Peter Beagle’s latest collection, The Overneath, consists for the most part of whimsical comic fantasy. Beagle is an American fantasist whose first novel, A Fine and Private Place (1960), was published when he was twenty-one. He is possibly best known for the quest fantasy The Last Unicorn (1968), which involves Schmendrick the Magician, “the last of the red-hot swamis.” Indeed, he has a long-standing fascination with the medieval bestiary, especially unicorns, that is reflected in the current collection.
Two of the stories in the current collection are set in the world of The Last Unicorn, describing Schmendrick’s apprenticeship and coming of age. The first of these, “The Green-Eyed Boy,” is told from the point of view of the Magician Nikos, who takes in “a tall, extremely thin boy with a perfectly unremarkable face” and “the most striking pair of green eyes.” The boy is an outcast in his own family and his father describes him as “useless” for the coopering trade; his name, Schmendrick, means “the boy who is sent to do a man’s job.”
Despite the name, Nikos takes the boy in because he “smells” power around him. Schmendrick proves to be a hard worker and an attentive student but also struggles to get spells to turn out right. The only member of the family who visits Schmendrick is Sardana, the wife of one of his brothers. She convinces Nikos to persist with Schmendrick: “he cannot not be a wizard,” she says. Unfortunately, Schmendrick misinterprets his sister-in-law’s affections, which leads to an embarrassing magical situation that proves a turning point in Nikos and Schmendrick’s relationship. Nikos ultimately forgives the boy, however, observing that “everything costs.”
“Schmendrick Alone” begins on the day that the still youthful and semicompetent Schmendrick leaves Nikos. He is promptly pickpocketed and gets into trouble with an innkeeper for nonpayment of his dinner. Pretty much every spell in this story backfires in some way, most seriously when he attempts to save a young woman from the affections of a Lord Buccleuch. In desperation he summons a Lovecraftian thing—"all but shapeless, chuckling muddily” that proves uncontrollable. Throughout this story, Schmendrick blunders his way to maturity by making a series of increasingly serious magical mistakes. He ends up sleeping in a ditch, but acknowledges that he deserves it. As the narrator notes: “serve[s] you right, wizardlet.”
Both these Last Unicorn stories are light, amusing, and well told. Similarly, “The Way It Works Out and All” is an affectionate tribute to the late Fantasy and SF Author Avram Davidson (1923-1993), who was a friend of Beagle’s. In the story, the author receives a series of postcards from Davidson in 1992 which are from “Darkest Albany,” “the Jornada del Muerto in New Mexico,” “The North Pole,” “East Wimoweh-on-the-Orinoco,” and nine other unlikely locations, including Beagle’s own hometown. Beagle eventually runs into Davidson, who is described as a
short, stout, bearded, flatfooted person … formally dressed, the only man I knew who habitually wore a tie, vest, and jacket that all matched; and if he looked a trifle dishevelled, that was equally normal for him.
The “Overneath” proves to be a sort of transit system that connects remote regions of (possibly) this world together. It seems to me to bear some resemblance to one of Davidson’s own inventions from his novel Masters of the Maze (1965). I suspect this is deliberate: Davidson’s novel involves a “maze” controlled by alien creatures that allows access to distant regions of time and space. The similarity of the concepts is probably no coincidence. The story also reflects some of the themes in Davidson’s later fantasy, The Phoenix and the Mirror (1969).
The Overneath, we learn, is “all around us” and is reached by finding access points in unnoticed, often forgotten corners of the world. The fictional Davidson describes it as “the sub-basement of reality—all those pipes and valves and tunnels and couplings, sewers and tubes.” There is some mystery, though, about the nature of the world to which the Overneath allows access. The fictional Davidson invokes the metaphor of Plato’s cave to explain it: “people chained to the wall in the cave, just watching shadows all their lives.” “Davidson” goes on:
“Well, the shadows are cast by things and people … outside the cave, which those poor prisoners never get to see. The shadows are their only notion of reality … The philosopher’s the one who stands outside the cave and reports back.”
“So our world … might be nothing but the shadow of the Overneath?”
“Or the other way round.”
Davidson takes him on a tour of the Overneath and they end up at its hub, like a “huge railway station” with an arched ceiling. From this point the travellers can get “anywhere at all,” which is good because it transpires that mysterious others also use the Overneath. We only ever glimpse these “people,” but Davidson advises the narrator to steer clear. The short story ends just after Davidson’s memorial service in 1993 with a final postcard. It struck me as the most moving, personal and philosophically deep story of the collection.
Labyrinths have often been used as metaphors for different aspects of reality, most notably in the writings of Jorge Luis Borges. In short stories like “The Garden of Forking Paths” (1941) and “The Library of Babel” (1944), Borges used labyrinths as metaphors for things like choice, the mind, and the Universe itself.
Beagle’s Overneath, similarly, could function as a metaphor for a number of things: global travel in the jet age, the effects of globalisation or maybe the internet, the electronic labyrinth that connects previously remote places together.
It seems to me, however, that Beagle’s primary intent was more personal. Most of us have friends who live in distant places, or who seem to spend their time travelling to exotic locations and having far more adventurous lives than we. Very often we’ll hear about these lives secondhand and piecemeal, via postcards or more likely Facebook. In the absence of regular contact, some of us are prone to stitch together these fragments of information into a coherent story that is probably largely fantasy. “The Overneath” could be seen as a metaphor for this process, which happens in the imagination.
The story’s conclusion, which hints that Davidson might still be travelling after his death, could be seen as a continuation of this idea. When someone has died, people sometimes suggest that they have “moved on.” The story takes this idea as a sort of reality, as a way of speaking about how deceased people live on in their friend’s imaginations, no longer present but still travelling, somewhere.
Elsewhere, unicorns remain one of Beagle’s enduring obsessions. In “My Son Heydari and the Karkadann,” a young, teenage boy, Heydari, tends to the fearsome, Persian variety of unicorn. The Karkadann is built like a heavy rhinoceros and is twice as ferocious. It is described as an “unlovely, unadmirable and altogether detestable creature” by the narrator, the boy’s father. The story is about the healing of this unlovely beast and Heydari’s friendship with a shepherd girl named Niloufar. Meanwhile, “Olfert Dapper’s Day,” one of the funniest and most charming stories of the collection, is based upon an historical account that mentions a real Dr. Dapper encountering a unicorn in the Maine woods in 1673. It features a seventeenth-century quack and con artist who is forced to flee his native Utrecht after a scam backfires. He crosses the ocean to the New World, settling in the Territory of Sagadahock, somewhere east of the Kennebec River.
He becomes the doctor in a small Puritan community that is surrounded by various Native American tribes. He tends to take a dim view of his fellow colonists as “generally too poor and unimaginative to be worth the effort of swindling,” but likes the Abenaki, whose “placidly bleak view of the universe” is “comfortably akin to his own.” He ends up genuinely doctoring to the colonists almost by mistake, and befriends an Abenaki named Rain Coming, who shows him various healing herbs. The unicorn is spotted during a moonlit expedition to seek out these herbs. The following is an excerpt from Dr. Dapper’s diary:
… by moonlight its coat is a kind of golden-gray … It seems a sturdy built creature, though rather small … The hoofs are indeed cloven, as Pliny attests … The tail is lionlike, the mane as long as that of the wild ponies of the English moors … and the celebrated horn… would seem disproportionate in length …
Dapper becomes obsessed with the idea of seeing the unicorn again, an obsession that becomes entangled with a plot to seduce the Preacher’s wife. He is successful in both endeavours, but eventually gets rumbled by the Preacher in a very satisfying and funny denouement.
“The Story of Kao Yu” best fits into the subgenre known as “Chinoiserie,” or tales written generally by Europeans and set in a fantasy version of China.  In it, the Judge Kao Yu becomes obsessed by a woman, “‘Snow Ermine,’” upon whom he is supposed to be passing sentence, a woman who turns out to be a serial thief.
It is more or less a morality tale, featuring a third variety of unicorn, the chi-lin, who assists Kao Yu in his judgments, observing from afar and only intervening when it chooses. It suffers “no least dishonesty in its presence, and will instantly gore to death anyone whom it knows to be guilty.”
Snow Ermine, however, persists in her life of crime, and she ends up in judgment once again, accused of murder. She is unrepentant concerning her thievery: “Lord, I am a thief. I have been a thief all my life. A thief steals.” The judge denies this self-assessment, stating that she is instead “what you have become.” Snow Ermine denies being a murderer, and it is at this point that the unicorn materialises. The judge begs her to tell the truth before the unicorn, but she lies again. The narrator states: “But she was, as she had told him, what she was.”
“The Story of Kao Yu” is interesting because it touches on the nature of the parts we play in life. Do we really choose those roles, or do we instead allow them to govern our behaviour? The end of the story, in which the unicorn decides to act against its previous nature, suggests not. Beagle’s short stories really function as light entertainments, and those looking for deep profundities should probably look elsewhere, but in moments such as this one, the collection can provide further food for thought.
Others are more uneven. “Trinity County, CA: You’ll Want to Come Again and We’ll Be Glad to See You!” shows us a California where drug dealers use dragons to guard their compounds instead of dogs or exotic but mundane animals. It is an odd mix of police drama and high fantasy, following two enforcement officers on their rounds. (The officers of course have to wear fireproof gear against the onslaught of the dragons.) Although it’s generally speaking light, the story also touches upon the darker side of drug addiction and associated violent crime.
Nevertheless, Beagle can struggle to make these elements cohere. The story involves a visit to an old couple, apparently respectable citizens, who turn out to be drug dealers. Later, it transpires that their son is a dealer and also a crystal meth addict: although in his early twenties, he is a “wispy, pallid creature” with a “ruined mouth” and the “teeth of a scrofulous old man.”
This description—and the ruined lives it hints at—contrasts awkwardly with the whimsicality of having dragons guarding a meth lab. In Beagle’s defence, this is a common issue with comic fantasy whenever it enters more serious territory: Terry Pratchett had similar tonal issues in his later novels, where elements of the real world started to intrude upon the generally ridiculous happenings in Discworld.
To refocus on the positive, “The Very Nasty Aquarium” is probably my favourite title in the collection. An old lady, Mrs. Lopsided, buys a wooden pirate to decorate her aquarium. The pirate turns out to be an antique made from wood harvested in the Caribbean, probably fashioned in the likeness of a real pirate. It has also been possessed by a duppy, an evil spirit who lives within wood. The duppy slowly takes possession of the aquarium and is plotting in turn to take over Mrs. Lopsided. The most entertaining part of this tale is the epic battle between Mrs. Lopsided, her friend Mrs. Bascomb, and the duppy. This involves, amongst other things, white rum and mangrove tree bark.
In this way, Beagle is at his best when he mixes fantasy with comic farce, which is done very skilfully in a couple of these stories, especially “Olfert Dapper’s Day.” I’d also praise his plotting, which is pretty flawless in all of these stories. Beagle is especially good at creating fairly hapless, sympathetic characters and weaving the mythic elements of the story into their lives.
In fact, there are occasions when Beagle’s deeper or more challenging concerns get crowded out by his strengths as a comic fantasist: this is most apparent in the “Trinity County” story, with its uneasy mix of dragons and hard drugs, but also occurs in “Schmendrick Alone,” when a light story ends with the supernatural death of Lord Buccleuch. Beagle is at his best when he balances the comedy with thoughtful metaphysics and mystery, as in “The Way It Works Out and All” and “Olfert Dapper’s Day.” In toto, this volume represents a worthy publication by Tachyon Press, an entertaining and thoughtful read.
 Pringle, D (eds.) (2006) The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Fantasy, London, Carlton. [return]