Before I ever picked up Sleight of Hand, I promised myself that I would write this review without once mentioning The Last Unicorn (1968). I further decided not even to point out that I wasn't mentioning it, in the way that a reviewer of Peter S. Beagle will sometimes feel compelled to assure the reader that, although a single novel written more than forty years ago tends to overshadow his subsequent career, the author has in fact written several other masterpieces since, and continues to write them. But then I opened the book, and discovered that mentioning The Last Unicorn would be unavoidable, for the simple reason that the collection's first story is not only set in the same universe, but features a younger version of one of the novel's main characters, that familiar "tall man with the ragged cloak and the funny, pointy hat," Schmendrick the Magician (p. 11). The reader, however, will find no unicorns here, although "The Woman Who Married the Man in the Moon" actually contains several stories from their world within it; the title, for example, refers to an embedded narrative told to Schmendrick by a young widow, and also to her own more "mundane" story of life, love, and loss. Like so much of Beagle's work, the story explores this very relationship between the fantastic and the quotidian, and the magical place of narrative in drawing them together in the face of suffering. Thus, this younger, even less competent Schmendrick, listening to the widow's folktale, believes that he understands the logic of story well enough to predict final ends and the limits of imagination: "I can see sorrow coming. I can smell it on the wind. This story is going to end badly" (p. 27). In her reply, the widow implicitly accuses him of failing to understand real magic, as she will later do explicitly: "Stories never end. We end. If we could but live long enough, we would see how all tales go on and on past the telling" (ibid). While the story's plot has no direct bearing on that of The Last Unicorn, we see here that it picks up on many of the novel's themes concerning the uneasy interactions between the human and the perdurable, love and grief. At the same time, the collection as a whole is not simply an excuse to revisit this classic of the genre: "Man in the Moon" is only one of three original stories, and the ten reprints—all originally published within the last three years—showcase a surprising range of settings, subjects, genres, and styles. With its engaging and wide-ranging selection of fantasies, Sleight of Hand seems the perfect book for an author to publish in the same year that his towering status in the field has finally been formalized with a World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement, proving as it does that this achievement lies not only in the past, but remains very much a thing of the present.
In addition to being one of the better stories in the volume, "The Woman Who Married the Man in the Moon" also establishes many of the themes and other threads that run through the collection, including major narrative roles given to children. Indeed, several of the stories almost skew towards young adult fiction, but always of the sort that will appeal to audiences young and old. For instance, you could call Beagle's brief portrait of the artist as a young monstrosity, "The Best Worst Monster," a story for children—or you could simply call it a fable. Another delicate fable, "Children of the Shark God," features adolescents as its principal characters (the title may make the story sound a bit like a bad B movie, but it's nothing of the sort). For each story in the collection, Beagle provides a brief but fascinating introduction, and in the headnote to "Shark God," he reveals this story of the South Seas to be a piece of deliberate homage to or even pastiche of Robert Louis Stevenson's more folkloric fictions. Nevertheless, the story reads much like many other Beagle stories, as the fabular or folkloric seems to be a mode that Beagle works quite comfortably in. Although the story plays out as a quest narrative capped with a family drama, again, a reader of The Last Unicorn will recognize the same plot kernel underlying the Unicorn's sorrow, that double predicament of a mortal in love with something that will outlast it, and an immortal in love with something that must die. And so, of the absent Shark God, sought without success by his daughter, the divine Paikea says, "He is fully aware that he should never have taken a human wife, created a human family in the human world. And he knows also, as he was never meant to know, that when your mother dies—as she will—when you and your brother in time die, his heart will break. No god is supposed to know such a thing; they are simply not equipped to deal with it" (p. 69). Generational conflict and more than a touch of magic combine again in "What Tune the Enchantress Plays," a story set in a distant corner of the world of The Innkeeper's Song (1993), and which takes the form of the eponymous enchantress's dramatic monologue to a captured demon addressed in the second person. For the most part, the story is well done, but Beagle likely could have better exploited this intriguing positioning of the audience in this his next meditation on magic and the conflict between the fantastic and the mundane.
Up to this point, I have emphasized the common notes sounded in many of the stories, yet we find several different kinds of magic on offer in this collection. The title story "Sleight of Hand" actually stands apart from the aforementioned stories set in fantastic or fabular worlds, since it follows a contemporary mother coping—or rather failing to cope—with the catastrophic loss of her family in a car accident for which she feels responsible, and then narrates her quasi-Faustian encounter with a mysterious stage magician at a diner. This Death-like figure who is emphatically not Death, and who describes knowing "nearly everything about nearly everyone" as "the curse of [his] position" (p. 37), drops only a few clues about his relationship with the woman: they have apparently met twice before, but we only hear about one such encounter, and his true identity remains an enigma beyond the end of the story. The likeliest possibility, I would suggest, is that the magician represents another of Beagle's frequent metafictive stand-ins for the author, a figure with apparently boundless power over story worlds, but finally a human being with fundamental limitations, even on his capacity to manipulate the universes that he conjures. In consequence, the story retains the same basic plotline of a human striking a bargain with Death or Old Scratch, but with a key substitution, just a little trick—the same concept that the plot of the story itself turns on. Heartfelt and suffused with an overwhelming nostalgia for other days and other realities, "Sleight of Hand" evokes a slew of Bradbury stories—and not just because of the magician—or even a certain kind of Twilight Zone episode. Still, on some level the story is pure Beagle: smart and well-crafted, both its style and plot lyrical. As I suggested in my review of the anthology in which the story originally appeared, the only fault one could find with the story might involve a certain surfeit of sentimentality, and, indeed, this is perhaps the only criticism one can make of Beagle's writing with any frequency. Yet Beagle's gift for and delight in wry irony and quiet moments of humor help ensure that the lure of sentiment never becomes too great a problem even for us cynics and skeptics.
As we find it in classics like The Last Unicorn and A Fine and Private Place (1960), Beagle's humor does tend towards the parenthetical; for example, in the thoroughly earnest "What Tune the Enchantress Plays," asides like the following intrude on but do not interrupt otherwise serious moments: "But if I could not sing, I might as well be a witch in a cave, growling my incantations over a greasy, smoky fire. (Meaning no disrespect to Grandmother, who was actually a cheerful sociable soul, like most witches)" (p. 99). Yet Beagle casts a handful of stories in Sleight of Hand in a humorous style throughout, almost to the point of satire. "Oakland Dragon Blues," for one, is something of a "Six Dragons in Search of an Author" narrative—plus or minus five dragons—that unleashes a dragon that Beagle had cut from the infamous first draft of The Last Unicorn on the author's home city. In contrast to the version of the contemporary world depicted in "Sleight of Hand," this world, although also our modern one, declares itself a satirical world from the start, as the appearance of a morose dragon blocking traffic at a major downtown intersection fails to occasion terribly realistic responses in the local police force. When the dragon finally tracks down Beagle's stand-in, the author manages to save his life by "telling it a story about itself" (p. 211): Beagle has charmingly written a story for the lost dragon about writing a story for the lost dragon. Another piece of straight humor, "Up the Down Beanstalk: A Wife Remembers," impressed me considerably less, perhaps simply because it represents a competent if unexceptional example of what is by now an old, even overfamiliar subgenre, the retelling of a folk- or fairytale from the villain's point of view.
Finally, at the far end of the spectrum from these lighter pieces, several uncharacteristically dark fantasies appear in the collection, stories that sometimes edge into horror proper. For example, "The Bridge Partner" unambiguously belongs to the genre of the serial killer narrative, of all things for Peter S. Beagle to write, and inhabits the realm of the uncanny rather than that of the supernatural. The even more adventurously experimental "Dirae" includes a scene of attempted rape and plenty of ultraviolence as it chronicles the crimestopping-spree of a superheroic urban Fury—with yet another twist towards the end. For simple dismemberment one can also look to "La Lune T'Attend," a kind of werewolf Hamlet that, like all good revenge narratives, is predicated on a past act of vengeance that itself must be avenged. The story is especially noteworthy for the clever ways in which it navigates the collision of the two hybridities of the Louisiana Creole and the lycanthrope, and it even throws in living death for that extra dose of liminality. Placed at the end of the collection, "Vanishing" is a horror tale of a different stripe altogether, a ghost story that, like so many, is really a guilt story. According to Beagle's introduction, this story about the Berlin Wall and its legacy is really a kind of revenant itself, resurrected from an old story draft found in his files that dated to around the same time as the failed Unicorn draft and shared its fate. But the very best among this somewhat unexpected windfall of "horror stories" is probably the ghost story that lacks any true horrific dimension at all, "The Rabbi's Hobby," a reflective retrospective on youth that juxtaposes the transitional time of the Bar Mitzvah with the ghosts haunting, among other things, photography, memory, and the gap between the never-was and the always-is. We could call it a Jewish ghost story or a paranormal mystery, but neither classification does it justice: suffice it to say that the story shines even in such an impressive collection as Sleight of Hand. And, at the pace Beagle seems to be writing these days, I'm sure we'll be seeing more of its kind soon enough.
T. S. Miller is currently completing his Ph.D. in medieval literature at the University of Notre Dame. Of course, an interest in science fiction and fantasy has been the "secret vice" of many a medievalist before him, and his articles have appeared or are forthcoming in genre journals like Science Fiction Studies, Extrapolation, and The Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts.