Visions of Paradise

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Newford Stories

The first Charles de Lint story I recall reading was “Uncle Dobbin’s Parrot Fair” in Asimov’s about a dozen years ago. It was a wonderful story, filled with magic and warmth so different from any science fiction story I’d ever read. Soon thereafter I read two of his novels, The Little Country and Spiritwalk, which were equally wondrous, but for some reason I did not read another de Lint book for a long time.

A few years ago the Science Fiction Book Club offered a three-in-one volume of Charles de Lint’s collections of short stories under the title The Newford Stories. Newford is an imagined city where much of de Lint’s short fiction is set. The city runs the gamut from high-tech yuppie areas to rundown artists’ enclaves to ruined areas of abandonment and crime. The city itself is one of the major characters of the book, living and breathing as well as anybody inhabiting it. Reading de Lint provides a variety of pleasures, including imagery, language, mood, and characters, and the wonderful Newford provides several of those pleasures.

I must warn you that you don’t read de Lint for plotting. His stories’ plots tend to be slender sketches rather than detailed paintings. They are frameworks in which the city and its colorful characters reside and go about their business. But the stories pulsate with magic. In “Uncle Dobbin” parrots are the living embodiment of rejected magic. In “The Stone Drum” skookins skulk in the Old City buried deep beneath Newford itself. In “Timeskip” a ghost is stuck in a rut between Victorian past and present, unable to escape into either. In “The Sacred Fire” vampiric freaks inhabit human bodies while seeking out humans whose fires burn the brightest.

Perhaps the finest story in the book–as well as the longest–is “The Wishing Well”, which examines the life of a very insecure woman who has been suffering ever since her childhood was shattered by a father who suicided when she was very young. Her emotional problems have taken such forms as excessive neatness in her home but incredible chaos in her financial life, compulsive chain-smoking, and eating disorders. The story dramatizes her descent into total emotional chaos, alternating her own point of view–if I could only lose a few more pounds–with those of her friends and a would-be lover. It is a chilling story which happens to be quite sad and all too true-to-life (as I’ve seen happen too many times).

And there are others: “Mr. Truepenny’s Book Emporium and Gallery” explores the fate of childhood imagined worlds after we outgrow our need for them, while “Waifs and Strays” looks at the natural conflict between one’s worldly responsibilities and one’s familial concerns.

De Lint successfully creates both people and a setting which feels warm and inviting. One cannot help but be drawn into the warmth and caring which Newford’s continuing cast exude as their lives take twists and turns from tale to tale. Ironically, in some ways this massive collection contradicts everything I’ve always read good f&sf for: the sense of wonder gradually loses its exoticism as it becomes familiar, the conflict becomes washed out when you realize everything will inevitably work out for the best. Yet somehow in de Lint’s hands it still succeeds almost every time. It’s certainly not what I would want to read a steady diet of, but its strengths have made me go back periodically to experience more of de Lint’s magic.


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