The Overneath by Peter S. Beagle (ebook review).

February 23, 2018 | By | Reply More

Peter S. Beagle’s latest book, ‘The Overneath’, isn’t a novel but an anthology.

‘The Green-Eyed Boy’ is a story about the youthful Schmendrick, big-nosed clumsy magician star of Beagle’s best-known work ‘The Last Unicorn’, which I haven’t read. It’s narrated by Schmendrick’s master, the magician to whom he is apprenticed, a great wizard called Nikos. Teenage Schmendrick makes a bit of a cock-up trying desperately to impress a girl. Well, we’ve all done it.

‘The Story Of Kao-Yu’ is about a judge of that name in ancient China. He’s a very fair judge, not corrupt at all and spends half the year in his home town and half on a circuit around the countryside. Very occasionally, he is assisted by a unicorn, who appears in the courtroom when he asks the defendant a particularly important question. The unicorn will charge and gouge with its horn anyone who lies. One day, on the circuit, Kao-Yu is asked to judge a pickpocket named Snow Ermine, who is the loveliest woman he has ever seen. Kao-Yu is unmarried and dedicated to his work. An interesting story and clearly written by one of the male gender. Sometimes a beautiful woman can drive a man crazy.

‘My Son Heydari And The Karkadann’ also features a unicorn but an African one called a Karkadann which is, as far as I can tell, a rhinoceros. The narrator of this one is an elephant herder who uses the trunked ones to haul logs and the Heydari of the title is his third son. Karkadanns hate elephants and can kill them and so do elephant herders who don’t like Karkadanns. This is a sort of riff on ‘Androcles And The Lion’ but beautifully told as usual. The wise men of modern literature say ‘show don’t tell’ but Beagle tells constantly, through amiable narrators and makes you like it.

Far away and long ago, there were a king and queen, kindly rulers, but ever since her wedding day the queen could not walk, crippled by some unknown malady. The land has a rule that one day the king must be reduced to the status of a beggar and go on his way. At a later date, the same fate befalls the queen. The rule was presumably dreamed up by storytellers. ‘The Queen Who Could Not Walk’ packs in a lot of suffering and pathos. As ever, Beagle carries it off with panache.

In real life northern California, Beagle tells us in the introduction, illegal drugs may be the main cash crop and the growers and dealers keep savage dogs or even wolves to guard their compounds. In ‘Trinity County, CA: You’ll Want To Come Again And We’ll Be Glad To See You!’ the author fantasises about how life would be if they kept dragons for the same purpose. Combining this fancy with a typical buddy cop story where the grizzled veteran takes a punk on her first day on the job, he delivers another great yarn.

‘The Way It Works Out And All’ features and is a tribute to the late Avram Davidson, narrated by the author as if it really happened. It opens with Beagle receiving postcards on consecutive days from widely spread locations all over the planet, all from Davidson in his usual scrawl. At first, he thinks it some kind of trick then learns about the Overneath, a nexus from where you can go anywhere. ‘The Overneath’ is an interesting concept and Beagle’s affection for his departed friend shines through.

‘Kaskia’ concerns a klutz who gets a new computer from his cousin, Barry, a specialist in goods that fall off the backs of lorries. Martin tries to make the best of this strange gadget despite the usual disdain from his wife, Lorraine, and the fact that the computer wizard neighbour can barely set it up. It has too many function keys and other keys with strange symbols.

‘Schmendrick Alone’ has the hapless wizard helping a damsel in distress. A local lord wants to have his evil way with her and Schmendrick calls up a creature to fight him off. It all goes wrong, as usual. Not dissimilar in plot is ‘Great-Grandmother In The Cellar’ where evil wizard Borbos puts the beautiful Jashani to sleep and says he won’t wake her until they get permission to marry. Jashani has a habit of falling for bad boys, not uncommon in the female psyche. In desperation, her brother Da’mas seeks help from a creature only spoken of in hushed whispers: the great-grandmother in the cellar. ‘Like every other story in this book,’ says Beagle in the introduction, ‘I told it to myself as I was going along.’ It’s a technique that works well for him.

‘Underbridge’ has a real life troll in it, the one under the Fremont bridge in Seattle made of concrete and clutching a Volkswagen. It’s a work of art. In this story, it comes to life at night and wants to be fed. Richardson is an untenured professor of children’s literature with a temporary assignment at the University of Washington who gets involved with the troll. This starts off quietly but becomes wilder and, by the end, I loved it.

‘The Very Nasty Aquarium’ is a minor and slightly silly story about a little model pirate that takes over a small household aquarium, terrorising the mermaid and the diver and the owner. Beagle carries it off with his usual charm and the characters, two old ladies, are well-drawn.

‘Music, When Soft Voices Die’ is Beagle’s only attempt at steampunk, largely because he’s not quite sure what it is. In a Victorian London setting, four young gentlemen live together in a rooming house. One is Angelos, a medical student and, fascinated by the new discoveries in electricity, he begins to experiment in his house. Soon voices start coming from his room. More of a horror/weird story than steampunk but it made the anthology anyway.

The last story is ‘Olfert Dapper’s Day’ and features a real-life early American colonist who wrote learned books about places he had never been. I’ve read it before and didn’t want to again.

Beagle doesn’t write in the mode of today and it’s possible he takes some getting used to. I recall reading ‘Olfert Dapper’s Day’ in ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy And Science Fiction’ back when I reviewed that august publication and not liking it much. Since then, he’s grown on me. A lot. His style is understated and reading him you might think that Somerset Maugham had taken up weird fiction. He takes his time and is more focused on character perhaps than events. But characters are what tend to endure in fiction. Beagle is also proof that you don’t have to write 20 volume epics to do fantasy. Small is beautiful.

I’d recommend this but caution Beagle fans to check the contents page first because he writes short stories and novellas and then issues collections there is some overlap between his books. Not a lot but it does happen. Check you haven’t previously read it all before buying but as far as I can see, most of this is new.

Eamonn Murphy

February 2018

(pub: Tachyon Publications, 2017. 336 page paperback. Price: $15.95 (US), £ 8.42 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-61696-269-2)

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Category: Books, Scifi

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