This should probably be a five star review, but I have a personal history with this little tale that completely clouds my judgment. I have a feeling that no matter how far away from the age of five I get, it will always be that way.
I think I was five, at least. My friend Lauren was at my house for a sleepover, and she'd brought two well-worn VHS tapes along with her. One was The Land Before Time, which I immediately fell in love with. The other was the Rankin Bass cartoon version of The Last Unicorn. Course, I didn't know it was Rankin Bass at the time, and I didn't learn until years and years later that it was based on a book -- the important part is that it filled me with unadulterated terror. For YEARS I avoided this movie at all costs, fueled only by memory, which as the years went on, faded to a single image: a glowing red bull chasing a unicorn, and the terror that came with it. Even when I learned that the book had been written by Peter S. Beagle, I was reluctant to read it.
My sole exposure to his writing, though small, was extremely important. He'd written a foreword to the American version of The Lord of the Rings that has moved me to tears on a couple of occasions (mostly because I'm a huge weirdo, but it's also a great introduction -- sadly I can't find a link to the full text online, so just go pick up a book, you assholes). So, I already knew he was a cool dude . . . but my fear turned hatred of this stupid movie had become personal mythology by this point. It took me several years to get up the courage to check the book out of the library and give it a go, and even then, I'm not exactly sure what actually motivated me to do so. Kismet, I guess. Or maybe I just wanted a challenge. Either way, what I found in Beagle's little 300 page fairy-tale for grown-ups makes me incredibly angry that I was introduced to his story as a child, and by that film, no less (which I saw again a couple of years ago on a bet, and hated not only because of the lingering terror, but because the voice actors, music, and animation style were repugnant -- I am not a fan of the Rankin Bass oeuvre). Aside from personal taste, the movie waters down and omits most of the thematic stuff of the novel that makes it beautiful, but really, I think I was just too young to understand what the story I was watching really meant.
This book is about death, as both a curse and a blessing, and it's about human desire and the ephemerality of life. Five-year old children don't speak the language of subtlety, and looking back, I'm sure my subconscious mind understood that powerful, emblematic things were going on, but because I was way too young to actually comprehend the nuances of the message, that bull just became a huge symbol of evil and scary things, and has remained that way. I always forget that this story has a happy ending.
I wish I could say that by reading this book I was finally able to rid myself of the old fear those filmed images conjured up in me, but that kind of thing just doesn't go away -- those fears shaped my childhood, shaped me. That's some foundational shit right there. And it makes me angry as fuck -- because if this had had been my first exposure to The Last Unicorn, I think I would have loved it.