming an official cat with such success that he becomes a terror to mice and a respected teacher at the cat school. But one day he meets a cat's nemesis: is it pride? Fear? A really big dog? The reader may decide, but Gordon sets off at the end to remake himself again. One has no doubt he will succeed. The story is lively, clear, slyly multi-layered and very, very funny. The wry self-awareness occasionally displayed by Schmendrick is completely mastered by Gordon. Mr. Beagle demonstrates that even the most determined need the leaven of hope to keep them going.

"Two Hearts" (2005). This is The Big One — the Hugo and Nebula winner, the sequel to The Last Unicorn. And it is exquisitely lovely. But like The Last Unicorn, it's not quite what was expected: it's better. With classic Beagle-esque wisdom, it is not a mere sequel. The continued adventures of Amalthea, Schmendrick, Molly and Lir could have been mere mechanics; instead, their long lives and growing love are subtly implied, hinted at off-stage while the core story is related by a 9-year old girl. They are extraordinary people, and Sooz (to whom almost everything is new and amazing anyway) sees them clearly in the shock of beholding them whole from first glimpse. Because she sees them brand-new, so does the reader — all the fabulous history of their lives follows like a gossamer cloak or a shadow, coloring the present of the story without hiding it at all. This is superb writing, wherein Mr. Beagle takes all the well-loved bones of his most famous story and clothes them in fresh young flesh. The story does not simply continue. It grows and promises more.

And it is still, like The Last Unicorn, a story about love and faith, more than anything else. Eagle heart and lion heart. Devotion and Justice, Duty and Love, Bravery and Faith. The two hearts of a gryphon, and also of Lir or Sooz. Two hearts entwined, whether between the lover and the loved or in the solitary breast — one needs to hit both, to kill a gryphon or to live as a hero.

What is emerging from Mr. Beagle's short fiction is an expanding vision of love and the meaning of being human. He seems to look at the world through a prism, and then write with an intense focus about what he sees through each different facet. In these recent years, his focus has gotten sharper and closer. Many of the post-2000 stories, unlike his first two novels, are in first person, which makes the emphasis on the struggle toward love and humanity even more immediate.

Hope and love are constant themes, even in the darker stories. "We Never Talk About My Brother" (2007) is an initially grim twist on the Biblical story of Jacob and Esau (go look it up — I shouldn't have to explain!). Young Esau can make whatever he says become true — not after the fact, but before: when he says a thing is so, it has ALWAYS been so. He declares the death of a childhood enemy, and later of a girl who jilted him, and though the offenses came first, their deaths are in the past and everyone knows they were always true. Esau becomes a newscaster, declaiming doom and horror on the evening news: and everything he says becomes true. Only his brother, Jacob, remembers what has actually happened and realizes that Esau is riding a wave of self-indulgent dark power. But Jacob has the power, too, and finally — when Esau comes home to gloat — Jacob turns the table and the tide, and steals his brother's birthright at last … to begin slowly, slowly, healing the world.

This is strong stuff, devastatingly accurate in emotion. (There's a fascinating speculation on why the Bible makes so little sense, too, and why people believe it anyway.) The desires to create and destroy may be the basis of what "human" means, and Mr. Beagle strips both ruthlessly to the core to illustrate the fact.

"What Tune the Enchantress Plays" (2008) is set in the Innkeeper's World that Mr. Beagle established in The Innkeeper's Song and Giant Bones. It is a long, sweetly romantic reminiscence, shared by an enchantress with a demon she is about to destroy, about her life-long battle with her enemies and her relatives. It's hard to tell the difference by the end. This one is bitter-sweet and lingers chillingly, but love does triumph. It's a happy ending when the bad guys lose, right? Even Mr. Beagle's most fantastic stories are always firmly planted in reality.

There are some outright fun stories, too, laugh-out-loud funny and light-hearted. "Spook" (2008) is a faux-sinister ghost story that turns out to be a celebration of really BAD poetry. The true horror is that the appalling doggerel quoted therein is real... "Up The Down Beanstalk: A Wife Remembers" (scheduled for 2009) is a newspaper tell-all from the viewpoint of Mrs. Giant: loving wife, unappreciated housekeeper and maybe, just maybe, husband-killer. It's hilarious, especially in its British-housewife chattiness. Or if your clean kitchen has ever been invaded by small boys and large drunken men.

These lovely, lesser tales of Mr. Beagle's have been neglected for much too long. All are good, most are great, and the reading public needs to have them. But we can rejoice. Suddenly, there are new Peter S. Beagle stories out there. If you somehow haven't discovered them yet, seek out The Rhinoceros Who Quoted Nietzsche, The Line Between, Giant Bones, and the upcoming We Never Talk About My Brother — all collections, all chock full of this new harvest of stories.

In the last 18 months, small presses like Tachyon Publications and Subterranean Press have been resolutely bringing out these new beauties, and re-printing the old treasures like A Fine and Private Place and The Last Unicorn: The Lost Version. (The Last Unicorn itself has been continuously in print since 1968, with the most recent printing published by Roc.) We can look forward to the goodies even now in preparation for anthologies like The Beastly Bride, Urban Werewolves (and who better to contribute than the father of Lila?), and Orson Scott Card's webzine Intergalactic Medicine Show. There will even be an entire quartet of tales specifically for us here at Green Man Review.

Mr. Beagle brings a devastating clarity and force to the shorter narrative forms. It may well be that the short story is Peter S. Beagle's real métier: short enough to showcase the perfect mosaic style at which he excels, but packing a hell of a punch. The tales can be read so quickly, and they stay with one for so long.

Peter S. Beagle is BACK.

 

[Kathleen Bartholomew]

illustration from Lisa Snellings-Clark's artwork for Peter's 2008 Dreamhaven Press three-story chapbook, Strange Roads




Some Notes From Behind The Curtain [courtesy peterbeagle.com ]: