The Essential Peter S. Beagle Volume One

Read December 2022
Recommended for fans of fantasy shorts
★    ★    ★   1/2  

I’ve long been a fan of Peter S. Beagle. I’ve read all of his fiction and most of his short story collections, but this was in the pre-Goodreads days. I had been meaning to go back and re-read, when along comes the first of a two-volume collection of some of his short stories. The Universe (and Tachyon Publications) oblige! But I make no secret of my terrible memory; in fact, one of the reasons I joined Goodreads was to track the books I’ve read so that I could avoid that disconcerting experience of discovering I’ve read something before–a third into the book. But Beagle’s stories–ah, there’s nothing déjà vu about them–I remember them.  Professor Gottesman, Lady Death, Lila the Werewolf, and The Stickball Witch have all stuck in my memory despite reading decades ago, if not for the plot, than for the sentiment behind so many of them.

Beagle excels when his stories hit the intersection in the Venn diagram of memory, emotion, and feeling. Too far, they become a little more maudlin, another, more visceral. Professor is one of my favorites here, but will likely be more entertaining to those who recognize classical philosophers. The combination of a possibly deluded rhinoceros and the eccentric professor will never not amuse me, and I will always prefer its sweet ending.

“He would pour himself a glass of wine and sit down in the living room to debate philosophy with a huge mortar-colored beast that always smelled vaguely incontinent, no matter how many baths it had taken that afternoon.”

The Stickball Witch slides slightly into the other direction, a little less sweet and a little more… umami, I think. Not quite bitter, but rich and with a bite. I liked it, even more as an older reader. Despite being rooted in memory, it does a nice job of capturing an eleven year-old voice, cycling in and out.

“You couldn’t walk away from a double-dare, even from a dumbshit like Stewie. I mean, you could, but the rest of your life wouldn’t ever be worth living after that. I knew that then. Not believed. Knew.”

Speaking of endings, We Never Talk About My Brother is probably one of the best entries here. Like The Last Unicorn, it is a bitter gut-punch to feels. Framed as an interview, it’s a very different voice than the other stories.

“‘Declare to goodness,’ he said, and it wasn’t the smooth TV voice at all, but more like the way his mouth was born, as we say around here.”

El Regalo is a different but gentler version of a similar tale, and is a little easier to read. Beagle writes about his intention to turn it into a book. As a more modern young-adult urban fantasy, about a teenager and her younger brother who discovers he’s a witch, I’m sure it has a spot in the commercial market, but like The Last Unicorn, there’s a sense of age and consequence here that might miss the younger readers.

“Marvyn was utterly businesslike about lies: in a crisis he always told the truth, until he thought of something better. He said, ‘I’m warning you right now, you won’t believe me.'”

King Pelles follows that morality tale too far and lands a little outside delicious for me, but it’ll work for some as a twist on the fairy-tale setting. The Four Fables are a miss for me, mostly because fables have always missed me. I only read them as a youth because I had exhausted the fairy-tale section of the library. I like Beagle’s vividness, of course, but the inherent morality/consequence is too simple for his writing.

“‘Nobody is ever remembered for living out a dull, placid, uneventful life,’ he would say to his Grand vizier, whom he daily compelled to play at toy soldiers with him on the parlor floor.”

Spook and Lila are shorts nominally featuring Joe Farrell, of The Folk of the Air, and while it was sort of nice to see him again in Spook, the battle of wits verged a bit too far into the bitter for my taste. Lila, on the other side, feels too much of a wallowing in sexuality and is triggering for animal deaths–no doubt why it retained a negative feeling for all these years. Although Farrell’s problems in dating sound strangely familiar, so there may be an element there.

“The trouble is that I know her. That was the real mistake. You shouldn’t get to know people if you know you’re not going to stay with them, one way or another. It’s all right if you come and go in ignorance, but you shouldn’t know them.”

Uncle Chaim and Aunt Rifke and the Angel have something of the feel of Brother, Regalo and Professor, only slightly different tone. I liked it, but it didn’t hit me quite as deeply as the others. Lady Death edges into that bitter taste again, (and strong echoes of Masque of the Red Death), as does The Last and Only; or, Mr. Moscowitz Becomes French. A Dance for Emilia feels forgettable nostalgia. It’s beautifully written, but just doesn’t have any tension. The voice was 100% Farrell. Beagle notes that out of all the stories, it is the most personal.

“He was the first person I had ever met in my life who talked like me. What I mean by that is that both of us much preferred theatrical dialogue to ordinary Brooklyn conversation, theatrical structure and action to life as it had been laid out for us.”

As a final note, that introduction by Jane Yolen–yikes. While I usually admire her writing, she includes mention of a school shooting in it. How this slipped past editing–such a strange and non-sequitur way for her to work on her own catharsis, apparently–I do not understand. It’s a discordant note in an anthology about people who are one one-step removed from the world, or about a world that is open to the possibilities of the mystical.

Stephanie Law’s drawings are the perfect companion to his works. I’ve long been a follower of her art on Instagram and recognized the style as soon as I saw it here.  I wish I could see it in color, however, and not my black-and-white screen. Definitely not optimal. (Watch her do gold-leafing on Insta sometime. It’s wonderful).

Is it essential? I don’t know. Does it have an overview of everything Beagle is capable of? Absolutely. Does it contain some gems? Definitely.

Table of contents for the completionists in the house:

  • Peter Beagle: Bottling Talent by Jane Yolen
  • Professor Gottesman and the Indian Rhinoceros
  • Come Lady Death
  • Lila the Werewolf
  • Gordon, the Self-Made Cat
  • Four Fables:
  •      The Fable of the Moth
  •      The Fable of the Tyrannosaurus Rex
  •      The Fable of the Ostrich
  •      The Fable of the Octopus
  • El Regalo
  • Uncle Chaim and Aunt Rifke and the Angel
  • We Never Talk About My Brother
  • King Pelles the Sure
  • The Last and Only; or, Mr. Moscowitz Becomes French
  • Spook
  • The Stickball Witch
  • A Dance for Emilia


About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
This entry was posted in Book reviews, fantasy and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Essential Peter S. Beagle Volume One

  1. Ola G says:

    I got that on my list for January. I’ve only read a little of Beagle, so I’m quite intrigued!

  2. Pingback: THE ESSENTIAL PETER S. BEAGLE is an amazing overview of the grandmaster's short fiction - Tachyon Publications

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