Peter S. Beagle takes you to myth-making schoolS

I have a huge unfair advantage over other struggling fantasy authors, because I've read Mirror Kingdoms: The Best of Peter S. Beagle. Beagle gives a storytelling masterclass, and plants images in your head that you'll carry around for ages.

This book came out last spring from Subterranean Press but I'm just getting around to reviewing it. (And sadly, I see that it's already listed as out of print at Subterranean's site, although Amazon still has copies. UPDATE: Amazon is out, but Connor Cochran at Conlan Press says you can buy signed copies directly from Peter S. Beagle and himself, for around $40 or $50 depending on their condition. Contact him at connorfc@earthlink.net.) You can also read these stories in Beagle's story collections from Tachyon Publications: We Never Talk About My Brother, The Line Between, Sleight of Hand, and The Rhinoceros Who Quoted Nietzsche. I believe it contains most of his short fiction, since as he says in the introduction, he's never been a terribly prolific short-story writer. Still, the "best of" designation totally fits — this is Beagle at his absolute best.

In his introduction, Beagle writes that he barely did any short stories prior to 1994, and his real explosion in output has only happened in the past half-dozen years. And short fiction remains a confounding literary form for Beagle, for a couple of reasons that he mentions:

To me, short stories have always ranked with poetry as the most difficult of literary forms, primarily because the writer can't afford to make a single mistake. One broken rhythm — one missed moment of revelation, one wrong word or line of dialogue — and it's all over: the trick revealed, the illusion of magic gone... In short stories, you don't get as much time to hang out with your imagined cast of characters: to have a beer and talk, to let them divulge, confide, let slip — and lie as well, for characters will lie to their author, as they would to anyone else.

But short fiction is challenging for another reason, too — you're asking a lot of readers. The reader has to jump into a new world and get swept up in a new narrative thread, over and over again. There's an endless series of beginnings and endings, and the reader has to make a commitment not once, but a dozen or twenty times, in the course of a single anthology or author collection. I know a lot of readers who balk at reading short stories for this exact reason — in the same way that a great novel keeps you turning pages to follow the ongoing story, a book of short fiction gives you a perfect place to stop turning pages, at regular intervals.

And that's really why anybody who loves short fiction — not just writers of the form, but readers, too — should spend some quality time with Beagle's short stories, either in this volume or in the four Tachyon volumes. There are many things that Beagle does astonishingly well in all of his tales, but chief among them is his ability to sweep you up in a new story just as you finish the previous one. That sounds like a commonplace skill of short story writers, but it's actually much rarer than you'd think.

Peter S. Beagle takes you to myth-making schoolS

I've been racking my brains, trying to see how he does it, as I've read through these stories one after the other. It's not a particular style of opening, or a particular way he introduces the preposterous or the supernatural into each story in turn. If anything, he keeps a nice diversity of styles of story openings — some of them launching into the action right away and others working you in slowly — which probably works in his favor, since the reader doesn't get a repetitive reading injury from coming across the same style of opening paragraph over and over again.

No, what Beagle does to make his collected stories feel like a candy sampler is to have strong characters, who are unmistakable and individual, right from the start. There's a strong feeling of personality in each one of these stories, and it's not the same personality from story to story, at all. Beagle is a master of creating characters who become compelling with just a few brush strokes — and then keep surprising and fascinating the reader as he fills them in. That's the rare gift, right there, and that's what any aspiring fantasy author, in particular, ought to study.

What makes these stories especially great examples of fantasy done well, though, is the way in which Beagle plays around with your expectations for what will happen when his brilliantly memorable characters interact with something from outside of our normal world. You sort of have an idea in your head for how this sort of story will go: the protagonist will encounter something uncanny, there will be a mystery or a questlet, and in the end the protagonist will be changed or learn a lesson, as the mystical element goes back where it came from. But in many of Beagle's stories, I thought I had a pretty shrewd idea of where he was going with his story, only to be proved wrong every time.

Peter S. Beagle takes you to myth-making schoolS

In "Professor Gottesman and the Indian Rhinoceros," for example, a professor's home is invaded by a strange sort of unicorn with a mania for discussing philosophy, and you think that this is going to turn out to be a metaphor for something in the professor's life, or a catalyst for the professor to get together with his obvious love interest, Sally — but what actually happens is something a good deal stranger. In "Two Hearts," Beagle's Hugo and Nebula Award-winning sequel to his novel The Last Unicorn, you have a pretty good inkling of what will happen when the wizard Schmendrick and Molly go to visit old King Lir along with their new friend Sooz, to ask for his help in fighting a griffin — but Lir's journey back to heroism is not at all what you think it'll be.

And then there's "Uncle Chaim and Aunt Rifke and the Angel," in which an elderly Jewish painter has an angel suddenly show up and demand to be his muse. Is the angel really an angel? Will she transform the stubbornly secular Uncle Chaim into some kind of spiritual believer? Is there going to be some kind of meditation on art and the divine? Beagle goes about short-circuiting all of your expectations before delivering something very different.

Beagle's characters, by and large, don't have a simple or easily described relationship with the magical or paranormal elements in their lives — it's almost never the case that magic changes people's lives in a pat fashion. Beagle's protagonists are constantly striving for something, and it's often a misguided goal (like power or wealth) or at least something that we're not sure they ought to have in the way that they want it. Even his noblest protagonists have severe flaws and blind spots, and the magic that intrudes on their lives neither helps nor hinders them — it just complicates things.

And you can't really understate the importance of Beagle's writing in making these characters come to life in a relatively short time. Whether it's first person or third person, his writing conforms itself to the people he's writing about, and he's capable of both charming wryness and wide-eyed sincerity. Like in "Uncle Chaim," when his narrator observes:

I don't know a thing about ten-year-olds today; but in those times one of the major functions of adults was to supply drama and mystery to our lives, and we took such things where we found them.

Where Beagle's mastery really comes out is in the area where so many writers (including myself) have trouble: description. When you're reading a description of a person or a place or a thing, it's often almost impossible to resist the impulse to skim a bit, because you're in for a dull recitation of particulars as the writer tries to jam as many details into your head as possible, so he or she can refer back to those details later. Or if the writer tries to make descriptive passages lovely and poetic, it risks feeling like too much of a noodly guitar solo on paper. Beagle not only makes his descriptions fascinating, he tells you something about the person doing the describing as well as the thing that's being described.

Here's the boisterous Mircha Dal, describing the excessively quiet town of Credevek in "The Last Song Of Sirit Byar":

So there's how we came to Credevek, which is a strange place, all grand lawns, high stone houses, cobblestone streets, servants coming and going on their masters' errands. No beggars. No tinkers, no peddlers. A few farm carts, a few children. Quiet. The quiet sticks to your skin in that town.

That last sentence, "the quiet sticks to your skin," tells you everything you need to know about Credevek, and a lot about Mircha as well. You can just picture it.

Here's the sailor Ben Hazeltine describing mermen, or merrows:

Now, what you didn't see much of in the old times, and don't hardly be seeing at all these days, was mermen. Merrows, some folk call them. Ugly as fried sin, the lot — not a one but's got a runny red nose, nasty straggly hair — red too, mostly, I don't know why — stumpy green teeth sticking up and out every which way, skin like a crocodile's arse. You get a look at one of those, it don't take much to figure out why your mermaid takes to hanging around sailors. Put me up against a merrow, happen even I start looking decent enough, by and by.

The other descriptive passage that keeps coming back to me is from "Two Hearts," when the unicorn — the last unicorn, in fact — finally makes its appearance in the middle of a frenetic action scene. Instead of telling us that the unicorn appeared and then describing it, Beagle describes it and lets us figure out what it is:

They don't look anything like horses. I don't know where people got that notion. Four legs and a tail, yes, but the hooves are split, like a deer's hooves, or a goats, and the head is smaller and more — pointy — than a horse's head. And the whole body is different from a horse, it's like saying a snowflake looks like a cow. The horn looks too long and heavy for the body, you can't imagine how a neck that delicate can hold up a horn that size. But it can.

So that's just a hint of the sort of stuff you can learn from delving into Peter S. Beagle's stories — it's impossible, in a short book review, to pull apart all of the things he accomplishes in nearly every story. Besides the thread of heroism and people striving for greatness, another obvious thread in a lot of his stories is one of what it means to be an artist or storyteller. From Uncle Chaim the painter to Sirit Byar the musician to Able the photographer in "The Rabbi's Hobby," magic is often bound up with the act of creating something. And storytelling is a means of making something real, or bringing a shadowy truth (or falsehood) into the light. The linkage between art and magic isn't exactly unique to Beagle's work, but he makes it his own, not least because he is so good at giving us the truth as his characters see it, rather than some kind of absolute truth.

And that's really the foundation of Peter S. Beagle's success as a storyteller — giving us a reality that's true to his characters and their world, and making us believe absolutely. Study his work, and you might just learn a few of his secrets.