It must be hard to be a literary icon, late in your career. You’ve ascended the literary heights and amassed an adoring following who still expect you never to repeat, and even improve upon your previous genius with each new work. But I’m not sorry for Peter S. Beagle, nor his latest short story collection The Overneath, which came out in November of 2017.
Most striking, to me, is that Beagle manages each new tale with a distinct, and yet perfectly effortless narrative voice. No problem with that whole repetition worry. There is none here. His narratives roll out rich in otherworldly wonder.
He does revisit the unicorn theme in this collection with both Chinese “Kao Yu” and Near Eastern inspired “My Son Heydari and the Kakadann” stories of the unicorn, both of which I found thoroughly engrossing. Beagle writes convincingly in Chinese cultural context. I have been surprised how often writers try and fail to manage it. He touches these tales with the authenticating sensation of the long ago and far away. Also notable is the appearance of Schmendrick, from The Last Unicorn. If you love the classic, you may well enjoy reading into Schmendrick’s fumbling education at Nikos’ knee.
Beagle does not confine himself to unicorns, or the ancient, however. He leaps from fantasy to speculative, to steampunk, to horror. Other stories include: “The Green-Eyed Boy” and its sequel “Schmendrick Alone,” “The Way it Works Out and All,” “Kaskia,” “Great-Grandmother in the Cellar,” “The Queen Who Could Not Walk,” “Trinity County,” “Underbridge,” “Music,” “When Soft Voices Die,” “The Very Nasty Aquarium,” and “Olfert Dapper’s Day.”
I won’t say I enjoyed all of the stories equally. He ranges too wide in style for that. And as much as I enjoyed many of these stories, they cannot compare to The Last Unicorn. There. I said it. It must be tough to be compared to your own genius self every time you publish a new book.
I find that I generally prefer Peter S. Beagle’s short fiction to his longer works — excepting The Last Unicorn, of course, a novel which I adore for what I feel are Obvious Reasons — primarily because, to my mind, his ideas and language-play shine brightest when confined to a smaller space with less room to meander off-track. That’s often the case within The Overneath, his latest short-story collection; some pieces were more successful for me than others, but there’s enough variation here that a broad swath of readers should easily find half a dozen or more stories which suit them just fine.
For my part, my favorites are “The Story of Kao Yu,” “The Queen Who Could Not Walk,” “Trinity County, CA,” “Kaskia,” “Great-Grandmother in the Cellar,” “Underbridge,” “Music, When Soft Voices Die,” and “Olfert Dapper’s Day.” Each of these stories display Beagle’s talents in the best possible light: his patient understanding of the best and worst of human nature; his ear for natural dialogue and storytelling; his appreciation for historical or cultural details that add a ring of authenticity which most authors would simply bypass.
Some of the stories, like “My Son Heydari and the Karkadann,” “The Way it Works Out and All,” and “The Very Nasty Aquarium,” had entertaining or interesting elements to them, but simply didn’t appeal to me as much as the titles listed above. Sometimes this was because the writing or characterization weren’t as strong as the others, or because they seemed to lack that specific Beagle touch that I was looking for.
Two stories meant to provide insight into the apprenticeship and incipient magicianhood of Schmendrick, “The Green-Eyed Boy” and “Schmendrick Alone,” were interesting, but didn’t provide any new insight or appreciation for a character who’s already been established as deeply tragicomic. His portrayal in The Last Unicorn is already so sensitive, sympathetic, and tinged with sadness that I didn’t need to see yet more instances of him fumbling through spells or humiliating himself in front of a crowd.
With that said, there honestly isn’t a bad story in the entirety of The Overneath. Even stories that aren’t to my personal taste are obviously well-written, and Beagle’s care for his craft and his characters is obvious on every page. If you haven’t read any of Beagle’s short fiction before, The Overneath would be an excellent place to start.