There's not much I can say about this Pulitzer Prize-winner that hasn't been said. I'll say what it was to me. Beloved made me love horror. Prior to seeing the movie in 1998 (at the brand-new Regal Theatre in Rockville, MD), I had seen plenty of horror movies. Plenty of Child's Play and Puppet Master movies. Entertaining, and certainly scary at times, but not truly horrific.
This changed when I saw the film by Jonathan Demme, the man who brought respectability to the slasher genre with Silence of the Lambs. Beloved is a terrifying film. From the moment I saw Thandie Newton propped up against a dead tree, covered in insects, I knew I was in for it. The movie works because it combines strange and unsettling images with a growing sense of dread, but the subject matter is also a huge part. It is about slavery, American history's elephant in the room. You'll find more narratives about people who fought to preserve slavery than about actual slaves. The reason the whole "I never owned any slaves so we shouldn't talk about it ever" argument exists is because a lot of people don't want to acknowledge the brutality of the American slave system. It was a centuries-long parade of rape, torture, lashing, crippling, hanging, infanticide and degredation. The movie did not shy away from this. Its horror stems from slavery itself.
I'm not writing this blog post to talk about a film. I could, since Beloved-the-movie is one of the most faithful adaptations Hollywood has ever made. They cut some stuff out, but they didn't change anything. The movie inspired me to read Toni Morrison's book. The above picture is from the edition I read, and still my favorite of all the book's covers. Beloved is a horror novel. It is full of weirdness, from the creeping dread of the ice-skating scene to the body horror as a fattening Beloved saps all the energy from Sethe, succubus-style. All of this is coupled with Morrison's most masterful move: the slow reveal of the horrors of slavery. She gets the gory stuff out the way early, moving on to the way it demeaned and demorialized the slaves. The part where Sethe remembers Schoolteacher comparing her to a beast springs to mind. What is more horrible than not being considered human?
I love reading the negative reviews for this masterpiece on Amazon where the snot-nosed brats who are now required to read it in high school complain about having to read about slavery. Their discomfort is the novel's victory. It is about the myriad ways that slavery damaged black people, most importantly on the inside. These characters are mentally unwell products of a mentally unwell system, to the point that even the way they love is damaged. Life does not get easier for them after the Emancipation; they have to live with the indignities, and the way they try to create a community for themselves is simultaneously valiant and tragic. This is a book that doesn't shy away from the evils that human beings do to each other. One of my favorite moments in the book is when Stamp Paid fishes a bloody pigtail with a ribbon on it out the river, and asks the question "What are they?" I am sure many slaves thought this, wondering how their oppressors could even count as people. Morrison's imagery is often disgusting, and I can't think of anything more appropriate for a narrative about slavery. However, she uses such imagery because the story is about real people, bodily as well as emotionally. People who piss when they're scared, or vomit up food they can't eat.
Morrison is using the entire tapestry of American history here. She goes into prison chain gangs, the extinction of Native Americans. The girl who helps Sethe cross into Ohio is an indentured servant, and Sethe's own mother came across the Middle Passage. Every character gets their individual story, so the final effect is a narrative about a country. I learned more about America in reading Beloved than I got from a lot of school textbooks. Considering my awe at the idea of using American history as a background for genre work, maybe the book had a greater effect on my writing than I thought it did. After I read Beloved, my attentions turned from the World of Two Moons and settled firmly on the wonder of my own home. I've stayed in America since then. So Beloved was a great inspiration, not just in cementing my focus but in developing the grimness in my work. Pulling your punches doesn't help anybody. It sure as hell doesn't make for good writing.
Back to horror. After I read Beloved, I saw how truly compelling and relevant horror could be. Up until that point I ignored the genre. Toni Morrison led me to Clive Barker and Clark Ashton Smith. She led me to Richard Matheson and Poe. Buried beneath all the corny jump scares I remembered as a kid, there was a whole genre of work that really gripped the heart. Tales of wasted lives, uncertain futures and unfulfilled love. Tales of tragedy. True horror stems from tragedy; the idea that what lies ahead is not just inevitable death, but inevitable sorrow. That's what is really scary. Toni Morrison taught me that.
The wonderful 1980s film version, for all its charm, does not come close to matching Peter S. Beagle's classic. The Last Unicorn is one of those rare To Kill A Mockingbird type situations. Namely, Beagle cemented his place in literary history with this one book, and didn't need to ever write another one. For awhile it looked like he wouldn't. Beagle spent most of the 70s and 80s writing non-fiction and screenplays. Only in his later years has he decided to become prolific. I've attended a few of his readings, and it's an absolute pleasure to here his latest.
There's the timeless plot, the way the elements all work together, the deft way he employs magic that keeps it so strange and fae. I am tired of D&D-style magic systems that whittle the impossible down to mathematical formulas that men in robes master by singing songs. In Beagle's world, magic is entirely unknowable, and the trouble the wizard Schmendrick has with it is perfectly understandable. Beagle understands the logic of fairy tales. For instance, the character King Haggard is unhappy. Many people are unhappy. His is an omnipresent unhappiness that casts a shadow over a kingdom. It is an unhappiness that multiplies around itself. It is grand unhappiness, and I always think back on one of my favorite quotes, from when the unicorn first meets him:
"You are losing my interest and that is very dangerous. In a moment I will have forgotten you quite entirely, and will never be able to remember just what I did with you. What I forget not only ceases to exist, but never really existed in the first place."
What really cemented my love for this book is the language. Beagle drops metaphors as easy as breathing, his ideas so refreshing and evocative that I had to wonder Where do they come from? Reading Unicorn pushed me in my own lyricism, making me look at different aspects of the world, forcing me to delve deeper into my own reserves of imagination. Poetic language is fantastical in its very nature. This is especially evident to me since I have recently read Bruno Schulz and Antunes. Their works take place in the real world, but they don't feel like any world I've ever lived in. The relentless creative metaphors build the fantastical atmosphere. And Unicorn is the king of such works, the poetry working alongside the plot to present an entirely original fairy tale.
I had a copy of the above pictured edition. It literally fell apart as I was reading it. When I explained to Beagle why I had nothing for him to sign, he replied, "Yes, I remember that edition." I'm glad I managed to keep it intact long enough to get so much out of it. There's a very nice illustrated version that was published recently. I should pick that up and do a reread. For the story, but also for the challenge to look beyond whatever easy image comes to my head. Any mediocre metaphor can be a great metaphor. Any dull sentence can spring to life with energy. The Last Unicorn is a 100+ page book crammed with nothing but those kind of sentences.
I feel fortunate to live in a time when not only do such books exist, but the masters who wrote them are still alive and producing art. And I honor them.