Welcome to Newford: to the music clubs, the waterfront, and the alleyways where ancient myths and magic spill into the modern world. Gemmins live in abandoned cars and skells traverse the tunnels below, while mermaids swim in the gray harbor waters and fill the cold night with their song. Come meet Jilly, painting wonders in the rough city streets; and Geordie, playing fiddle while he dreams of a ghost; and the Angel of Grasso Street gathering the fey and the wild and the poor and the lost. Dreams Underfoot is a must-read book not only for fans of urban fantasy but for all who seek magic in everyday life.
"In de Lint's capable hands, modern fantasy becomes something other than escapism. It becomes folk song, the stuff of urban myth." (Phoenix Gazette) "Charles de Lint shows that, far from being escapism, contemporary fantasy can be the deep mythic literature of our time." (Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction)
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Terri Windling's Introduction to Charles de Lint's Dreams Underfoot (1993) accurately describes the “urban magic” infusing the collection of nineteen short stories as using “the tools of myth, folklore and fantasy” to “record dreams,” mixing “ancient folklore motifs and contemporary urban characters.” Most of the nineteen stories in the collection are set in Newford, de Lint's fictional American city of subway and alleys, parks and rivers, cafes and clubs, university and library, cathedral and record shop, dangerous districts and upscale neighborhoods, official and unofficial histories, and so on. In his stories de Lint presents us with a series of urban protagonists (outsiders like artists, writers, or musicians) who are confronted with some disorienting fantastic thing or being and then must decide whether to reject it as only a dream or to incorporate it into their world-views.
The collection begins promisingly, when in "Uncle Dobbin's Parrot Fair" (1987), a middle-aged woman takes in a beaten punk teen, and their respective fantasies (benign balloon men and demonic booger) conflict at the beach, informed by an urban fantasy short story.
In the funny and scary "Stone Drum" (1989), Jilly Coppercorn has an eye-opening encounter with the goblin-like denizens of the subterranean Old City that leads her to become an artist specializing in urban faerie.
"Timeskip" (1989), narrated by Jilly's friend, the street fiddler Geordie Riddell, is a romantic story about his tragic encounter with a time traveling ghost.
In "Freewheeling" (1990) Jilly tries to protect a simple boy who goes around Newford at night freeing locked bicycles to ride off on their own.
In "That Explains Poland" (1988) the spunky Latina narrator LaDonna recounts her hunt for Bigfoot in the derelict and slummy part of town.
In "Romano Drom" (1989) punk singer-guitarist Lorio encounters a wounded hyena-wolf being who introduces her to the war raging between forces of creation and destruction on the multiple roads between the multiple worlds.
In "The Sacred Fire" (1989) Nicky Straw is tired of hunting and being hunted by vampire-like monsters who pose as human beings to eat their life fire.
"Winter Was Hard" (1991) is a moving story depicting the relationship between Jilly, some girlish punkish place-spirits, and a writer living in a home for the aged.
"Pity the Monsters" (1991) features an immigrant to Newford from England, a creepy old woman, and a scary multiple-personality "monster" called Frank.
"Ghosts of Wind and Shadow" (1990) depicts the struggle of a conventional mother who has rejected faerie to understand her teenaged daughter who is drawn to it, while the Oak King's daughter and her wizard-bard husband help out.
In "The Conjure Man" (1992) local poetess Wendy St. James learns about the Tree of Tales.
Graveyard shift DJ Zoe Brill is approached by a spooky handsome guy with a knack for giving people bad luck in "Small Deaths" (1993).
"The Moon Is Drowning While I Sleep" (1993) features Sophie Etoile telling Jilly about her vivid dreams in which she is supposed to rescue the maternal moon.
"In the House of My Enemy" (1993) is the most harrowing and moving story in the collection (and is the one story that doesn't feature the fantastic), as we learn why Jilly is so keen to help waifs like this pregnant girl from the streets.
In "But for the Grace Go I" (1991) Maisie Flood, a street-wise young woman taking care of a mental institution cast off and a pack of dogs while squatting in an abandoned house, tells how receiving a mysterious letter changed her life.
In "Bridges" (1992) Moira Jones has moved to Newford to escape her bad high school reputation when she walks into an Escher-esque world of hope and despair.
"Our Lady of the Harbour" (1991) retells the Little Mermaid story, the target of her desperate love being a genius musician who cares only for music.
In "Paperjack" (1991) Geordie (with help from Jilly and a mysterious old black man who is an origami sensei) tries to come to terms with the tragic events of "Timeskip."
In the last story of the collection, "Tallulah" (1991), Christy Riddell, whose stories have been popping up throughout Dreams Underfoot, explains his (and de Lint's!) themes "about love and loss, honor and the responsibilities of friendship, and wonder, always wonder" and recounts his intense relationship with a mysterious, well-read, punky woman who can only be with him at night.
I liked the sense of Newford that de Lint builds more richly with each successive story. I liked the connections between music, art, writing, and magic. I enjoyed Jilly Coppercorn popping up in multiple stories. I cared about many of his characters. And I like the idea of a world into which the fantastic may intrude at any moment.
However, I found that nineteen stories was about ten too many, for I became tired of their base pattern (spunky, punky, tough but tender outsider artist type protagonists, in medias res openings, explanatory flashbacks, and climactic epiphany endings). Too often de Lint signals early on that the fantastic is real, so that when his characters encounter it and try to figure out if it is real or not, the reader has no doubt. And although there are moments of wonder in many of the stories, they're usually not so sublime or enduring (unlike similar moments in, say, John Crowley's Little, Big).
Kate Reading’s voice is clear, compassionate, and appealing as she reads the stories, and she modulates her voice effectively for male and female characters. But her compassion combined with the over-familiarity I began feeling with de Lint’s typical story to nearly become cloying by the end of the collection.
I might return to Newford in the future via one of de Lint’s novels set there, but not for a while.
I've been reading Charles DeLint for many years, but this is the first audio book of his that I've listened to. I found the stories entertaining and thought provoking. Some have happy endings, while some do not. Overall, I felt as good about this as I have of his work that I've read. I like the way the narrator voiced the different characters, especially Jilly.
My one suggestion for the producers of this audio book would be to put some gap, or marker, between the stories so that the listener could tell one story has ended and the next is about to start. There was hardly any pause between the end of one sentence of one story and the start of the next. It took several stories before I began to recognize the clues that I was in a new story. I'd prefer to not have to wonder where I am.