Charles de Lint, |
22 Years of Chapbooks
(Subterranean Press, 2000)
Many fans of Charles de Lint's writing know of his annual chapbooks by reputation alone. Relatively few have actually seen the tales Charles began writing for his wife, MaryAnn Harris, in 1974, a habit which grew into a Christmas tradition over the years and included a fortunate circle of friends.
That changes this year with the release of Triskell Tales: 22 Years of Chapbooks, a limited publication from Subterranean Press. The final edition, which will be bound with a sewn-cloth hardcover and will include artwork by MaryAnn, collects de Lint's short stories and poetry from the start in 1974 right through to the most recent in 1999. (There is a gap in 1975 and '76, when Charles did not write any Christmas stories.)
And what an amazing collection this is!
Working from an advance proof of the book -- sadly lacking Mary Ann's interior artwork, but still packed with more than 500 pages of text -- I was fascinated to watch de Lint's craft as a writer develop from the early days to his current level of comfort and skill.
I wouldn't call any of these stories bad -- each, taken individually, is a charming example of fantasy or contemporary fantasy in abbreviated form -- but certainly the early tales lack the strength and depth of his later writings. As the years pass, the reoccurring characters mature into deeper, more believable individuals, and the stories themselves evolve from simple fantasies and fairy tales into richer, more profound narratives which stimulate the imagination with greater detail and emotion.
Newford, the fictitious city serving as home to most of de Lint's recent fiction, first appears on p. 247 ("The Drowned Man's Reel," 1988), when a pair of timeless minstrels help a haunted woman recapture the magic of her youth. Jilly Coppercorn, perhaps Newford's most popular and recognizable resident, makes her first appearance on p. 259 ("The Stone Drum," 1989).
The focus of most of these tales is the magical couple of Cerin and Meran, a pair of long-lived, mysterious musicians already familiar to readers of de Lint's Newford collections Dreams Underfoot, The Ivory & the Horn and Moonlight & Vines. Cerin, some may recall, was the hero of de Lint's early fantasy novel, The Harp of the Grey Rose, so it might seem surprising that he's still knocking around in the modern city of Newford. That won't be surprising any more; Triskell Tales lets readers follow a great portion of Cerin's lifespan, including his meeting with and marriage to Meran. While no story explains exactly how the couple ended up in Newford, it certainly seems right and proper that they live in so magical, mystical a place in our time.
The early tales, set in the traditional fantasy world of Grey Rose, are usually told by Cerin himself. The wandering harper passes time in good company by telling stories about the magical Meran. In the first, "The Three That Came," she dies -- but that doesn't prevent her from serving as the protagonist later on. (Remember, she's magical.) She returns in "Grymalkin," a tale of righteous revenge.
"The Oak King's Daughter" gives us Cerin and Meran's first meeting and courtship. In "Glass Eyes and Cotton Strings," the couple must cope with a murderous doll after a practical (magical) joke goes awry. "In Mask and Motley" explains how and why Meran came to leave her oak and live with Cerin among mortals. "Laughter in the Leaves" introduces their resident bodach and describes the taming of a needful imp. "A Pattern of Silver Strings" and "The Lark in the Morning" both tell of very different types of musical contests, while "The Badger in the Bag" demonstrates the magic of musical instruments and the need for well-chosen names.
Most of the Newford tales -- in which Meran and Cerin gain a surname, Kelledy -- have already appeared in de Lint's mass-market collections, but it's nice to have them here as well; it completes the collection. In these stories, they help various Newford residents deal with ghosts, lost memories of magic, goblin artifacts, a mysterious collector of bones, lost souls, crow girls and a buffalo man, a friendly hob and malicious pixies -- even more mundane, yet powerful topics such as a missing teen-ager trapped in a bad situation by evil men, and second chances when a life has gone astray.
But don't be deceived into thinking Triskell Tales is nothing but the life and times of Meran and Cerin. The book contains a delightful hodgepodge of other brief fictions, including "My Ainsel'," a fable based on Scottish lore; "The Moon is a Meadow," a story of magic, prejudice and hate; "Coyote Stories," a strange mix of the real and unreal beneath a veil of Native American mysticism; and "Humphrey's Christmas," a new slant on the wise old Yuletide mouse. A pair of stories from 1985 introduce the Three Plushketeers, child-like animal characters -- definitely among the more whimsical figures in de Lint's entire body of work.
Also scattered throughout this volume are samples of de Lint's poetry, which also evolves over the years. In 1974, his poems are short, sweet and magical, tiny love notes to his wife.
when the wind
As the years pass, de Lint's poetry expands, exploring in greater depth his emotions and experiences. Some, like "Coyote," tell stories; others, such as "At the Border," "Flatbread & Chili" and "Mission San Xavier del Bac," convey feelings and impressions from Charles and MaryAnn's varied history. My favorite is "The Old Tunes," a brief exploration of magic and music.
There's even an original tune or two to round out the experience, bringing stories, poetry, music and art together in one package.
Special kudos to MaryAnn, credited by Charles in his introduction for convincing him at long last to release these gems, both rough and polished, to his readers. While Triskell Tales might not have mass-market appeal -- a truth obviously recognized by the author, given this limited release -- his fans and friends will count themselves lucky to have this collected body of writings in their collections.
[ by Tom Knapp ]