Things I Like, Part 2

Peter Beagle, or rather his work, as he is not a “thing” but a living author. I would probably like him as a person aside from said work, but we’ve never met and at this rate we’re likely never going to do so. I haven’t been to a convention since World Fantasy in Austin, lo these several years ago. Peter Beagle was there, so I did get to hear him read, which was a treat. Frankly, I’ve never read a Peter Beagle story I didn’t like, and the ones I love, I love a lot.

Of course, you can’t discuss Beagle without a mention of The Last Unicorn, the story of a greedy king who imprisons all the unicorns in the world for his own enjoyment, except one, and Schmendrick, the walking trainwreck of a wizard and the world-worn former young maiden Molly Grue who attempt to aid that unicorn on her quest to find and free the others. It’s a novel, and extended metaphor, and a deserved classic. If you think you wouldn’t like this just from my description, you’re only hurting yourself.

While I’m on his early work, there is a couple more I should mention because they don’t come up as often. The first is A Fine and Private Place, Beagle’s debut novel. The title, obviously, is from the 17th century poet Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” (“The grave’s a fine and private place, but none, I think, do there embrace…”) Most of us sat through this in English Literature, but I can almost hear the wheels turning in Beagle’s head “Oh yeah?” And so, A Fine and Private Place, with not one but two sets of lovers and potential lovers, on this side of the grave and on the other, written, so the story goes, when the author was only nineteen. So put a sock in it, Marvell. The other is I See By My Outfit, a non-fiction account of Beagle and a friend’s cross-country trip on motor scooters. Rather like On the Road, if it had been done by someone less self-absorbed than Kerouac.

Since novels weren’t his primary source of income for most of his career, they tended to be widely spaced. The Folk of the Air and The Innkeeper’s Song. The first revolves around a woman who may be an immigrant goddess and her affect on an organization rather like the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA). I was a member at the time I read this, probably one reason other than it’s a fun book that it has stuck with me. The Innkeeper’s Song is…well, it’s about a group of former students of a magician trying to help that magician defeat another former student who’s gone power mad, or maybe just mad. They don’t have a chance, of course, but why let that stop them? As with all of Peter Beagle’s work, it’s about a lot of other stuff too, only some of which you’ll probably notice. I know I never get the half of it no matter which book I’m reading, but that’s all right.

After somewhat of a hiatus, Beagle re-emerged onto the fantasy scene in a big way just a few years ago, starting with a sort of sequel to The Last Unicorn. The story was “Two Hearts,” a novelette which won both the Hugo and Nebula awards. You can find it in The Line Between, which I’ve already talked about here, so I won’t go into that again, but it does bring us around to Beagle’s story collections. My first Beagle collection, and in some ways still my favorite, is The Fantasy Worlds of Peter Beagle, because it contains two of my all-time favorite novellas by Beagle, “Lila the Werewolf,” and “Come, Lady Death.” In the first, a man discovers that his girlfriend is a werewolf. In another’s hands this might have been a sort of shock/horror thing, but of course Beagle is way too deep a writer for that. It’s what happens after he makes that discovery that’s the interesting part. Likewise “Come, Lady Death,” is about a high society matron who decides that her upcoming ball simply would not be complete without one very special guest, Death. So she devises a perfectly logical but callous way to invite said august personage. If you’re expecting the result to be Beagle’s take on “The Masque of the Red Death,” think again. And yet it manages to be both beautiful and horrifying anyway. Full props. Really, you can’t go wrong with a Beagle collection. There’s The Rhinoceros Who Quoted Nietzsche and Other Odd Acquaintances, which I talked about here, and We Never Talk About My Brother, any of which would be a good place to start. I’m not sure there is a wrong place.

If you haven’t already, just start.

Favorite Li(n)es

We all have them. Some of them we didn’t even write. Since my brain is otherwise locked up at the moment, I’m putting a couple of my favorites up here instead of, you know, writing something. Both of today’s lines come from one of my all-time favorite writers, Parke Godwin. The first one needs a little context, so know that it was spoken by Guenivere in Beloved Exile after learning of the death of a romantic rival.

“Later I heard she died of the plague. God is good. Sometimes he’s an absolute dear.”

The second is from “Influencing the Hell out of Time and Theresa Golowitz” and needs no context at all.

“Dead one day, and already I need a lawyer.”

While I realize that any single line or small phrase separated from its context is never going to have the same impact, these are two that, anytime I think of them, always make me smile.

And I think I will throw in one more from another of my most favorite writers. This is from Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn.

“No cat out of its first fur can ever be fooled by appearances. Unlike human beings, who seem to enjoy it.”

Anyone else have a favorite line? Anyone who doesn’t? (I would need that latter explained to me).

In Which I Diss Zombies

I’m having a bit of an internal monologue, which I’m going to share here in lieu of actual content. Sometimes I have to think about these things, whether there’s any good reason to do that or not. My thought for today is a mediation on why I’ve never written about zombies.

Yes, why? Good question, and I’d like to thank me for asking it. Not that I have a good answer; I don’t fully understand my motivations for doing or not doing anything. But if I had to guess, I’d say it’s for the same reason I have never written a story about werewolves or unicorns: they just aren’t very interesting. Ok, I know that some people who read here are very fond of zombies and/or werewolves and unicorns, so before you get the knives out, let me explain: They just aren’t very interesting. ‘Kay. Now you can get the knives out.

 Is there a point buried in this pile of nonsense somewhere? No promises, but maybe I can borrow a few knives to dig it out, as we seem to have a few handy. I could dwell on why zombies aren’t interesting–there’s the lack of complex motivation (ala Romero) or the lack of any higher brain function (ala traditional). Scary? Sure. Horrifying? You betcha! Interesting? Not so much. Yet I know that these are simple rationalizations after the fact. It’s perfectly possible to write a zombie story where neither of those restrictions apply, just as it’s quite doable to write a good werewolf or unicorn story. I’ve read a few. One or two I’d rate as classics in the field, so it can be done and has/is being done. Just not by me.

Why? They just aren’t very interesting.

And here we are again. It’s not even that, as subjects, they’re pretty cliché. Subjects become cliché for a reason, and just because their ubiquity level has been raised to cliché it does not mean that new and interesting work can’t be done. As penance for my lack of appreciation, I will now inventory fantasy clichés in my own work:

  • Fairies/fey? Check.
  • Vampires? Only twice, but check.
  •  Dragons? Multiple offenses.
  • Witches/Wizards? Ditto.
  • Sphinxes? Yep.
  • Ancient Gods/Goddesses? Darn right.
  • Demons? Uh-huh. Just ask Yamada.
  • Monsters? Duh.
  • Ghosts? All the time, and Eli Mothersbaugh’s specialty.
  • Deal With the Devil? And proud of it!
  • Mermaids? Of course.
  • Personifications, as in Death or Fate? Guilty.

Let’s face facts here—anyone who’d willingly write a “Deal with the Devil” story is capable of anything. So why no zombie, unicorn, or werewolf stories? They just aren’t – [Visual of the blogger being whapped on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper. Heaven knows where they found one] Besides being painful, that interruption reveals the true answer. Why no zombie, werewolf, or unicorn stories? Because there aren’t any, as in “aren’t any rattling around in my brain.” No matter how many times I turn the notion in my head, it just comes back to this. I’ve already talked about recognizing a story when you see one, and this is the real reason I’ve never done unicorn stories or zombie stories or werewolf stories–I just don’t recognize anything relating to them as a story.  It’s really as simple and ungrammatical as that. The fact that I don’t find them interesting is effect, not cause.  I haven’t had a zombie or unicorn or werewolf story to write. In the case of the unicorn, I can’t see the point. Until and unless I come up with something that is at least as interesting to me on a story level as Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn or Theodore Sturgeon’s “The Silken Swift,” the subject is a closed door. If I ever do get such a notion, the door will spring open and I’ll find that particular subject is as interesting as anything I’ve ever written about and I’ll eat whatever steaming plate of crow is required. Will it happen? Dunno. I’d say it’s even odds. But until then, “They just aren’t–”

[Whoosh] Ha! Missed me!

Review – The Rhinoceros Who Quoted Nietzsche by Peter S. Beagle

The Rhinoceros Who Quoted Nietzsche and Other Odd Acquaintances by Peter S. Beagle, Tachyon Publications, 1997

My first acquaintance with Peter Beagle’s work, like a lot of other people’s, was the classic The Last Unicorn. I was hooked, and sought out everything else I could find, which at that time was I See By My Outfit and A Fine and Private Place, a non-fiction account of a cross-country trip on a motor scooter and Beagle’s first novel, respectively. I didn’t even know that he did any work at less than novel length until I stumbled upon the one-two pairing of “Come Lady Death” and “Lila the Werewolf” in The Fantasy Worlds of Peter Beagle back in 1978.

The Tachyon collection came along a good deal later, in 1997, and even though it also included the above two stories, I snapped it up for what else was there, including the title story which I had managed to miss in its first print appearance, plus “The Naga” (likewise) and a story original to this volume, “Julie’s Unicorn.”

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Review: Giant Bones by Peter S. Beagle

Giant Bones by Peter S. Beagle. ROC Books, 1997

Giant Bones is a collection of six stories set in the world of The Innkeeper’s Song , which was apparently quite a surprise to the author, as he explained in his Foreward “I don’t do sequels.” Here is an author who prides himself on doing something different in every book, and yet here he was, writing, if not necessarily sequels, a group of stories set in the same universe, a universe that Beagle thought he was done with. The universe itself clearly had other ideas.

“The Last Song of Sirit Byar” is the story of a legendary bard, as told by his rather unusual assistant, and the power of a bard’s final song. “Lal and Soukyan” is the only thing approaching a sequel and concerns the two title characters, very important players in The Innkeeper’s Song, and how and why they met again for one last adventure many years later. “The Magician of Karakosk” concerns an untutored wizard named Lanak and the true nature of magic. While it has no characters in common with Beagle’s novel, readers of that novel should recognize the sort of wizard that Lanak is, and why there is a vast and profound distinction between a wizard in Beagle’s universe and someone who simply throws spells around, as one scheming queen soon learns. “The Tragical Historie of Jiril’s Players” should resonate with anyone who has ever been involved in theatre. The author doesn’t even consider it a fantasy, but I do. Despite the fact that, in the context of his universe–and most others–it could have happened. “Choushi-Wai’s Story” follows from “Lal and Soukyan” in the character of Choushi-Wai herself, a young girl who appears in that previous story to learn the ways of the inbarati, the storytellers of Lal’s homeland, and then applies them as the framing device for her own story that might, just might, be my favorite piece in the whole book. The book finishes with the title story, “Giant Bones,” a sort of demented bedtime story about an obscure piece of family history, for some chosen values of family that reach beyond blood.

Besides all being set in the universe of The Innkeeper’s Song, some of the stories interconnect through common characters, like Choushi-Wai in both “Choushi-Wai’s Story” and “Lal and Soukyan.” Some connect with common references, but for anyone who has read The Innkeeper’s Song (and if not, why?), there’s never any doubt as so where you are and who these people are, even the ones you’ve never met outside of this particular book. That connection is usually a strength, but one of the few quibbles I have about this book is the same one I had about the novel—Beagle’s tendency to make up creatures, give them a function, but seldom describes them adequately, or sometimes at all. We do finally get to know rock-targs and churfas a good deal better, but most of the rest you have to draw from context and function. It’s almost on a par with the old science-fiction writing advice “never call a rabbit a smerp.” Beagle seems a little guilty of that in this universe, but once you get to know the creatures a little better, it works. It just doesn’t work right away, and can throw you out of the story if you’re not expecting it. If you get your baptism of the new flora and fauna in the novel, it helps a great deal in appreciating Giant Bones, where Beagle has even less room for explanations. Except for the churfas. Those bad-tempered, flatulent, odorous, but ultimately lovable not-horses. And the far less than lovable rock-targs. These two are almost worth the price of admission all by themselves.

All that aside, these are Peter Beagle stories. If you already know what that means, I don’t need to tell you. If you don’t know, well, a few pages of reading beats an encyclopedia of explanation.