Charles de Lint, Dreams Underfoot (Tor Books, 1994; Orb, 2003)
There's a magic that we've lost sight of in the urban jungle. Mysteries abound in the corners and the empty spaces and the void left where our imaginations have packed up and moved to warmer climates. Maybe you find it hard to believe that the dirty, smelly, crowded modern-day city can have any sort of mystique or magic to it, but believe me, there's a lot more there than meets the eye. Legends stalk the slums, ghosts haunt the cobblestoned streets, goblins dwell in the buried part of the city, and nightmares share the roads. The city itself possesses character, spirit, and an identity.
Dreams Underfoot, Charles de Lint's first short story collection, is a passport and fully detailed map to the fictional North American city of Newford, a city which Canadian readers claim to be American, and which American readers swear to be Canadian. Me? I think it sits on the border, not just between Canada and America, but between reality and fantasy. Because in Newford, magic is something that happens frequently, subtly, and with a passion. It's all a matter of belief, and timing.
The stories collected in Dreams Underfoot cover a six year period in de Lint's career, and chart the slow evolution of Newford and its inhabitants. You can actually watch the flavor and texture of the city take shape from story to story, as characters become familiar, and connections are revealed. Certain characters in particular return in story after story.
For instance, one of the best-known characters is Jilly Coppercorn. Artist, dreamer, and all-around good person, she's like a weirdness magnet, attracting fairies, goblins, ghosts, things that go bump in the night, and friends who've experienced the same. She's one of the keystones of Newford's magic, and it's a sure bet that she'll gravitate towards anything not quite normal, either through direct experience, or by being friends with someone else.
Geordie and Christy Riddell are brothers who don't get along very well, and who appear more often than not in the background. Christy's a writer, a collector of odd tales and urban legends, a man who collects without truly believing. Geordie is a musician, a busker who possesses, sad to say, abysmal luck in relationships. One can't talk about Newford without thinking of the Riddell brothers.
They aren't the only memorable characters in Dreams Underfoot, but to go into detail about the others would require a lot more space. Suffice it to say that de Lint characters tend to be realistic, memorable, and just a shade special. Most of them have the same creative streak in them that the author has, reflecting his musical, artistic, and authorial tastes in all their many facets.
But what about the stories? Well, they're an eclectic bunch. Take "Timeskip," for example. On the surface, it's the first of Geordie's many failed romances. It's about love, and loss, and ghosts, and the first hesitant steps of any relationship, about music, and tragedy. It's a ghost story ... sort of.
Then you have "Freewheeling," which is an oddly whimsical yet poignant tale about a boy, some bicycles, and the need to be free. Like many de Lint stories, there's sadness involved, but at the same time, there's hope.
"That Explains Poland" is an odd duck. It's a monster hunt, a story about friends, and a shared peek into one of the mysteries of the world. Is Bigfoot stalking the slums? You be the judge.
"Pity the Monsters" is a story about family. But this is the kind of family that you don't want to turn your back on. Ever. With a hint of Frankenstein, and a healthy dose of creepy madness, it's not a story to read when the lights are dim and the wind is howling outside your door.
"Small Deaths" describes the moments in one's life when something goes irrevocably wrong (being arrested, losing a friend, someone dying); but it's also an odd story in which a popular nighttime radio DJ meets an equally unusual man with more than one identity, and a deadly secret. It's about trust, and luck, and music.
"The Moon Is Drowning as I Sleep" is a love story, pure and simple. But it's also a fairy story, a story about dreams, and a story about secrets.
"In The House Of My Enemy" is perhaps one of the most provocative, tragic, and frustrating stories in the book, with its not-so-simple tale of abuse, teen pregnancy, and the need to feel safe when there's nowhere left to hide. It's a chilling story, and one that hits far closer to the real world than some might find comfortable. And that makes it one of the strongest stories in the volume.
"Tallulah" is another story about love and loss, this time focusing on Christy Riddell and his love life. In it, we learn about the spirit of the city of Newford, and just what sort of form it takes.
Describing these stories in any more detail would ruin the fun. These were the stories which introduced me to Charles de Lint, and this is the book I'd gleefully hand anyone as an introduction to his world. While not every story is perfect, and some don't live up to their promise, none fail outright, and a few stand out with flying colors. Because it's a collection, you can get a wide range of style, story, concept, character and theme, and that makes it worthwhile.
If you like this, you'll like de Lint's other Newford stories and books. Green Man Review has reviewed Memory & Dream, Moonlight & Vines, Someplace To Be Flying, and Trader.