I started out this week going back to reading Charles De Lint, now that I’ve finished The Twelve Houses. (I’ll come back to that when I have time to write up the last two books.) I picked up a Newford story collection I last read around the time my father passed away, so 12 years ago: Moonlight and Vines. Great title; great source for the title (in the story “Held Safe by Moonlight and Vines” – though the title always makes me think of a California streetcorner). I like his way of bringing back familiar characters – Christy, Bones – or picking up the threads of minor characters mentioned briefly elsewhere, like Darlene Flatt. I like that Newford is so fully formed that a story here about the Wordwood later finds expansion in a novel (Tapping the Dream Tree, I believe). I love his facility for language; “Saskia”, which is POV Christy Riddell, is as elegant and intelligent as something told by that writer must be – and then other 1st person POV stories like “In the Pines” are couched in a looser vocabulary and vernacular that fit the main character like something less cliched than a glove.
But I’ve put M&V down for a while, because I’ve now remembered why it is I haven’t read De Lint in a long time. The grimness is relentless. Although happy endings are the rule rather than the exception – or at least optimistic ones – almost every single character either is going through hell or has gone through hell. It’s nothing new with this book that the number of happy childhoods among his characters can be counted on one hand. (One character did have a happy childhood – but then her entire family was murdered when she was twelve. Another who enjoyed her childhood was made to feel guilty about it because she was such a minority.) The number of characters who were molested or beaten as children is too high to keep track of without an abacus. And a great many stories are written in the first person, which can intensify the grimness.
Also, I hesitate to say it in this age of rampant Political Correctness, but I’m not entirely happy that a very great many of characters in this collection specifically, and in his writing in general, are lesbian. (*insert Seinfeld quote here*) I feel like I have to defend the fact that I’m a little tired of it, but I refuse to, except to say that it’s kind of the same thing as if he had a great many characters who were … oh, any given demographic. If the same number of characters were bartenders or Tibetan monks I might start getting annoyed. In this case, to be honest, my feeling after the umpteenth story featuring a lesbian stripper or a lesbian dominatrix (about which world I had NO interest, and I would have skipped the story had I known – I hated that one for several reasons, and that aspect was a big one. And it was just a weak story) or a woman who “doesn’t think she waltzes, but would rather like to try” … was that if I wanted to read about sapphic relationships I’d go to the gay and lesbian section of Barnes and Noble and shop. (Or, you know, go wander through slash fanfic online. No, wait, that would just make me open a vein.) Where was I before that sea of parentheses? (“To take arms against a sea of parentheses, and by closing end them…” Hee!) Oh. Right. Either grim or gay, or, often, both.
Not to belabor it, but the population of women who start off in their stories straight and end up in bed with another woman was still growing when I put the book down. Seriously? Sir? Fantasize on your own time, if that’s what this is all about. It’s getting old.
Also, while the stories are never less than beautifully written, this lot just doesn’t satisfy for some reason. The end of the ghost story “In the Pines” was … silly, which was a true shame as that would otherwise be my favorite story among what I’ve read (“strollops”!). “Saskia” … I don’t know. Find a flesh and blood girl, man. “The Big Sky” also failed a bit in the end, to me, and I just didn’t enjoy the tenor of it; “Birds” had some really nice moments but the premise seemed too … something, or not enough something, and, yet again, I was a little annoyed by the ending; “Moonlight and Vines” had a bit of a pat ending (and did the boy in the story, who could have been a great character, really have to fondle himself quite so often?); “Shining Nowhere but in the Dark” had some great moments, but … well. “If I Close My Eyes Forever” was the S&M story (consider yourself warned); “Passing” was another “hey! I like the girls!” (to paraphrase Tara Maclay) story.
I think one thing that threads all through De Lint’s writing is what bugged the heck out of me about Edward Eager’s Magic or Not? – pick one! I much prefer something like the stories of the Crow Girls, or Bones, etc., where the magic is undeniable, even if some characters choose to continue to deny it. That was yet another reason I was put off by “Shining Nowhere”, and “Passing” too for that matter – the characters’ decisions in the end to accept the magic made them somehow weaker, in my eyes, not stronger. In a review out in the ‘verse (I really need to start making a note of where I find these things) someone pointed out that a sort of theme of these stories is “first encounters with magic”; it’s a theme of a lot of his work. It’s another groove that became a little well-worn here: “Either I’m losing my mind or something weird is going on.”
Taken individually, encountered in the original anthologies most of them were first published in, they might have been the gems I talked about last time I wrote a De Lint-centered post. But I don’t know. Taken en masse, these exemplify the reasons my first reaction to short stories is reluctance. It’s like a box of chocolates from a store that caters to a thoroughly foreign culture: you really, really never know what you’re going to get. The next thing you bite into might be a peanut butter cup or an English toffee (I wonder if I can still quote the X-Files version of “life is like a box of chocolates”?), or a chocolate-covered palm weevil grub or chili pepper. Someone, somewhere might like it, but I, emphatically, do not.
Besides, yesterday was a really horrible day, in part, and I needed something … better. I found it, in spades. That’s the next post.
This isn’t going to be one of the books I don’t finish; it’ll hang out by my bed and I’ll probably read another story here and there. But I’m taking a break.