Michael Moorcock, in his study of epic fantasy, Wizardry and Wild Romance, quotes J. G. Ballard as saying, "I feel that the writer of fantasy has a marked tendency to select images and ideas which directly reflect the internal landscapes of his mind, and the reader of fantasy must interpret them on this level distinguishing between the manifest content, which may seem obscure, meaningless or nightmarish, and the latent content, the private vocabulary of symbols drawn by the narrative from the writer's mind" (19). It is this private vocabulary that makes the work of some authors stand head and shoulders above the rest—prose that carries a unique flavor, which, fail or succeed, remains unmistakably the work of a singular author. Peter S. Beagle's latest collection of short stories, The Line Between, shows him to be a fantasist consistent with Ballard's words.
In his introduction Beagle describes himself as someone who "in life and art has never been able to laugh without being intensely aware of tears, or to shine a light on horror without also illuminating beauty. So it goes still for everything I write" (xii). And he sums up the collection: "There it is: that invisible boundary between conscious and not, between reality and fantasy, between here (whatever 'here' is) and there (whatever 'there' might be), between the seen and the seen's true nature. A line neither one thing nor ever quite the other, but now eternally between" (xi).
Each of Beagle's stories finds itself against these boundaries. Mice pretending to be cats, fantastical creatures not of this world, encounters with the unknown—the stories recount those instances when individuals approach that borderland, which at times exists purely as edge, and dance back and forth across the line; at other times the outline is vague, making something of a new country out of that threshold where "the seen and the seen's true nature" meet. The collection is mixed, ranging from truly outstanding stories to mediocre efforts. Granted, once or twice certain biases of my own kept me out of a story, but I'll say without reservation that the majority of the collection proves itself to be in the former category. Those stories I thought mediocre might suffer simply from the quality of the company they keep.
The collection opens with the story "Gordon, the Self-Made Cat," the humorous tale of a mouse attempting to better his lot in life. Gordon embarks on his quest by enrolling himself in cat school, where he soon excels in his studies. Before long he has turned the natural world on its head, and the cats come to see him as a threat to their way of life. It's not a spectacular story, but it possesses enough quirky humor to hold the reader's attention until the last page is turned.
The four fables—"The Fable of the Moth," "The Fable of the Tyrannosaurus Rex," "The Fable of the Ostrich," and "The Fable of the Octopus"—exhibit a similar use of humor. In these Beagle shines his light on common troubles that plague our existence, whether they are doubts or merely the unrelenting small-mindedness of our fellows. The stories' morals eschew quaint aphorism to take their place beside more world-weary remarks that would have made James Thurber or Dorothy Parker proud.
"El Regalo" is set in the modern world and features a brother and sister discovering their talent for magic. Of all the stories in the collection it is the one I liked least—but also feel myself least qualified to judge, as I am well removed from its potential audience and dislike, almost instinctively, adolescent protagonists.
I consider these six the missed notes of the collection—falling into its pages in a catchall fashion—and as such, they don't adhere quite so strongly to that border evoked by the title. It is in the remainder of the collection that the reader encounters the line between.
First up is the main draw of the collection, the Hugo Award-winning novelette "Two Hearts." It's a phenomenal story, and one I have to fight from taking over this entire review. I have not encountered anyone who has read it without getting at least misty eyed. The story features characters from "The Last Unicorn," many years later. Here we meet them again, through the eyes of the child narrator, Sooz. A griffin is terrorizing her village, and she has run away from home to seek the aid of King Lir. Along the way, she encounters Schmendrick and Molly Grue, and together with King Lir the group returns to seek out the griffin.
As with "The Last Unicorn," Beagle shows himself to be interested in dualities. The two hearts of the title evoke not only the two hearts of the griffin (one eagle, one lion) but also the idea of love as shared by the characters—Schmendrick and Molly, Lir and the unicorn Amalthea, Sooz and her faithful dog Malka. The power of the story comes from its ability to capture that moment, normally felt first in adolescence but encountered again and again throughout one's life, when the unfathomable immensity of the universe becomes manifest. Beagle suggests another duality in the reactions to this instant.
Sooz first encounters it when she looks into the griffin's eyes and hears these words: "Yes, I will die soon, but you are all dead now, all of you, and I will pick your bones before the ravens have mine. And your folk will remember what I was, and what I did to them, when there is no one left in your vile, pitiful anthill who remembers your name. So I have won" (44).
This is the aspect of the universe that is indifferent to human life and suffering, a force that proves us all insignificant. The realization takes hold of Sooz and threatens to trap her forever, but she is saved by the unicorn, who has come to the aid of King Lir. "The unicorn had all the world in her eyes, all the world I am never going to see, but it doesn't matter, because now I have seen it, and it's beautiful, and I was in there too. And when I think of Jehane, Louli, and my Felicitas who could only talk with her eyes, just like the unicorn, I'll think of them, and not the griffin" (47).
The strength of "Two Hearts" resides in these two aspects of the universal, which are responsible for much of the effect the story has on the reader. This confrontation with the universal also shifts the traditional coming-of-age away from adolescence by making it an encounter that can happen to anyone, regardless of age. The story suggests that one needs only the capacity to perceive wonder to gain freedom from the universe's indifference.
With the story "Quarry," Beagle returns to the world of The Innkeeper's Song, his decidedly low-fantasy novel. I had not read the book at the time of this review, but after reading this story I went out and tracked down a copy to devour.
"Quarry" is a simple flight story. The narrator, Soukyan, has fled his sinister place of schooling and is now being pursued by the Hunters. On the road he meets a peculiar old man, also on the run, and the two of them pair up to face their respective challenges together. Their bond soon becomes as antagonistic as it is cooperative, with the old man revealing himself to be more than he first appeared.
With this story Beagle proves himself a deft fantasist in his ability to craft creatures that are grotesque in more than appearance. The Goro, the creature pursuing the old man, is more than some half-man, half-beast but a creature made frightening by its philosophy: "A Goro will hoard every physical manifestation of every dream he dreams in his life, even if at the end it seems to only amount to a heap of dead twigs and dried flower petals. Because he is bound to present the whole unsightly clutter to his gods, when he goes to them. And if even one is missing—one single feather, candle-end, teacup, seashell fragment—then the Goro will suffer bitterly after death" (113).
When Soukyan faces the creature, it is not the scales and teeth that terrify him but the "glaring with a savage philosophy that never burdened the brain of any bird" (120). Such phrases are the welcome mark of a writer above the heap of kitten-killer brick-thick paperbacks that plague his genre. This economy is put to purpose in texturing a world by populating it with creatures like ourselves but knocked askew. Beagle uses, as Ballard said, "the private vocabulary of symbols drawn by the narrative from the writer's mind."
The rest of the collection remains at this caliber of accomplishment. "Mister Sigerson" tells the story of Floresh Taketsi, the orchestra conductor of Selmira, and the mystery he encounters on the arrival of his new violinist. With Selmira, located in a remote corner of Eastern Europe, Beagle makes "the line between" a country that exists as nothing but the border where other countries meet. In the words of Taketsi, "our currency is anything that does not crumble when bitten; our fare is depressingly Slovakian, and our national dress, in all candor, vaguely suggests Swiss bell-ringers costumed by gleefully maniacal Turks" (165).
The tale is also an enjoyable pastiche of Sherlock Holmes and shows the detective at his weakest, away from the cut-and-dry, unambiguous crimes of London.
"Salt Wine" features a merman as the embodiment of the unknown, initiating a course of events that alters the lives of two sailors forever. The story wastes nothing and careers in perfect pitch to its conclusion.
The last story in the collection, "A Dance for Emilia," is its author's favorite. In his introduction to the tale, Beagle states plainly that it is the one most based on his own life and that the character of Jacob can be read as Beagle himself. The story is rich with the exploration of what it means to live on the edge where "the seen and the seen's true nature" reside.
As a story, it is similar to "Two Hearts" in its evocation of mortality in the face of an indifferent universe. Even more than "Two Hearts," "A Dance for Emilia" asks if truth might be found less in an object as it is than in the way it is observed. Jacob deals with the death of his friend Sam by telling Sam's former lover, Emilia, stories of their friendship, using "memory and language both tangled with dreams . . . as true as phoenixes, as imaginary as computers" (214). Emilia recounts her own experiences with Sam, saying of adventures they shared, "We were always aliens, one way or another, always foreigners, outsiders, Martians. That was the whole thing about Adventures—just having each other, and our secret mission" (213).
Here again the border is a place where the familiar and the strange merge. One can't be sure of what one sees, but Beagle proves himself a master in creating this tension, able to embrace uncertainty and describe its outline without once losing a hint of clarity.
A few words about the prose: for most of these stories Beagle uses the first person, which in general I find to be misused by authors as a quick shortcut to reader character identification. Beagle's use of first person is no shortcut but the long scenic route, taken with a guide who speaks in a voice totally his or her own. Sooz, Soukyan, Floresh Taketsi, and Jacob are unique and come to tell the reader their tales. This distinction—that the narratives read as told stories from a vantage point removed from the event—differentiates them from other first-person narratives and allows the characters to comment on their own behavior in the stories. Some may find this technique repetitive or outdated—a device fresh from the hands of Robert Louis Stevenson. (And if you think so, ask yourself why exactly this is a bad thing.) To an extent, there is a hint of repetition, as almost every story begins with an introduction somewhere in its first three paragraphs. But after that each goes its own way, taking the reader to view each border Beagle seeks to show.
That said, Beagle loses much of his impact when he writes for children and young adults. Both "Gordon" and "El Regalo" exhibit a tendency to shy away from judgment and retaliation, stretching one's suspension of disbelief by glossing over the world of instinct and imbuing adolescents with too much savvy.
In his introduction to this collection, Beagle mentions Val Lewton, the creator of some of the best horror films ever made, such as The Seventh Victim, I Walked with a Zombie, and Cat People. Lewton was often given tight budgetary restrictions in the creation of his pictures but still succeeded in making work that resonated deeply with audiences. His secret, as Beagle describes it, was in knowing that "it is the shadow that terrifies, not the monster it hides. The monster is an actor in a monster suit. The shadow is always real" (xii).
It is this "shadow"—this immaterial, intangible quality—that interests Beagle. He marks its outline but leaves us, the readers, to see what we may within.
Justin Howe was born and raised in the wilds of suburban Massachusetts. He is a graduate of the Odyssey Writers Workshop and currently makes his living as a factotum for an architectural restoration company in New York City. He has several other reviews available in Strange Horizon's archives.
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