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February 2001
 
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Charles de Lint
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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

The River King, by Alice Hoffman,
Putnam, 2000; $23.95

I consider Alice Hoffman to be one of the best fantasists writing today; though perhaps I should say one of the best practitioners of mythic fiction, a term coined by Terri Windling to describe stories that deal with the relationships characters have with each other, with themselves, and with the world in which they live that use mythological and folkloric material either as a resonating mirror, or to illuminate those same concerns by allowing interior landscapes and emotional states to appear physically "on stage" with what most would consider more realistically portrayed elements. (For a longer discussion on this subject, you should visit Terri's website at www.endicott-studio.com.)

Hoffman, undoubtedly, simply considers herself a writer, though she has been quoted as saying, "I'm telling fairy tales for grown-ups."

But by any description, with book after book, she remains at the top of her field and she's one of those few writers that, when I get a new novel by her, whatever else I'm reading gets put aside until her book is done. (The list of such authors is short and also includes a few other names that usually aren't appropriate to discuss in this column, such as Andrew Vachss and Barbara Kingsolver . . . but I digress.)

As is usual with a new Hoffman book, The River King jumped the queue and was started immediately. And also, as usual, I wasn't disappointed for a moment.

This time out she takes us to the fictional small town of Haddan, Massachusetts, an environment divided in two between those native to the town, and those attending the Haddan School, a prestigious boarding school. The focus starts out on a couple of misfits attending the school, but when one of them dies--apparently a suicide--and the local police become involved, old secrets and new take center stage and the already-divided town becomes a hotbed of tension.

What I like about Hoffman's writing is that everything is of equal importance. The backdrop of Haddan and the natural flora and fauna of New England are as much characters as the humans. And whether she takes us into the heads of one of the misfit students, various members of the faculty, or even the investigating police officer, the characters all ring individual and true. Unlike many literary writers, she's not afraid of Story, but her prose is gorgeous as well as functional. In other words, there's balance to her work, but also variety and beauty.

When she steps away from the known world into the magical, there's no sense of a dividing line. Ghosts appear in photographs, only seen by the camera, and they leave cryptic messages like pockets full of fish and river water, or the scent of roses, but these paranormal elements grow naturally out of the story and it's often the more mundane aspects that seem the most magical. Perhaps this is because, as Hoffman has said in a recent interview, "If you look at anything long enough or closely enough, it feels like magic."

Whatever the reason, I come away from her work with more of a sense of wonder than I do the greater portion of what's marketed as fantasy, which makes The River King, the latest in a string of jewels from Hoffman's keyboard, a deeply satisfying book.

*     *     *

The Third Cry to Legba and Other Invocations, by Manly Wade Wellman,
Night Shade Books, 2000; 305pp; $35.00

For a while there I was afraid we were losing too much of the history of our genre. With the glut of new books being written and published today, there seems to be less and less market space or interest in keeping the classic work in print--especially classic work that doesn't have quite the high profile of, say, the recent reissue of some of Lord Dunsany's novels.

Don't get me wrong--I greatly appreciate the fact that those sorts of books are back in print. But it seems there isn't the same room for work that doesn't have as much cachet, such as the stories by authors who primarily were published in the old pulps, or books that are more recent classics but, for whatever reason, their authors have fallen out of favor with the big publishers.

E-books are helping to make up for this lack. For instance, I'm delighted to see that one of my favorite books, R. A. MacAvoy's Tea with the Black Dragon is back "in print" at www.peanutpress.com. But while I can read and enjoy an e-book, I still prefer the feel of paper in hand, the weight of the volume. And this is where the small press come in.

Long before the Internet, small presses and specialty publishers were keeping all sorts of wonderful books in print and happily that tradition continues today. Donald Grant, Arkham House . . . there's a long list of small press publishers who took the best of the pulps and presented them to us in quality, archival editions. To that list we can also add Night Shade Books, based in San Francisco, who are going to do the same for Manly Wade Wellman's work as the above publishers did for the likes of Robert E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and other favorites.

I think the biggest surprise for new readers to Wellman's work will be how readable and timeless his fiction remains, sixty-some years after it's initial publication in the original Weird Tales and the like. Yes, there are some old-fashioned elements, but nothing jarring or dull. Wellman's research was always impeccable, his imagination a delight, his plots intriguing. >From the opening tale of voodoo in a big city night club (the title story) to the final entry of vampires on the set of a musical in a small New England town ("Chastel"), the reader remains in the sure hands of a master storyteller.

This present volume will be the first of a projected five, collecting all of Wellman's short fiction--a real boon to those of us who missed out on the two Carcosa Press volumes that came out a couple of decades ago. You'll find here two of Wellman's series characters: John Thunstone, a quick-witted and larger-than-life adventurer, and Lee Cobbett, more of an Everyman figure; both of them ready, able and willing to stand between us and the weird things that lie in wait for us at the shadowy edges of the world.

I loved reacquainting myself with these characters and I'm now looking forward to future volumes (if Night Shade Books stay on schedule, volume two should be out in the late spring of 2001), in particular those that will feature my favorite of Wellman's characters, Silver John the Balladeer. This is what small press publishing should be doing: maintaining a sense of history for us with the publication of such worthy books.

But while I'm grateful to the small presses for these publications, and to the Internet for e-books, I still wish the big name publishers would concentrate a little more on some of these lost classics as well. As it stands, you have to know what you're looking for, and where to look for it, and the general reader, who usually goes no further than the big chain book stores to look for his or her new books, will often not even get the chance to see what else is available.

And that's a shame. Not only from a historical viewpoint, but also for the sheer entertainment value of books such as The Third Cry To Legba that those readers will be missing.

*     *     *

Spike & Dru: Pretty Maids All in a Row, by Christopher Golden,
Pocket Books, 2000, $22.95

I know what long-time readers of this column will be thinking: Here's de Lint, forever going on in a less-than-positive manner about franchise novels and trilogies and series, yet here he is reviewing a book related to the Buffy the Vampire Slayer television series. So what gives?

Well, I still believe that franchise novels (books based on a franchise such as Star Wars, etc.) are usually unsatisfying, and too many f/sf trilogies and series are either derivative, repetitive, or both. But it doesn't mean they can't be done right. Or that they can't be fun.

Fun is one of the reasons we read in the genre. Literate works make for a great meal, but that doesn't mean we can't have dessert.

This particular book intrigued me for a number of reasons. First, I enjoy the show and after a summer of re-runs (I write this in early September 2000), I was in the mood for a fix. Second, I've enjoyed other books by Christopher Golden, so I trusted he'd give me value here. Third, the title alone told me that this was a chance where a franchise novel could be done right.

As I've mentioned before in other columns, what I don't like about these sorts of books is that the characters are set by the Bible of the show or film that the story is based on. The writers can't change that. The characters have to be the same at the end of the book as they were going in because otherwise it would be far too confusing trying to coordinate all the various books and comics that are being produced.

The way to get around that is to do what Golden has done: pick a couple of the peripheral, yet still popular characters from the series--in this case Spike and Drusilla (the Sid Vicious of the vampire world and his wacky paramour)--and set the book sixty years before the series takes place so that, except for the undead, none of the other characters have even been born yet.

Of course, this still means that Spike and Dru have to remain constant. But that becomes irrelevant because Golden gets to create a whole other cast of new characters who live and die and grow and change. And he does it very well. The characters he's created for this book, are for the most part a wonderful, multi-dimensional group.

I'm not going to talk too much about the plot because if you enjoy the television series, you'll enjoy this book; if you don't care for it, nothing I'm going to say here will change your mind. But I will say--for fellow aficionados of the show--that Golden has done a convincing job of capturing the pair on paper. And setting the novel in World War II, giving us a detailed visit with the Council of Watchers, and introducing us to the (then) current Slayer and a number of Slayers-in-waiting makes for a fascinating foray into the mythology of the world created by Joss Whedon.

And for those of you tired of the chip-in-his-head, can't-be-nasty-anymore Spike from the last season of the show, the big bad, as he likes to call himself, is definitely back here.

Golden gets away with things that they could never do on the show--not because of budget constraints (though to film this would cost a fortune), but because there wouldn't be much of a continuing cast.

So has he converted me to franchise novels? Not really. I've dipped into one or two previous books in this series and not found them nearly so intriguing. But I'll certainly keep my eye out for the next one Golden does himself.

*     *     *

Material to be considered for review in this column should be sent to Charles de Lint, P.O. Box 9480, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1G 3V2.

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