Thursday, 9 March 2017

Returning to Charles De Lint's Books

I’ve been a fan of Charles de Lint since the early Nineties and, as I check back through my reading diary, I find I’ve read more of him than I even knew. Did I read these books in the right order? Is there even a right order to be found? Sitting down this week and reading his mammoth collection of interconnected tales, ‘Dreams Underfoot’ I realise that the correct order is elusive… because Charles de Lint doesn’t write books so much as he writes pomegranates.

‘Dreams Underfoot’ consists of stories to do with characters, places and legends of the fictional city of Newford. The characters are musicians, artists, street kids and writers… people find love, only to have their beloved snatched away by ghosts or mermaids or imps: by the eruption of magic into their everyday lives. It’s a place where people talk about ‘consensual reality’ and the idea that things are so only because more than one or two of us agree that they are so. It’s a place where the fae and the fantastical exist alongside the tragic and gritty.

Nowadays we have a catch-all term for the genre – urban fantasy – and there are dozens of series of novels set in contemporary towns and cities, featuring casts of vampires, shape-shifters, werewolves and warlocks. They’re almost commonplace now…! But back when I was first reading Charles de Lint his work stood out as very unusual, and almost unique.

It still stands out because of the quality of his writing, and the fact that his stories aren’t just about cosmic clashes between good and evil… The genre-blending is never clunky. These are proper tales. They are elegant little poems sprouting up in the urban decay. The characters always come first, and we feel like we are visiting the most important moments in their lives. We look forward to them strolling into further stories, cropping up as co-stars or cameos in the background. There’s a sense of the fantasy city as a living fabric – which is much more believable, to me, than the endless parade of obvious sequels that the genre has slipped into.

There are so many wonderful stories here and, having emerged from the tangled forest of the book by the end, it’s hard to pick out particular ones as favourites. Back to my image of the novel as a pomegranate: the individual cells are tight-packed together beneath the rind – each of them bursting with juice and a precious seed. Doesn’t it feel much more like real life, to learn of a cast of characters’ backstories and destinies, all out of order, all at different stages, as you bump into them? I loved Quentin’s time travel tale of his lost love Sam, split over two stories at opposite ends of the book, as well as the story of the illustrator Jilly Coppercorn, one of the stars of the Newford stories, whose tale of survival we only gradually learn as it gets filtrated through the tales of many others. She’s central to the work, though – she’s the one whose faith never wavers in the fantastical beings who share Newford with the more prosaic folk.

I must have mentioned before, the wonderful remainder bookshop I used to visit in Darlington, opposite the indoor marketplace? Where they used to sell imported American paperbacks for 70p each? This was in the late Eighties, early Nineties – fantasy, science-fiction and horror published by Del Rey, Ace and Berkley. Many of those books – with their luridly-painted covers – were quite unlike anything that you’d find in the ordinary shops. It honestly felt like they had dropped through from another dimension. Charles de Lint’s books were among those I was picking up there – alongside Jonathan Carroll’s, Ursula Le Guin’s and various others. They all had stories in the vast annual compendium, ‘The Best Fantasy and Horror’ edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, which I also bought from that same, tiny shop with its single long table of shiny covers and dusty bare floor.

All that fantasy fiction struck very deep chords with me, I realise now – those early forays into what people would now call Urban Fantasy or Paranormal Romance. I’m very glad of them – and I’m delighted to return to Newford, and to Charles De Lint’s world of artistic slackers and dreamers; his Rackham-faced goblins, Pre-Raphaelite hippy girls and taciturn musical men. I’m really glad to find I’ve only read about six of the many, many books he’s published. I’m happy to vanish into the rest.

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