The Essential Peter S. Beagle: Volumes I and II by Peter S. Beagle
It’s a good time to be a Peter S. Beagle fan. In short order this mid-year, we’ve been gifted The Way Home — two novellas set in the world of the beloved classic The Last Unicorn — and two collections of Beagle’s short stories: The Essential Peter S. Beagle: Volumes I and II. And true gifts they are. You can see my review of the novellas here, while I’ll review both volumes of the collected stories below.
The two volumes span Beagle’s lengthy career, with most of them having been published earlier, though several of the stories appear for the first time here. And of course, with any such retrospective collection, the point is not so much new material but to have the author’s work all in one convenient place. The other benefits, beyond convenience, is that reading the stories through allows the reader to pick up on Beagle’s repeated themes, images, character types (or actual characters, as Beagle has several that people multiple tales), and the like, while also giving the reader a more full and intimate sense of the author behind the stories. This latter is especially true in these collections as despite being fantasy stories, few of these are set in fantasy worlds or even far-flung geographies but instead are grounded quite deeply and solidly in Beagle’s own past, as his brief intros to each story make clear.
That life includes a childhood growing up Jewish in the Bronx and an adulthood spent in California, and those two setting are the background for a good number of these stories. While the California tales feel more neutral, the Bronx stories have a deep emotionality to them as well as a not-unexpected sense of nostalgia and a mourning for the loss of those mostly innocent days of adolescent friendship. While “fantasy writer” nowadays calls up images of multi-book series set in wholly-created worlds, while we do get the occasional dragon or unicorn here, the setting and Jewish background/folklore, along with the mix of grief and humor, are more reminiscent of an Isaac Bashevis Singer story or the Bernard Malamud of The Magic Barrel (rather than his novels), while Beagle’s depictions of childhood and his sense of nostalgia for that age and the deep attachment to a specific geography reminded me of Ray Bradbury’s Waukegan stories, though the two are wildly different in the details.
Thematically, along with the nostalgia for a vanished childhood and inevitability of loss that comes with living, other topics that run throughout the two books are the power of imagination/creativity and the joys (and griefs) of deep abiding friendships, whether they be as children, as adolescent, as adults, or inter-generational. Several of his Beagle’s childhood friends (or at least, characters based on them as he tells us) appear in multiple stories, while two stories are pretty much out and out odes to his good friend and fellow writer Avram Davidson. The stories display a variety of form and style, and if they aren’t all home runs, many are, and the rest are always entertaining enough and always contain at least a few wonderful sentences; Beagle has always been, beside a great storyteller, an excellent wordsmith/sentence crafter. And what’s “essential” here is not any single story but wholeness of Beagle’s craft and mind at work, and the feeling one has at the end that they’ve formed a relationship not just with the author’s characters, but the author himself. And if it’s an illusory one, well, that’s pretty apt for the material here. You can stop here with a “highly recommended” from me or read on with some responses to specific stories.
My favorites from Volume I:
- “A Dance for Emilia”: A story about the too-early death of a friend and the way grief brings mourners and the mourned together (in fantasy, one gets to make that literal), all of it suffused with Beagle’s usual bittersweetness. This one alone is worth purchasing the collection for. A standout story.
- “Come Lady Death”: A fantastic story that plays a bit with Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death” as a somewhat jaded great lady decides to spice up her newest ball by inviting Death. Perfect pacing, sharply drawn characters despite the brevity of the descriptions, perfect close, and a great and unexpected Death.
- “Professor Gottesman and the Indian Rhinoceros”: A Thurber-esque like story about a professor who ends up in a rich friendship with a rhinoceros that thinks it’s a unicorn or a unicorn the professor thinks is a rhinoceros. Warmhearted, tender, and quite funny, though admittedly, some knowledge of philosophy, while by no means required, will make it all the more fun.
- “Uncle Chaim and Aunt Rifke and the Angel”: A good story if perhaps a little over-long, centered on the young narrator’s uncle, an artist who is visited by an angel (or is it) sent to act as his muse and pose for him. All the characters are brought memorably to life as the story goes in unexpected directions
- “Gordon the Self-Made Cat”: If “Professor Gottesman” feels like Thurber and “Uncle Chaim” like Singer (just to be clear—they both feel way more like Beagle), this has more than a hint of E.B.White. Gordon the mouse decides this whole predator-prey thing is ridiculous, and so he takes himself off to cat school, where he excels at learning how to be a cat via classes like “Dealing with Dogs and another on Getting Down From Trees …Running and Pouncing . . . Waiting for the Prey to Forget You’re Still There, … Tail Etiquette, The Elegant Yawn, [and] Sleeping in Undignified Positions.” Gordon doesn’t end up getting everything he wants (it wouldn’t be a Beagle story otherwise) but one has a sense he’ll be fine. A pitch-perfect voice, a wonderful sense of whimsy, and a great ending. Seriously, this should be a chapter book followed by an animated short.
- “The Stickball Witch”: One of Beagle’s “memory” tales involving his childhood friends, like many of Beagle’s stories it shows us the magic in the everyday. More specifically, it has fun with the classic “old neighbor every kid in the neighborhood is terrified of” story
Favorites from Volume II:
- “The Rabbi’s Hobby”: probably my favorite of the two books. The story veers back and forth between the young narrator’s anxiety over learning Hebrew for his bar mitzvah and the quest he and the rabbi tutoring him set themselves on to find a young woman whose image in a photograph struck them both deeply. Warm, funny, a wonderful depiction of an inter-generational relationship, and a profound mediation on loss. Some of the best aspects are what Beagle doesn’t do here — plot moves that a lot of lesser writers would have chosen, though I won’t go into detail to avoid spoilers.
- “La Lune T’Attend”: a riveting werewolf story (I liked this one far better than the one in Volume I) where the werewolves are two old men who have shared a horrible secret (beyond being werewolves) for much of their lives, one that now threatens not only them but their families.
- “The Vanishing” an old man falls asleep in a waiting room and wakes up back in his old life as a soldier on the Berlin Wall, with his old Russian counterpart on the other side also there. A well-paced story of guilt and atonement, both in the past and present.
- “The Bridge Partner”: a taut, suspenseful little quasi-horror story that begins, believe it or not, at a bridge game. There, mousy little Mattie is matched up with a new partner who at the end of the game whispers to her, “I will kill you.” Things only get more tense after that.
- “Sleight of Hand” A woman, after an unspeakable tragedy, goes off for a mindless drive to try and escape her life and runs into a magician from her childhood who is much more than he seems. Another exploration of grief and love, the story itself is good, but it has some of the finest sentences in it of the collection.
- “The Rock in the Park” Another “childhood” story, and also another where a moment of magic breaks through the usual routines, in this case, a family of lost centaurs. Also a good look at the power of art/creativity.
- “The Story of Kao Yu” Set in ancient China and focused on the main character, a judge who falls in love with a thief brought before him. A good story but this one won me mover mostly for the perfect voicing.
- “Trinity County CA”: a truly fun “what if” story — what if dragons are real, and what if drug dealers use them to guard their meth labs. Suspenseful, action packed, great dialogue, wonderful depiction of the dragons, and a perfect type of story in that magical realism way of changing just one thing about the world.