Paul Di Filippo Reviews The Carnival and Other Stories by Charles Beaumont
The Carnival and Other Stories, Charles Beaumont (Subterranean Press 978-1645240914, hardcover, 392pp, $45.00) October 2022.
The myths and legends surrounding creative geniuses who died too young are omnipresent and alluring. John Keats, Buddy Holly, Keith Haring, Marilyn Monroe, Janis Joplin— Such names form a pantheon of appreciation for what was accomplished and regrets for the might-have-beens.
Fantastika is not bereft of such a catalogue. Stanley Weinbaum, Cyril Kornbluth, Tom Reamy, John Ford— We celebrate their abbreviated canons, mourn their premature passing, and wistfully imagine them still producing into old age.
One of the most important and almost archetypical names in this sad roster is that of Charles Beaumont (1929–1967). Not only did he have immense talent—as evidenced by the eighty-some stories, two novels, a plethora of screenplays, and various essays he produced in his short career—but his death was occasioned by a bizarre and rare disease, never completely identified but amounting in its effects to a kind of wasting progeria. This slow horror-fiction demise seemed almost mythically overscripted.
In the fifty-five years since his passing, Beaumont has been the deserving subject of intermittent revivals and tributes. The vital volume at hand today is one such, presenting the man and his classic fiction to a new audience. But it’s a fine collection for us old-timers as well, reminding us of the writer’s prominence and heyday.
In 2015, there were three “new” Beaumont publications—Perchance to Dream, A Touch of the Creature, and The Intruder—and I covered them for the Barnes & Noble Review. I started my essay by saying, “Charles Beaumont might on first glance be thought of as the second-string Ray Bradbury for his similar storytelling tactics, tropes and themes and their shared New Frontier era of prominence—were he not so much ultimately his own man, with a very distinctive voice.” This new collection, with its generous assortment of over two dozen stories, including one never-before-seen title, continues to support such an assessment. They are stories along a familiar fantastika axis, but with individualistic jags and jolts.
David J. Schow’s long and loving introduction, “The Return of the Magic Man”, is a beautiful springboard into the ocean of Beaumont’s fiction. His insightful encapsulations of each story are above and beyond any introducer’s duty.
The stories are usefully presented in chronological order, but if we jump ahead to the title piece, we can instantly see what I meant by saying Beaumont can be plainly distinguished from Bradbury. The opener is pure Bradbury, yes.
The cool October rain and the wind blowing the rain. The green and yellow fields melting into gray hills, into gray sky and black clouds. And everywhere, the smell of autumn drinking the coolness, the evening coolness gathering in leaves and wheat and alfalfa, running down fat brown bark, whispering through rich grass to tiny living things.
The cool rain, glistening on earth and on smooth cement.
And there’s even a juvenile protagonist, Lars. But the rest of the tale, involving that crippled boy on an excursion to a non-magical carnival (a telling disjuncture from Bradburyian canon) goes off the Dandelion Wine rails into a whirlpool of madness, no epiphanies of either lightness or darkness to be had.
But even from his first sale in 1951, “The Devil, You Say?”, Beaumont showed a contrarian streak. This tale is not merely a typical deal-with-the-devil romp, it’s a portrait of Satan gone bonkers, with consequent multiversal undoing of things.
“The Last Caper” finds Beaumont in his parodic mode—his black humor was always a major draw in his work—as he spins a Mike Hammer deconstruction full of over-the-top metaphors and invading Venusians. Then, segueing from broad slapstick to elegant subtlety, we get “Mass for Mixed Voices”, which considers mortality in a programmed world, very Ellisonian. “The Quadriopticon” takes the piss out of cliched space opera by the tactic of inserting its egotistical actor hero into a VR-style reality.
How many writers would attempt to convey the language and mentality of an alien who had learned all about humans from reading only Finnegans Wake? And would they dare to do it in the style of James Joyce? “A World of Differents” will answer that question. If you thought Philip Jose Farmer was the only fellow to probe the limits of human-alien sexuality in the Fifties, then “Mother’s Day” will shock you. When you realize that this story and other groundbreaking work by Beaumont and his peers found a home in digest zines overlooked entirely by the culture at large, you will take extra pride in the receptivity and boldness of the science fiction genre during this era.
Echoes of Sturgeon infuse “The Trigger”, which details a murder method revolving around psychological, well, “triggers,” in the very 2022 sense of that word. “Mourning Song”, with its depiction of an eerie fellow who presages death, might have come straight from any high-quality Ellen Datlow anthology of the past decade. Blending taut naturalism with just a perfect tinge of the occult, Beaumont surveys race relations in “The Crime of Willie Washington”. The odd case of an unexpected pregnancy in “The Child” might have flowed from Shirley Jackson’s pen, while “The Life of the Party” rivals work by Robert Bloch.
Last up is the heretofore-unseen “Beast of the Glacier”, and while its conceits and characters and flow are all top-notch, it is unfortunately merely a compressed version of what must have been Beaumont’s original vision, a kind of unfleshed synopsis which rockets along from plot point to plot point. Fascinating as a capstone to this volume, but sadly unfulfilled as major fiction from this wunderkind.
As I said in my 2015 essay: “[Beaumont’s tales] are full of traps and hooks and frank gimmicks, ‘biters bitten’ and old myths…played for laughs. But they also display acute psychological insights and keen-edged sociopolitical assessments. They are what might be dubbed ‘modern fantastika,’ midway between Poe and postmodern authors like Laird Barron or Lucius Shepard. Beaumont loved the catchy opener, the emotionally gripping premise, and the tricky ending, which, if not O. Henry-rigid, still lent his stories a certain foreshadowed explosive burst at their climaxes.”
No one today produces fiction just like this, and we are lucky to have had Beaumont around for as long as we did, to remind us with his legacy about the classic parameters of the genre.
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