Charles de Lint’s Dreams Underfoot is another collection of Newford stories, rather different in feel than those in The Ivory and the Horn. While that collection leaned more toward the “ghost stories” category, this one is much more inclined toward what we’ve come to know as de Lint’s own brand of fantasy: urban, contemporary, drawing on mythic traditions from both Europe and North America, and not quite like anything anyone else is writing. These stories are also what I’ve come to think of as “mature de Lint”: the boundaries between the worlds have become not only intangible, but largely irrelevant, the here-and-now is not irrevocably here or now, and magic is where you find it – if it doesn’t find you first.
We meet again the characters who form the backbone of the Newford stories, and some who are more transient. Foremost, I think, is Jilly Coppercorn, the artist whose story is an important part of The Onion Girl and Widdershins; Geordie Riddell, a musician who is Jilly’s best friend, and whose brother Christy writes stories like these; once again here is Maisie Flood, who made her own family from among the lost of the Tombs; Sophie Etoile, whose mother may be the moon; and the Kelledys, Meran and Cerin, whose story began among de Lint’s earliest works, in “The Oak King’s Daughter.”
De Lint make the point in his introduction that this is neither a novel nor just a story collection. He calls it a story cycle, and I can accept that if I have to. I, however, would call it a “collage”: the image is Newford, its slums, its parks, it waterfronts, its victims and saviors. It’s an image that takes shape as we witness these bits of the lives of those who live there.
Added to de Lint’s ongoing themes that I have mentioned before – all, it seems, centered on our duty to care for one another – are some newer ideas, particularly his examinations of child abuse, which takes its place as an overriding concern in the Newford Stories. It’s a facet of what I’ve found to be a consensus definition of evil in fantasy fiction: the misuse of power over those who can’t defend themselves. (This may be one reason I’m more sympathetic to what sometimes becomes preachiness on de Lint’s part than I might be otherwise: nothing is guaranteed to drive me into a blind rage so completely as examples of that particular cruelty.) De Lint is a talky writer who sometimes crosses over the line, but in this collection the message is clear without being heavy-handed.
I should point out that happy endings are not guaranteed. But underlying all the triumphs and tragedies collected here is one fundamental truth: things happen. They’re not always good things, but we deal with them as best we can and get on with our lives – changed, to be sure, but still ourselves, and still capable of making a difference in the world. And that’s another underlying truth, and the one I think that makes me class de Lint as a romantic: his confidence in the idea that even if we only make a difference in one person’s life, it makes the world a better place.
Dreams Underfoot is a substantial collection of thought-provoking stories, and thanks to de Lint’s gifts as a story teller, they are also captivating.
(Tor Books, 1993; Triskell Press, 2017)