Read February 2023
Recommended for fans of short stories
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Delightful. If Volume One was truly the essential collection, the works he has been known for and that people might bring up when you say, ‘oh, yes; Peter S. Beagle’s short stories, I remember that one,’ this volume is emblematic of the skill, emotional complexity, and sheer fun he is capable of bringing to his writing. There were only a couple that were familiar to me, despite owning most of his published collections (of course, we probably have to allow for my memory, but still). Perhaps the ‘essential’ refers to the essence of a person; most of these works have some autobiographical element, whether it is childhood relationships or the explorations of a dear friend.
The introduction by Meg Elison is brilliant and appropriate; so much better than the prior collection.
Sleight of Hand: classic Beagle about a woman in the initial stages of profound loss. The main character is a little too single-noted to obtain the emotional resonance in his other stories.
Oakland Dragon Blues was just this side of corny, but I love the choice of policeman as narrator. I forgive Beagle writing himself in, because it was fun and has really great bits:
“A creature out of fairy tales, whose red eyes, streaked with pale yellow, like the eyes of very old men, were watching him almost sleepily, totally uninterested in whatever he chose to do. But watching, all the same.”
Just tell me you haven’t walked past an old man like that on his porch.
The Rock in the Park: The fall entry in the childhood series from The Green Man Review. “There are whole countries that aren’t as territorial as adolescent boys.” I adore the idea of the map, and love the nod to the visual arts.
The Rabbi’s Hobby: an unexpected standout that might stay in my favorites. It has the feel of time period fiction, centered a young man experiencing larger-than-life anxiety facing his bar mitzvah. Both he and his rabbi become distracted by series of magazine photographs: “When we were at last done for the day–approximately a hundred and twenty years later–Rabbi Tuvim went on as though I had just asked the question.” A mixture of low-stakes comedy and high-stakes memories.
The Way It Works Out and All: Beagle’s friend Avram sends him a series of unlikely postcards When he runs into him in NYC, he takes the narrator on a tour of the Overneath: “He had been born in Yonkers, but felt more at home almost anyplace else, and I couldn’t recall ever being east of the Mississippi with him, if you don’t count a lost weekend in Minneapolis.”
The Best Worst Monster is a fun little children’s type story of a monster who decides not to monster. A little less heavy-handed than most of the type.
La Lune T’Attend is a modern werewolf tale, more or less, a Creole counterpoint to Lila the werewolf and ultimately, far more satisfying. I loved the dynamic of the two old men.
The Story of Kao Yu is the story of a traveling Chinese judge, his retainers and the unicorn who occasionally visited his court: “China is one of the few countries where sadness has always been medically recognized.” Now this is how to modernize a Judge Dee tale.
Trinity County, CA: You’ll Want to Come Again and We’ll Be Glad to See You! is a modern urban fantasy setting. What if the county needed animal control for all the illegal dragons? Nice interplay of older, experienced worker and ‘new blood’ coming into the job.
Marty and the Messenger is a strange little story loosely based on Beagle and his childhood friends, but with a silly twist. “But I was great on aptitude tests, where you didn’t actually have to know anything.” Definitely captures the feel of potential at that age.
The Mantichora was written especially for this collection. Avram is a researcher who goes to talk with the last mantichora, but pushes his luck: “It went on all night, and by pale morning, A.D. was an older man.”
Mr. McCaslin: another one of the ‘back when we were kids’ stories, Mr. McCaslin was the Irish neighbor suffering from a lung ailment: “We were kids: we had all known people who had died, but never anyone actually in the process, sentence spoken, date of execution set.” When he asks him for a favor, they agree.
The Fifth Season: The last story about Peter and his three friends–he’s almost sure–about a farewell moment in the neighborhood park. Reminded me very much of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes in every way but plot. “He made a soft sound that I can still summon up, even after so much time, and never will.”
Tarzan Swings by Barsoom: of them all, this is my least favorite. Having not been party to Tarzan nor John Carter, it isn’t particularly entertaining, turnabout or no.
The Bridge Partner: a surprising story from Beagle, who I often associate with a more fantastical, dreamy mysticism; this delves into the cat and mouse between a killer and her intended prey. Initially alarming, it was a very good read. One of the ones I recalled, which says something for staying power.
Vanishing: Beagle writes that this was a challenging, ‘kidney stone’ of a story that went through eleven drafts, about a grandfather about-to-be who finds himself revisiting his memories guarding The Berlin Wall. It’s a curious choice to include in this collection, full as it is of childhood and transitional moments.
The final section contains ‘Abouts’ for each of the contributors: Peter S. Beagle, Meg Elison and Stephanie Law. These were short and sweet. I enjoyed reading more of what Elison is up to since Book of the Unnamed Midwife, but as an admirer of the other two, didn’t contain any new details.
My only complaint, truly, is that my Paperwhite Kindle can’t do justice to Stephanie Law’s illustrations. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a more suitable author-artist pairing, and I would love to see these in color. I guess I’ll content myself with her Instagram. Highly recommended for fans of the fantastic and short stories.
Four and a half stars, rounding up. Lovely writing, evocative moods; if each story wasn’t amazing, the collection as a whole is.
Many, many thanks to NetGalley and to Kasey Lansdale at Tachyon Publications for an advance reader copy. As always, my opinions my own. As always, quotes subject to change, but I think they give a lovely flavor of the writing.