Charles de Lint, |
The Hour Before Dawn &
Two Other Stories from Newford
(Subterranean Press, 2005)
New fiction from Charles de Lint is general cause for celebration. A prolific short-story writer as well as a novelist, his shorter works are often collected into hefty collections just bursting with literary pearls. But, with his name appearing in so many anthologies on the market these days, it's hard to be sure you're not missing anything.
Subterranean Press has helped alleviate that fear just a little with a short but weighty collection of three stories. Two appeared previously in anthologies published in 2004; the third and title story is original to this collection.
"The Hour Before Dawn" is a delightful stretch for de Lint. Although based in his usual Newford digs, de Lint has spun the calendar back to 1957 for a detective potboiler with a Newford twist: Jack Daniels, private eye, talks to the dead.
He doesn't want to, mind, but they come all the same -- usually in the last dream before morning, mostly because they need his help. Unfinished business, that sort of thing. That, combined with vivid memories of Korea, a close friend and partner who ate his own gun, and a mean-spirited ex-wife, have Jack drowning himself in the bottle for which he was named. Then his ex-wife's sister-in-law shows up, and Jack didn't even know she was dead....
"That was Radio Clash" is a surprising tribute to Joe Strummer, a musician best known for his work with the Clash and the Pogues. It's surprising in that it's not actually about Strummer, it's about a blue-haired young woman who mourned his death. It's also about second, and maybe even third, chances to define one's life. It's obliquely about the importance of music as compared to the importance of the musician. And it's very, very sweet.
It was first published in Taverns of the Dead, a 2004 anthology edited by Kealen Patrick Burke. "The Butter Spirit's Tithe," on the other hand, first saw print in '04's Emerald Green: Great Tales of Irish Fantasy, edited by Andrew M. Greeley.
"Butter Spirit" is set on the road with two musicians, one of whom is Miki from de Lint's novel Forests of the Heart. The other is Conn, a middlin' guitarist and erstwhile janitor who had the misfortune to anger one of the Little People, for which his soul was promised to the Grey Man as a seventh-year tithe. But Miki has had past dealings with the faerie realms, and she doesn't take kindly to their casual attitude towards mortal lives. And, drawing on a traditional ballad for inspiration. she might be able to devise a way to untangle poor Conn's knot.
For the first time, de Lint supplies his own artwork to illustrate the stories. The photo illustrations are a montage of images that nicely create atmosphere without strictly defining his characters. The black-and-white interior pieces are dominated by settings -- a busy street, a pub, an empty hallway in an office building -- offset by small clues about the stories. "Butter Spirit," for instance, shows a guitarist and accordion player at work, with the focus more on the instruments than the musicians, as a laughing, ghostly figure drifts down the hall. The color cover is a noirish piece drawn from "The Hour Before Dawn," the detective's somber figure silhouetted against the city lights.
The art is a nice bonus for de Lint fans, but the reason to buy the book is the stories. Each, uniquely imagined, deals with second chances, mystical opportunities to rethink a bad turn in life. Framed within the familiar Newford locales and de Lint's Midas touch with characterization, these are pearls that are not to be missed.