© Peter S. Beagle.
Peter Beagle’s first two fantasy novels, “A Fine and Private Place” and “The Last Unicorn” came into print in the 1960s, on a wave of interest in fantasy sparked by the success of Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings,” and in paperback from the same US publisher, Ballantine. Unlike many of the new fantasy authors that saw print then, Beagle has continued to write terrific fantasy, though for a while he worked on non-fiction as well as screenwriting, so the fantasy books were spaced apart by some years. In the last fifteen years, though, they’ve been coming along more regularly, and I’ve loved every one. If anything, I think he’s still getting better!
This new collection of stories reminds me of why I used to subscribe to and regularly read “The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction” in the 1960s through the early 1980s. Any of these stories could have found a home there in that magazine’s heyday. They represent a variety of themes, ideas and emotional resonance from the silly humor of a duel fought with a ghost using really bad poetry to the wry sadness of a New York City painter with a real angel as model. Other stories focus on a king who likes the idea of war but finds the reality far more than he bargained for, a couple in old Japan whose love is threatened by ambition (and one of them is a shape-shifter), a chilling account of a man of God’s visit to fairyland, a Brooklyn stickball game with surprising magic, and the title story about a man who not only reports the news, in some odd way he creates it, until a visit home changes things.
My favorite story is the last one, “Chandail.” It takes place in the world of Beagle’s fine novel “The Innkeeper’s Song,” and is told by the character Lal, a former female mercenary, now an aging storyteller. The tale she tells is a deeply emotional one about her own life, one that I found very moving. It’s also about some very strange sea-beasts that can bring people’s memories to life, even when they don’t wish it, which they usually don’t. There’s enough content here to fuel a much longer story, perhaps even a novel, but Beagle uses great care and conciseness to get it all across in 27 pages of the book, an amazing and admirable accomplishment. If, like me, you tend to prefer novels to short stories because you get a more satisfying chunk of “somewhere else” to visit, this collection will still provide you with much satisfaction. Highly recommended!