What is Your Favorite Peter S. Beagle Work, and Why?

 

 

Peter S. Beagle is not only of one our best storytellers ever, but also without doubt one of the best loved as well. We here at Green Man decided to ask some of the many writers who passed through our offices what their favorite piece of fiction by him was, and why so. Their answers run from the obvious choices, i.e. The Last Unicorn, to some that greatly surprised us. Read on for what they said...

Kage Baker pondered her answer — 'How to decide? The Last Unicorn probably had the greatest effect on me, reading it as I did at an impressionable age and learning there that fantasy could cut through the mannered, medievalist crap and speak sharply of real life. I See By My Outfit always delighted me and still does, as it must delight anyone who has ever been young, dumb, brave and On The Road. To take off across the country on motor scooters (of all things), sleeping in tents, trusting in fate, having adventures — yeah!! But my all-time favorite Beagle character I met in The Innkeeper's Song: the little, little fox with soft fur...'

Elizabeth Bear was one of the many that picked the best loved work — 'The Last Unicorn is my favorite book, though I can't reread it in public because it makes me laugh and cry at the same time, and people look at you strangely.

'I love it because it's true, and it's honest and sharp without being cynical, and because it knows that you cannot have both magic and secure predictability — they cannot coexist. They are mutually annihilatory. I love it because it is one of the few books I've ever read brave enough to stand up and say that sometimes being who you are is an isolating choice — and that that's okay.

'Also, I love it because it's beautifully written, mercurial, layered, and full of wonders on every page. It's the best book I've ever read.'

Paul Brandon was honest when he said — 'Oh, yeah, sorry. To be honest, I've not read that much of Peter's work, but I really enjoyed the short story he had published recently in Jonathan Strahan's Eclipse One anthology. It was called 'The Last and Only, or, How Mr. Moscowitz Became French'. Must admit it did make me want to read more. He's been added to the vast Brandon 'To Read' List.'

Connor Cochran cheerfully admitted his biases, confusion, and delight — 'I'm joined at the hip to Peter as his business manager, editor, publisher, and friend, but the honest truth is I wound up doing all this because I was a huge fan of Peter's writing, and have been since I was 14 and read his first two novels back in the late '60s. Where Beagle books are concerned, my second-favorite is I See By My Outfit, his nonfiction travel memoir; and my number-one favorite is either The Last Unicorn or A Fine and Private Place, depending on which one I've glanced at most recently. Try as I may, I just can't seem to make a permanent first-place choice. As for my favorite piece from his shorter fiction, that's truly impossible to say. There are just too many different flavors there to ever choose one and say 'this is it, this is the best.' How can you compare 'Two Hearts' and 'La Lune T'attend' and 'Gordon the Self-Made Cat?' They live in entirely different universes.

'What's really great is that each new story Peter writes is a surprise. The fact that he is 69 years old and still keeps tackling new territory, still keeps refusing to repeat himself...that's wonderful and amazing.'

Charles de Lint has a long answer — 'Synchronicity is a funny thing. There I was in my column, mentioning how A Fine and Private Place is one of my favorite books, and the next thing I know there is a new reprint of it sitting in my P.O. box.

'Now the fear I always have of going back to something I haven't reread in a long time is that it won't measure up to the warm affection I carry for it in my memories. But happily, that wasn't the case here. I didn't even mean to reread it. I simply thought I'd try a few pages to see how it fared and the next thing I knew it was late at night and I was half-way through.

'For those of you new to this classic, it tells the story of a druggist who gave up his profession and moved into a mausoleum in the Bronx's Yorkchester Cemetery.

'Jonathan Rebeck has lived there for nineteen years when the book opens, his only company a talking raven and the ghosts that haunt the cemetery for a few weeks after their burial. The ghosts start to lose their memories over those weeks and eventually theyíre gone. But until they go, Rebeck can see and speak with them.

'Rebeck is more than content to stay hidden away from the outside world, but the arrival of a certain pair of ghosts, and a Jewish mourner seem set to change everything, and we have our story.

'A Fine and Private Place is just as wonderful as I remembered it to be: beautifully written, the characters warmly drawn, the pages filled with conversations that range the gamut of the human condition. In these days of everything coming in quick sound bites, at a faster and faster pace, Beagle's novel might seem quaint as it takes its time to tell its story. But you know, there's a reason that people still read Dickens and Austin, and there's a reason they'll appreciate this book: quality counts.

'This new Tachyon edition is apparently the definitive text, but I have to admit that whatever small changes Beagle might have made, I didn't notice them. What I do know is that it's a great book, in a lovely affordable package. To give you an example of the attention to detail that everyone involved with this new edition took, cover photographer/designer Ann Monn flew to New York to take her pictures in the same cemetery that provided Beagle with his inspiration.

'And the book's worth it.'

(Taken with slight modification from a 'Books to Look For' column which first appeared in The Magazine of F&SF, August 2007, edited by Gordon Van Gelder. Copyright (c) 2007 by Charles de Lint. Reprinted by permission of the author.)

Denorah Grabien echoed what de Lint picked — 'For me, it's A Fine and Private Place. I love Beagle (and I have a bit of personal history associated with my dedicated copy of The Last Unicorn), but this one has no competition for me; it's one of the few books out there I can legitimately point to and say, wow, this directly influenced the way I write. Ghost story, love story, gentleness and fierceness and resignation and acceptance and a beautiful twist to it: what doesn't it have?

'And what's not to love about a book that opens with a raven stealing a salami? Even though I wasn't aware of it at the time I was writing Plainsong, the four ravens — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — are a direct homage to A Fine and Private Place.

'One of the books I love the best. Seriously.'

Elizabeth Hand picked The Last Unicorn 'My favorite Beagle remains The Last Unicorn. I first read it as a girl not long after it was published, and immediately upon finishing it I turned to the first page and read it all over again, a pattern which continued, with occasional breaks for meals, for some years. The book achieves a perfect balance between the magical and the mundane, romantic heartbreak and the plainer face of requited love. Much of this, of course, I didn't fully grasp until I was an adult reader. The Last Unicorn possesses the same timeless, ageless melancholy and wit of Hans Christian Andersen's greatest work. Like all great fairy tales, it is immortal.'

Patricia McKillip echoed that choice as well 'The Last Unicorn is the novel I think of when I think of Peter Beagle. How could I not? It's the first one of his that I read, and because of it, I went on to read the earlier A Fine and Private Place, and then I See by My Outfit, then Folk of The Air, The Innkeeper's Song, The Rhinoceros Who Quoted Nietzsche and Other Odd Acquaintances, and so on. Peter's work is addictive. He mixes metaphors into a merry hash, makes words dance on their heads, chucks your chin up with an outrageous image (a rhino in your living room?), then pulls your hat over your eyes until you see galaxies in the vegetable garden, and the moon in your frying pan. Behind all his writing is the smooth, skilled, impeccably tuned voice of the storyteller, who charms and lures his listeners onward to the next wonder, the next improbable marvel. That voice you would recognize behind a doorless wall on an unfamiliar street in a country you're not sure how you got to. It is Peter's voice, at once familiar and inimitable, and hearing it, you suddenly know exactly where you are: under the eye, in the palm of, a master.'

Vera Nazarian picked, surprise, the same novel 'My favorite, beloved book by Peter S. Beagle is The Last Unicorn which I've read in school, probably during study hall, in the magical silence of the school library, surrounded by the rustle of pages turned and thoughts plunged into a waking dream.

'I think that Peter S. Beagle 'owns' unicorns in the same way that Anne McCaffrey owns dragons or J.R.R Tolkien owns elves. Before experiencing this book I've never felt the true profundity of what a unicorn stands for, or the impossible sorrow of being the last of its kind, imprisoned in a circus cage. Endangered species illustrated by a fantastic creature, what a concept! School boards should take heed when teaching kids that science unit.

'Before unicorns put on the sad mantle of traditional fantasy cliché, they were one of the grand archetypes. Regardless of their affiliation, dragons stood for ultimate power, while unicorns they were of course ultimate truth, whether you believed in such a thing, or not. Unicorns make you believe, make you suspend your own prejudice or worldview for just a moment. And no other portrayal of unicorns has ever hit home so hard, and none ever will, I think, as The Last Unicorn . Beagle's is the classic unicorn, evoking gentle nostalgia, and that rare and genuine sense of wonder.'

Tim Pratt had a more unusual choice 'The Folk of the Air. It probably helped that I read the book the same year I moved to Santa Cruz, California, and visited the Bay Area for the first time — Beagle's town of Avicenna is a sort of idealized dream of a Bay Area town, and the world I found in the book pretty well matched my own sense of wonder and magic at starting a new life here on the west coast, far from my old home. It seemed to me then that everyone I met could, in reality, be a hidden master of untold powers, and it was incontrovertible fact that I met people who knew all sorts of secret societies and places that I had not yet discovered for myself. I love the book also for its sense of magic — magic all around us, magic that may be elusive, but is never, ultimately, totally out of reach.'

Jill Roberts, the Managing Editor of Tachyon Publications pondered her answered a bit 'Ah, how can I choose? OK, my favorite Peter S. Beagle novel is Tamsin. Cynical, whip-smart, and very, very brave, Jenny Gluckstein is one of my all-time favorite heroines. I would put Jenny right up there with Meg Murray from A Wrinkle in Time, Mary Lennox from A Secret Garden, and Menolly from Dragonsong. I wish I had come across her when I was prowling the stacks at my grade school library, trolling for fantasy that was 1) really compelling, 2) well-written, and 3) had a strong female protagonist. Tamsin hits squarely on all three. It's an intricate, wholly-original ghost story populated by all manner of magical and archetypal creatures, star-crossed lovers, and a villainous judge plucked right of the King James era. Also amazing is Peter's dialogue, which effortlessly passes back and forth between teen slang, cat-speak, and both rural and refined 17th century English. I really love that Tamsin could be categorized as YA, yet I read it in my twenties and was thoroughly hooked.   

'And I'd also like to put in a vote for Peter's first short story collection, The Rhinoceros Who Quoted Nietzsche and Other Odd Acquaintances. Here's the disclaimer: I work at Tachyon Publications, the publisher of that title and several others by Peter. But I read TRWQNaOOD long before my tenure at Tachyon — in fact, working with Peter was a perk for me to come onboard. Rhino is full of treasures, from the dark, dysfunctional 'Lila the Werewolf,' which is my favorite werewolf story ever, to the lovely, sentimental 'Professor Gottesman and the Indian Rhinoceros,' which makes me cry every time I read it — and that's a lot of times.'

Jo Sherman went with the favorite novel 'My favorite is also The Last Unicorn. What a beautiful book it is, full of folklore, humanity, and down-to-earth characters mingling with the archetypes. The image of the unicorns rising out of the sea has stayed with me, and the Red Bull is an awe-inspiring creation. Mix the tormented king with the very human magician and his gal, and you have a brilliant look at humanity and what it means to be human. It is so right that the unicorn who turns female returns to being a unicorn once more there could be no more perfect resolution.'

Will Shetterly had a brief but interesting answer — 'Lila the Werewolf' and either The Last Unicorn or I See By My Outfit.'

James Stoddard couldn't pick a favorite 'I would rank several of Peter Beagle's books as equally entertaining, so I'll harken back to one I haven't read since college, a book I've been meaning to reread for years: I See By My Outfit, the story of Beagle and a friend riding a pair of motor scooters from New York to California. The title is from their own original parody of a Smothers Brothers skit, sung to the tune of 'The Streets of Laredo':

[first voice] I see by my outfit what I am a cowboy.
[second voice] I see by my outfit what I am a cowboy too.
[both] We see by our outfits what we was both cowboys.
If you had a outfit, you could be a cowboy too.

'Through the years I've come to realize that quaint little skit has a lot of truth to it. We are invariably tossed into situations for which we have no experience, forced to fake it until we learn the ropes. Beagle understood that, I think, as the two intrepid adventurers wind their way across America.

'I loaned the book out years ago, so I can't refer to it, but I remember two moments one is a point when the heroes have been freezing cold for endless days. I don't recall the exact circumstances, but I remember the scene as belly-laugh funny, maybe the hardest I have ever laughed at anything in print. Whether I would laugh today, I don't know, nor does it matter. It was a thing of joy at the time.

'The second was when Beagle describes a scene as being 'like Mordor.' Living in a rural community, attending a small college, I didn't know anyone else who was a fantasy reader. That simple description gave me a feeling of kinship, because back then most people wouldn't have understood the reference. Here was a person who was as big a fan of Tolkien and fantasy as I was. It resonated with me; it resonates still. It made the journey on those scooters personal.

'Must go. I'm off to Amazon to find a copy.'

Andrew Wheeler says 'In this, as in so many other things, my favorite is the one that came first. The first work of Beagle's that I read was coincidentally his first novel, A Fine and Private Place. (Well, maybe it wasn't a coincidence, after all — unicorns give me a rash, but a book set in a cemetary was just what I was looking for.)

'A Fine and Private Place is elegant, quietly lovely, and deeply thoughtful. It's a book with deep reservoirs of wisdom, and a viewpoint obviously built on decades of close observation of real people's lives and interactions. And yet it was written by a nineteen-year-old.

'Luckily, that nineteen-year-old was Peter Beagle, and that explains all.

'(On the other hand, The Innkeeper's Song is pretty darn good, too...)'

Jane Yolen gets the last word 'Choosing one Beagle piece is a hard task, but I have no doubt about my answer. It is his brilliant, provocative fable, 'Come Lady Death' in which a bored Lady Neville invites Death to a ball and in the end changes places with her. Not a word, not a sentence is wrong in this tale. Implacable, seductive as Lady Death herself, the short story has remained my favorite since I first read it at least thirty years ago.'