Monday, April 11, 2011

Charles de Lint: The Newford Stories

I really have no business writing this at all.

I've barely dipped into Charles de Lint's loosely connected Newford stories, but having just finished his early short story collection, Dreams Underfoot, I thought "Why not"?

The phrase "urban fantasy" is being tossed around all over the place in these vampire ridden times, so I think the original impulse that created the genre has been somewhat diluted, or lost. To the point where I think the Wikipedia entry on the genre is kind of off. Currently, when the genre is talked about, what is usually meant is paranormal mystery or romance. Something like the Charlaine Harris Southern Vampire books or the Anita Blake series. That is to say, fairly traditional genre books (mystery, crime, romance, whatever) that just happen to have a vampire or a werewolf included. As most everyone knows, these books are unbelievably popular, but I'll leave looking at that particular phenomenon for another day. Some are very entertaining, and some are just awful. But, honestly, most just aren't very good or creative and special.

These aren't the books I'm much interested in writing about.

In the Wikipedia entry on the genre neither John Crowley or Charles de Lint are mentioned - which I think invalidates the whole thing. In 1981, Crowley's Little, Big was published. I have to re-read it before I write about it properly, but it's a book that I didn't precisely love when I first read it, but bits and pieces of it have been gnawing away it my brain ever since. It's a family saga and a fairy tale and part of it is set in a strange post-apocalyptic New York. It's not really like much else, and is one of those books (along with lots of Angela Carter, for example) that make you realize how deeply conservative most stories are. To leave him off any sort of list of Urban Fantasy authors is unforgivable, as he likely invented the genre. Of course, his book contains no vampire romance, so why would anyone care?

The other omission, that of Charles de Lint, is particularly shocking to me as I was under the impression that is was the absolute king of this genre. But, again, his books and stories sorely lack the vampire romance element, so I am clearly wrong.

For the past 20 years or so, de Lint has been writing books and stories about the fictional city of Newford. I'm not sure where it is, but I'm guessing somewhere in Canada, on one of the Great Lakes (de Lint hails from the great nation to our North). I'd read a smattering of short stories set in Newford over the years when I came across them in various anthologies, but I hadn't read any of the novels or collections. I had read his non-Newford novel, The Little Country, which I liked very much. As I have total completion mania, and like to begin things at the beginning, I'm finding the list of over twenty books somewhat daunting. I started with the early short story collection, Dreams Underfoot and I loved it.

He writes about poets and street kids and artists and buskers and musicians. He's not very interested in the middle class and the ordinary. He has a particular interest in traditional forms of music and in all sorts of folk tradition. Music has played a huge part in everything by him that I've read, and this anthology is no different (de Lint has recorded a couple of albums of folk and traditional music himself). The stories vary greatly in subject and tone, but there is a great deal of magic in all of them. There are fairies and mermaids and monsters. He intertwines these supernatural elements with the ordinary lives of the people who populate his city seamlessly. Some characters appear again and again, Jilly a former street kid turned painter most often. Many of the stories are romantic, in the old fashioned sense of the word, including a gorgeous mermaid story spun from the Anderson original. Like it (and unlike the Disney version), things end tragically. Though there is magic and one wishes with all one's being that Newford was real, he doesn't whitewash the horrors of poverty and runaways. Their lives are brutal, and the only reason anyone winds up on the street is because of poverty and abuse. His magic stories, like in the older fairy tales, are ways of showing and explaining people's lives, making something out of them, and as with lots of old tales, most often the lives of women or the poor.

Not to make his stories sound unbearably grim, because they're not. Even when they're sad (and at least three of them made me cry on the subway), there's always some sort of catharsis, nothing's ever a complete waste. He also has at least one or two horror stories. But, I think, it's his deep knowledge and love of folk traditions, both narrative and in music that give his stories their very special feeling. He knows what he's writing about and he rarely overplays his hand.

I'm trying to decide which one I should read next. It will likely be The Onion Girl as I already own it, and it's supposed to be something of a classic. But if anyone - human, fairy or vampire - has any other suggestions, I'll gladly listen.

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