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The Orphan  (The Book of the Beast, volume 1)

By Robert Stallman 

23 Jun, 2024

Because My Tears Are Delicious To You


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1980’s The Orphan is the first volume in Robert Stallman’s speculative fiction trilogy, The Book of the Beast.

Depression-era farmer Martin Nordmeyer is astonished to discover a naked boy hiding in his hayloft. The boy is Robert Lee Burney. Robert has no family that he can name. Indeed, he has no family at all; he was not so much born as created.

The Beast is a huge carnivore of unknown origin. It has for some time been preying on local animals, wild and domestic, for which the unlucky stray dogs of the region have been blamed. In addition to its impressive size, claws, and teeth, the Beast can change shape. New shapes have their own minds and personalities, aware of and in communication with the Beast’s.

Rather than hand the child over to an orphanage Martin and his wife Catherine Cat” Nordmeyer have decided to unofficially adopt the boy. Martin, thus far the father of daughters, has a son to raise; Robert now has a home.

Martin and Cat dote on Robert. They’re entirely unaware of the Beast, as well as certain unsavory activities that Robert innocently shares with local kids. As far as the couple know, Robert is a normal, happy boy. Well, perhaps a bit odd.

Believing that the Nordmeyers are rich, a gang of tramps invade the Nordmeyer home during a family gathering. The money on hand is far less than the tramps expected. When one tramp’s interest turns to the Nordmeyer’s attractive daughter Vaire, Robert involuntarily transforms into the Beast. In the chaos that follows, the Beast kills one tramp… but Martin is killed when the tramps’ shotgun discharges.

Little boys do not turn into huge, ravening beasts. The only reasonable explanation is that a heroic bear for some reason decided to burst into the farmhouse and save (almost all of) the family. That’s bizarre, but other explanations are even more bizarre.

Except that the Nordmeyer women know what they saw. It wasn’t a public-minded bear. It was Robert changing shape. This demands investigation. Enquiries go poorly. Robert vanishes, never to be seen again.

Later and elsewhere: enter charming Charles Cahill. Charles claims to be thirteen, and spins entertaining tales of his life as a tramp. He wastes no time sweet-talking his way into old Mrs. Stumway’s household as an unofficial foster child. Enrolled in school, Charles is an astonishingly bright student, advancing from first to fifth grade over the course of a single semester.

Charles is, of course, another one of the Beast’s creations. Will Charles fare any better than Robert?


I didn’t remember much about this book, the series, or the author, except that like Reamy and Susan Petrey, Stallman was a promising author whose career was cut short1 when he died aged fifty. In fact, Stallman was on the same Astounding award (then the Campbell award) ballot as Petrey, the only time of which I am aware when the Astounding nominee list featured two dead authors.

In fact, there are parallels between Reamy’s only novel, Blind Voices, and The Beast. Both are set in the US Depression era, both focus on rural Americans. Such settings are not to my taste and I rather regret rereading the book. In the case of Blind Voices, regrets were minor. But as to this book… the only thing that got me to the end of The Orphan was my refusal to notice that the Sunk Cost Fallacy applied here.

Something I should mention, another reason for disliking the book. There’s sex. Lots of sex, which was, as you know, commonly featured in much of the SFF of this era. SFF authors seem to have discovered sex a mere ten or fifteen years prior to The Orphans publication2.

This would all be good fun except that the narrative veers between innocent (but unpleasant) exploration, unsavory bits, and rape. As soon as I heaved a sigh, convinced that the rape bits were over, bestiality suddenly bounded on stage. This was a surprise and not a pleasant one.

The novel is skillfully written. I can see why it caught people’s attention. The Orphan was nominated for the Astounding award, the Locus Best First Novel award3, the Locus Best Fantasy Novel award4, the Best Novel Nebula award5, and the coveted Balrog award6.

Alas, I found the unpleasant bits very unpleasant, so I will not be pursuing this series further. Sunk cost fallacy only gets one so far.

The Orphan is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Apple Books), here (Barnes & Noble), and here (Kobo). I did not find The Orphan at Chapters-Indigo or Words Worth Books.

1: The final two volumes of the trilogy were published posthumously.

2: Astounding back-issues and the early works of Andre Norton suggest that early SFF authors may have indulged in asexual reproduction.

3: Coming in second to Robert Forward’s Dragon’s Egg. Huh.

4: Coming in 17th, far behind Robert Silverberg’s Lord Valentine’s Castle. I won’t list the intervening fifteen books.

5: For which the winner was Gregory Benford’s Timescape. Fred Pohl’s Beyond the Blue Event Horizon was second, Walter Tevis’ Mockingbird was third, Orphan was fourth, Gene Wolfe’s Shadow of the Torturer was fifth, and Joan D. Vinge’s The Snow Queen was sixth.

Something to bear in mind when looking for Nebula records: while the ISFDB lists them under the year they were granted, SFWA instead lists the year in which the works were published. Thus, on ISFDB one would check the 1981 Nebulas, but on the SFWA site, one needs to look at 1980. This is the sort of helpful record-keeping quirk that never creates confusion.

6: Coming in 11th, well behind the winner, Stephen Donaldson’s The Wounded Land. As amusing as it is to poke fun at the Balrog, their nominees were often an interesting cross-section of SFF at the time. In this case, the only nominee I don’t remember is the Munn.