What happens when we give in to all-consuming fear? Peternelle van Arsdale examines this question in her novel The Beast is an Animal, an allegory about the danger of allowing fear to rule a society.
In a world very like the early Puritan era in America, The Beast lives in the foreboding fforest. The soul eaters—beings who feed on the fear in a person’s soul—also live within the fforest, after their own village casts them out because they fear their difference. Everyone fears The Beast, and after they lay waste to the adults in the village of Gwenith, everyone fears the soul eaters, too.
Alys and her young friends from Gwenith find a new home in the village of Defaid, but fear still reigns in her new village. Alys harbors fear, too—the fear of the soul eaters, the fear of who and what she thinks she might be, and how that might be connected to the destruction wreaked by the soul eaters and The Beast.
van Arsdale’s writing is ethereal and atmospheric, which lends a dark weight to the society that celebrates conformity and punishes difference. Her prose wraps you in the pressure Alys feels to conform to the rules of her new village, as well as her feelings of confusion, fear, and ultimately, determination to follow the path she knows she must take.
Probably the most important aspect of this novel is that it was impossible for me to read without recognizing the parallels between the village of Defaid and today’s America. When the villagers’ fear of The Beast and the soul eaters grows, they build a wall to keep out what they fear. Granted, the prospect of having one’s soul eaten is not pleasant; however, the soul eaters feed on the very fear that drives the villagers to build the wall. In fact, one could argue that the soul eaters only came into being because of how much the villagers feared The Beast to begin with, and how they began to attribute every “unnatural” thing to the existence of The Beast.
After what happened in Gwenith, the villagers in Defaid intensify their vilification of The Beast and the soul eaters, and by extension the children who survived the soul eaters’ visit to Gwenith. Anyone connected to the idea of the fforest, The Beast, and the soul eaters are tainted, outcasts, suspect.
In light of the Muslim ban, the refusal of the current administration to acknowledge its own anti-Semitism and acts of domestic terror perpetrated by Americans, and the story of why an American Muslim woman quit her job in the Trump White House after only eight days, the allegorical value of van Arsdale’s message about fear grows more relevant by the day. The outcome of the Gwenith and Defaid villagers’ willingness to demonize and cast others out so they survive clearly parallels and serves as a warning to those who allow fear to rule their existence.
Alys understands that “you didn’t always find good and evil where you expected to—or where you’d been told to find them.”
Here’s hoping the current administration—and others who live with hate and fear in their hearts—can learn that lesson as well.
Peternelle van Arsdale is a book editor who never thought she’d write a book, until one day she had a glimmer of an idea that became The Beast Is an Animal. She lives in New York City, where she is at work on her second novel. Visit her at PeternelleVanArsdale.com, or follow her on Twitter (or both!).
A girl with a secret talent must save her village from the encroaching darkness in this haunting and deeply satisfying tale.
Alys was seven when the soul eaters came to her village.
These soul eaters, twin sisters who were abandoned by their father and slowly morphed into something not quite human, devour human souls. Alys, and all the other children, were spared–and they were sent to live in a neighboring village. There the devout people created a strict world where good and evil are as fundamental as the nursery rhymes children sing. Fear of the soul eaters–and of the Beast they believe guides them–rule village life. But the Beast is not what they think it is. And neither is Alys.
Inside, Alys feels connected to the soul eaters, and maybe even to the Beast itself. As she grows from a child to a teenager, she longs for the freedom of the forest. And she has a gift she can tell no one, for fear they will call her a witch. When disaster strikes, Alys finds herself on a journey to heal herself and her world. A journey that will take her through the darkest parts of the forest, where danger threatens her from the outside–and from within her own heart and soul.