Tag Archives: peter s beagle

Archive – Sleight of Hand – Peter S Beagle

Sleight of Hand
Peter S. Beagle, Tachyon, 326pp, pb

I first encountered Peter S. Beagle’s writing as a teenager when I read The Last Unicorn. It was love at first sight, a love further strengthened when I read his first novel, A Fine and Private Place, so different in subject matter yet so clearly a product of the same skewed imagination. Beagle laid out his themes early on and his best stories still return to them.

His men are often gauche but blessed with a way of putting right the deeper problems even as they fumble the everyday tasks, maybe learning a little more about themselves as well. Schmendrick, the magician from The Last Unicorn, is the classic example: in ‘The Woman Who Married the Man in the Moon’, set prior to the novel, he meets a widow and her two children, grieving for the loss of a husband and father. The story explores ways of dealing with life by telling stories, hardly an uncommon theme, but the encounter between magician and woman is so delicately drawn as to lift it out of the ordinary.

In turn, it picks up another regular theme in Beagle’s work. His characters are rarely the usual noble or evil inhabitants of epic fantasy. Instead, Beagle focuses on the ordinary people, whose smallholdings are destroyed as armies sweep by, or who make their living as servants or artisans. Indeed, the closer that Beagle moves to more conventional fantasy tropes the less interesting his stories seem to become, as though he loses sympathy for the characters. Thus, while I enjoyed the early sections of ‘What Tune The Enchantress Plays’ I found myself less engaged by Breya Drom once she assumed her powers as enchantress.

It is with the offbeat story that Beagle really shines. ‘La Lune T’attend’, in which Arcenaux and Garrigue, two Cajun old-timers who also happen to be werewolves are stalked by a third werewolf, seeking revenge, after they despatched him as punishment for a particularly vile murder, is undoubtedly a well-made werewolf story in its own right. However, what really makes this story is its portrayal of a long friendship between two men. Beagle has always written well about age, and oddly enough he also has a knack for writing about the young, as shown in ‘The Rock in the Park’, where two teenage boys encounter a family of centaurs in a New York park, and ‘The Rabbi’s Hobby’, in which an elderly rabbi and a teenage boy set out to discover the identity of a mysterious woman in a photograph. But again, as Beagle moves closer to the conventional, the stories don’t seem to work so well. ‘The Bridge Partner’ about a stalker promises much but lacks that certain spark while ‘Vanishing’ is saved only by the fact that its ageing protagonist, Jansen, is so well drawn.

Beagle strives for variety – there are several entertaining written-to-order pieces included here – but his métier is the closely observed character study. I wonder sometimes if Beagle isn’t a little too careful with his characters. He is very generous to them; they rarely die pointless deaths and they rarely die brutally. Violence is saved for those most deserving of it; Beagle’s is a very traditional view of the moral balance. Some stories teeter on the edge of sentimentality but Beagle invariably pulls back from the brink just in time. If he could be accused of anything, it would be of showing more compassion for his characters than is nowadays fashionable.

One probably either loves Beagle’s writing or else finds it a little maybe a little old-fashioned. Beagle himself has expressed a certain distaste for much modern fantasy writing. Nonetheless, few can match him when it comes to a particular mix of the fantastic and the ordinary, with a tinge of nostalgia. As one character observes, the magic is in the telling, always.

Archive – The Secret History of Fantasy – Peter S Beagle

The Secret History of Fantasy
Peter S. Beagle, ed., Tachyon, 377pp, pb

To title an anthology The Secret History of Fantasy is a bold move, not least because I am not convinced that the history of fantasy is so much secret as obscure; this is a fine distinction, but there is a difference nonetheless. In part, it is obscure because fantasy is so difficult to define. It is easy enough to point to a work of science fiction and label it as such, even when sf comes in so many forms. The science fiction genre almost invariably retains distinct edges; they may become vague in places, a little scuffed or trampled down, but it is still possible to draw a working division between what is science fiction and what is not.

With fantasy, the task is not so easily accomplished. Is it fantasy if the story remains within ‘our’ world, or must the story be set in a secondary world? Can there be free traffic between this world and that, or does that undermine the veracity of the fantasy? Magical realism? Interstitial? The definitions and distinctions pile up but never really satisfy, and the arguments continue. Perhaps, and this is the other reason why I believe the history of fantasy is obscure rather than actually secret, we should recognise that there is no single evolutionary chronology of fantasy. Instead, it is as though we are engaged in an endless process of rediscovering stories that have always been there, along with a continual redefining of those stories; to the best of my knowledge, urban fantasy has been reinvented at least three times during the last forty years, and looks very different to how I remember it in the 1980s, while the  slipstream/interstitial tango continues to provoke argument. And over all this argument looms the spectre of Tolkien, whose extraordinary narrative, The Lord of the Rings, accidentally created a genre

People either forget or indeed never knew that there was a very rich seam of the overtly fantastic present in mainstream fiction before Tolkien began publishing. After The Lord of the Rings became widely available in paperback editions, publishers were keen to exploit this new reading market. Ian Ballantine, in partnership with the irrepressible Lin Carter, began the  Adult Fantasy series, which brought an eclectic range of material from the likes of E.R. Eddison, William Morris and Lord Dunsany back into print, while introducing new authors such as Katherine Kurtz and Peter S. Beagle. They were marked as being ‘like Tolkien’, which they were insofar as they also contained elements of fantasy.

The Adult Fantasy series was ideal for the experimental reader, but as Peter S. Beagle notes, in the introduction to The Secret History of Fantasy, there were who simply wanted more Tolkien rather than more like Tolkien. He tells the chilling story of how Judy-Lynn Del Rey gave him the manuscript of The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks, hoping he would say a few appreciative words about it. Beagle quickly realised that Brooks’ novel was a blatant rip-off of Lord of the Rings which Del Rey acknowledged, saying ‘This one’s for people who’ve read the Tolkien book forty times, and can’t quite get it up for the forty-first – but they still want the mixture as before.’ At this point, Beagle suggests, fantasy writing was transformed into systematic production, and irrevocably changed.

The Secret History of Fantasy stands as a reminder that while fantasy is now a commodity, some writers still write stories which do not fit the generic template, though the markets remain limited. The acknowledgements page shows that while half of these stories were published in genre magazines, the others appeared in a variety of markets, reflecting the former eclecticism of mainstream publications where fantasy was concerned.

This collection avoids becoming an exercise in nostalgia because the stories are presented without much in the way of historical or theoretical positioning. Context, such as it is, comes from articles by Ursula K. Le Guin and David Hartwell, recapitulating the history of fantasy publishing, and the critical reception of fantasy by mainstream critics. This is familiar ground and both essays seem slightly detached, perhaps because they are reprinted from elsewhere. I would have preferred a more direct engagement between stories and commentary, something to develop the argument.

Likewise, we learn nothing about the authors other than their names. Most have published in genre markets; those, like Yann Martel, Aimee Bender and T.C. Boyle, who are published in the mainstream are recognised for their offbeat stories. The stories do indeed remind us that there is a greater variety to fantasy than many suppose but there are no surprises for the wide-ranging reader. The stories offer a wide range of subjects and settings, yet there are certain similarities. Something fantastically unquantifiable irrupts in the contemporary world (Stephen King’s ‘Mrs Todd’s Shortcut’ falls into this category, as does Kij Johnson’s ’26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss’) or else a fairytale trope is vigorously reworked (Francesca Lia Block’s ‘Bones’ and Neil Gaiman’s ‘ Snow, Glass, Apples’ are two examples). What all these stories have in common is a distinctive ‘tone’. The narration is generally measured; the stories themselves are deeply layered and open-ended. The reader is given a series of story pieces (sometimes blatantly, as in Steven Millhauser’s ‘The Barnum Museum’, with its distinctly postmodernist assembling of observations; sometimes more subtly, as in Terry Bisson’s ‘Bears Discover Fire’) which they must put together to produce a story. The narrative spreads far beyond the visible words on the page. Some may suggest that we are now talking about ‘literary’ fiction, the place where fantasy goes for respectability but that is an argument for another day.

In the end, The Secret History of Fantasy is nothing more or less than a showcase for a particular kind of fantasy, which is neither secret nor historical, just not immediately visible if you don’t know where to look. To me, reading the collection was rather like catching up with a much-valued friend. I enjoyed it immensely, and it is well worth reading, but it confirmed my tastes rather than challenging them. I hope other readers may find it eye-opening, inspiring even, but I remain obscurely disappointed.

More Things I Read on the Internet – 11/2/2014

Because yesterday’s link post got a bit out of hand, I saved some for today.


Anna Kavan Symposium, London, September 11th, 2014. Details here.

Current Research in Speculative Fiction has put out a Call for Papers for its fourth conference, to held in Liverpool, June 20th, 2014

In My Other Life

I like it when my areas of interest intersect. Here, and here, Ernesto Hogan talks about Joaquin Murrieta, the inspiration for Zorro, and a person of interest to me because the first known novel by a Native American is The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murrieta, by Yellow Bird, also known as John Rollin Ridge.

Some of you will also know that I rate Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick very highly. Indeed, I have voluntarily read it several times. Via Strange Maps, here is a map of the voyage of the Pequod.

Urban Studies

Ten Failed Utopian Cities

Stained Glass Greenhouse

In Translation

Translation at the Jaipur Literature Festival

Creepy Gothic Ruins

So, it turns out that Ann Radcliffe may (or may not) have written her mother-in-law into her fiction.

And a bonus piece extolling the virtues of Gustav Meyrink’s The Golem

Clips and Stills

Fascinating article on the film of Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn. Which I have seen but found a little too sweet for my taste. I vastly prefer the book.

Jessie Tarbox, photographer of New York in the early twentieth century.

Last Thoughts

A Pencil That Lets You Use It Until The End of Its Lead, leaving you with a stub of wood that you can do nothing with.

Another gem from Is Monsterful, and this … I have no idea. Just follow the whole thing.

A Life-Preserving Coffin in Doubtful Cases of Death