Thursday, January 04, 2018

Review: "The Overneath" by Peter S. Beagle

It shouldn’t come as a huge surprise in “The Overneath” ($15.95, Tachyon Publications), Peter S. Beagle writes about a few unicorns. But there are a few other nice surprises in this short story collection, as well.

We’ll get the familiar ground out of the way first. Of the 13 stories in the book, three deal with unicorns of various stripes, and two focus on his bumbling magician Schmendrick.

First up is “The Green-Eyed Boy,” which tells the tale of how Schmendrick came to be apprenticed to the wizard Nikos prior to Beagle’s most well-known tale, “The Last Unicorn.” It’s a fun and funny story that should please fans of that book. Though less funny, the same could be said of “Schmendrick Alone,” in which we learn about the first time that the wizard summoned a demon that he couldn’t control.

Of the unicorn tales, the first two may be a little different than what you expect. “The Story of Kao Yu” tells a Chinese-influenced tale of a traveling judge who, on occasion, has the aid of a chi-lin in deciding his cases. He’s known as one of the fairest and most decisive judges available until one case changes his whole life.

The second, “My Son Heydari and the Kakadann” introduces us to an almost rhino-like version of the unicorn, a desert-dwelling creature that’s the bane of the local tribes. That doesn’t keep the young man of the story from trying to befriend one, though.

The only traditional, horse-shaped white unicorn to be found comes in the collection’s final tale, “Olfert Dapper’s Day.” This story is a fictionalized take on the 17th-Century doctor who inspired “The Last Unicorn” when Beagle found information claiming that Dapper had seen a unicorn in Maine. For me, this was the strongest of the unicorn tales and one of the best pieces in “The Overneath.”

If you’ve got unicorns, you need a few dragons, too, I suppose. Beagle gives us those in “Trinity County, CA: You’ll Want to Come Again, and We’ll Be Glad to See You!” We follow a couple of agents seeking out people who are harboring a wide variety of the beasts in the mountains of California.

Beagle delivers a few horror stories in the collection, as well, a couple of which I was quite fond of.

“Great-Grandmother in the Cellar” is set in the world of “The Innkeeper’s Song.” When a young boy is faced with a crisis and his father is not around to help, he calls on the only person that he can – a skeleton in the family’s closet both figuratively and literally – and it may prove to be a grave mistake.

“Underbridge” focuses on an actual troll statue that exists in Seattle, but our main character discovers it’s reality is a bit more sinister than the landmark where tourists snap photos.

Finally there are a few oddball stories, which I liked, though I’m not sure why. Beagle kind of dismisses “Kaskia,” a tale of alien contact, in his introduction to it, but I found it quite interesting, if a bit strange.

The true oddball piece, though, is “The Way It Works Out and All,” a story modeled after and featuring his friend Avram Davidson, which also gives the collection its name. In the story, the late Davidson reveals to Beagle that he can travel quickly anywhere in the world by going through the Overneath. There is, of course, a catch.

As with any short story collection, there are some fantastic tales here and some that just don’t seem to go anywhere. I felt that some of the tales might work better as seeds for a longer-form piece, but there was nothing that I didn’t enjoy. Fans of Beagle should love it.


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