Strange Roads is a new 72-page chapbook from Peter S. Beagle. Comprised of three stories, it is available now from its publisher, DreamHaven Books, and also from Conlan Press.
The premise behind the collection is interesting — each of the stories is inspired by a different painting or sculpture from the talented Lisa Snellings-Clark, and these pieces serve as the illustrations in the collection. Mr. Beagle’s description of the specific process of this inspiration is described in the essay "Writing from Pictures," in his email newsletter, The Raven. (If you aren’t receiving The Raven, you can sign up for it at http://www.peterbeagle.com/raven. I recommend it.) All three stories were begun by Mr. Beagle in the space of a single hour, while sitting on the steps of his late parents’ house, as his business manager held a stopwatch to his head. It’s a genesis as unique as the stories themselves, with the sly humor, humanity, and awe of beauty that are characteristic of Mr. Beagle’s writing. Not to mention that irresistible touch of strange....
"Spook" is a frankly funny story. It features the return of Joe Farrell (whom Mr. Beagle describes as his “literary alter-ego”), previously seen in "Julie's Unicorn," "Lila the Werewolf," and The Folk of the Air. Farrell's artist lover, Julie Tanikawa, is offstage throughout "Spook," visiting relatives; this establishes the basic tension and time limits of the story, for as it happens Julie’s beautiful, perfect new studio is haunted by an unpleasant ghost, and Joe has to get rid of the thing before Julie comes home and freaks out. In this he is aided by his friend Ben and their mutual…acquaintance, the geeky and deeply annoying Andy Mac.
Characterization is one of Mr. Beagle’s strong points; so is a fine appreciation of the absurd. Both are shown to advantage in "Spook." Joe is miserably aware that Julie, though she loves him, would dump him at once if she had to choose between him and a good north light. Ben had arrived to help Joe move into the new studio; now he’s going along with the exorcism problem as if they had just found an infestation of mice, but his more rational self is offended by the whole thing. It’s also offended by the necessity of Andy Mac.
Andy Mac is arrogantly psychic, greedy, needy, petty and he hates Joe. Also, he smells dead. He is an hysterically accurate portrait of a kind of “sensitive” person whom most of us have met and loathed; a kind of human flu virus, whose main benefit is that surviving him will leave you immune to the problem for a while. But he’s good at what he does, and he manages to broker a deal with the ghost. It consents to a duel with Joe, winner take the studio and — much worse — Julie. As the challenged party, Joe gets to choose the weapon. He chooses bad poetry at 20 paces. And at this point, "Spook" becomes a vehicle for some of the funniest dreadful poetry ever committed to helpless paper.
One really has to wonder what sort of education left Mr. Beagle conversant with this awful stuff. One wonders it while groaning out loud, giggling helplessly and running off to Google the more egregious offerings in disbelief. Because all the poems are real; the only actual horror of this ghost story may be that the weapons-grade poesy flung about is all absolutely genuine. And it stays with the reader much more firmly than the most detailed description of any rampaging and bloody-minded spirit — The Ring can eat its heart out, because the poetry in "Spook" is a lot worse than any damp chick crawling out of the telly.
And incidentally, the cover of Strange Roads features the painting that inspired this story.
"King Pelles the Sure"
King Pelles rules a small, peaceful country; not the sort of place that needs or breeds heroes. But he longs for heroism, and dreams of a nice little war that will bring all the gold and scarlet and trumpet calls of the sort of saga he envies.
The Grand Vizier tries to dissuade Pelles, but to no avail. In an effort to avoid as much of the actual horror of war as possible, he therefore tries to carefully stage-direct the thing. King Pelles wants "...a gracious war, if you possibly can. Something...something a little tidy. With songs in it, you know." The war is eventually set in action like a tea party, by invitation only. But it is promptly crashed by the sort of people who really wage wars, and disaster ensues. King Pelles and his Vizier successfully escape: but Pelles is wracked with guilt. In the end, he finds a way to save not his poor country (which he suspects will be better off without him) but at least the lives of two virtuous men, and ultimately redeems himself.
This might be viewed as a children’s story: King Pelles and his Grand Vizier discuss the pros and cons of his longed-for adventure during afternoon sessions with the King’s toy soldiers on the parlor floor. The narrative is direct and simple, but it is the simplicity of tessellated tiles: small squares of single colors, but all backed by gold and glowing with a composite light greater than any one, tiny tile.
Told in the classic, semi-medieval style of the Innkeeper’s World tales, this is a deceptively brief piece. It’s also probably the deepest story in the collection. One is drawn inexorably and almost gently into Pelles’ awareness of the dreadful juggernaut he has unleashed. But one also sees his gradual evolution into a man who can take personal responsibility for what he has done. His fate is quiet and there are no trumpets at all, but he is sure of what he must do. Pelles at the end is undeniably a hero.
Unhappy citizens of any country whose leader has no clue of what war means will be left especially moved....
"Uncle Chaim and Aunt Rifke and The Angel"
"Uncle Chaim and Aunt Rifke and The Angel" is a semi-autobiographical story skewed a neat 90-degrees from reality. Mr. Beagle did have an artist uncle, like David, the young protagonist of the story (in fact, he had three, the famous Ukrainian-American social realist painters Raphael, Isaac, and Moses Soyer); like David, he did spend a lot of his youth watching one or another of his uncles work in their studios. And like David, he had no artistic talent, and so watched that particular process of creation in helpless wonder. Unlike David, though, his uncles’ muses stayed private and invisible.
But in this imagined world, Uncle Chaim — who claims that Goya and Matisse have always been inspiration enough — suddenly acquires an angel. She wears a blue gown and has hair the color of the sky just before dawn. She has wings, which prevent her from sitting down but don’t otherwise seem to hold her up; she flies by the Will of God, she informs Uncle Chaim. She also informs him that it is the Will of God that she come to him to be his sole model and muse from now on. Uncle Chaim is not impressed. David is, but he gets accustomed to her. He has to, since the angel does not leave; and Uncle Chaim, though he expresses considerable irritation at abruptly being saddled with an implacable celestial muse, gradually begins to paint nothing but the angel — all the time, in all manners and lights and shadows, endlessly, day after day. My favorite painting is described as the angel hovering upside down over an easel, reciting Pushkin, as "...Uncle Chaim thought he might be entering a surrealist phase." How much more surrealist does one have to get, with a stern blue angel as one’s muse?
Uncle Chaim is not obsessed, and the paintings sell well: but he really does paint nothing else, and gradually that begins to bother both David and Aunt Rifke, Chaim’s wife. This is a splendid story of place — the New York of Mr. Beagle’s childhood is beautifully described, the archetype of the special family habitats and habits that form all our first models of the world — but as Uncle Chaim paints the angel over and over, it slowly expands into a story of souls.
Men, we are taught, have souls; angels are souls. Humans therefore inhabit a fortress, which is their bodies — but the blue angel is unarmored in a thousand ways that gradually become exposed to the watching Aunt Rifke and David. This leads to a marvellous, tragic, and unexpected denouement, wherein it is discovered that angels are subject to all the woes of mortal flesh: except a way to save themselves. Redemption, it turns out, is a uniquely human skill.
In Strange Roads, Mr. Beagle has produced a marvelous little gallery. Get it, read these wonderful stories, and contemplate the ways art extends itself from medium to medium, from mind to mind.
[Strange Roads can be ordered at DreamHaven Books. Unsigned copies are available now, and signed copies will be available by April. For a little more money, personally autographed copies can be purchased through Conlan Press.]
illustration from Lisa Snellings-Clark's cover art for the 2008 DreamHaven Books edition of Strange Roads
Some Notes From Behind The Curtain [courtesy peterbeagle.com ]: