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December 2006
 
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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

Monsters: A Celebration of the Classics from Universal Studios,
Del Rey, 2006, $29.95.

WHEN I was a kid, you couldn't download movies from the Internet. There weren't DVDs. There weren't even VHS tapes. There was no cable. In fact, there were only three channels available on TV. You could see movies on TV, but it was a haphazard affair. You took what you could get, or you went to a theater.

Horror movies weren't the most popular commodity, but you could find them on shows like Shock Theatre (a late Friday night film showcase, with that creepy hand coming up out of the quicksand in the opening credits), or as late, late night movies. Even more fun was to take in three or four at the drive-in, or spend the night at a dusk-until-dawn marathon at the movie theater.

Now I'm not saying it's better or worse today. The only point I'm trying to make is that seeing a movie back then was more of a special event than it usually is today.

But the feeling of it being an event isn't the only thing that seems to have gotten lost along the way.

Horror movies used to scare the daylights out of a kid. I had nightmares for years after watching The House of Wax (though I suppose kids today might have nightmares after the remake, imaging the plastic face of Paris Hilton coming at them from out of the dark, but I digress…). As we got a bit older and, you know, sophisticated, we began to look for the seams in costumes and found the dialogue a bit camp, the plots more so. But it was still fun, and even though you might be able to mouth along with the dialogue, you could still get a start (like from the sound of the bus in the original Cat People).

Today horror films don't much go for the scare, and I don't watch them anymore—for all the easy access I have to them. The problem is that, somewhere along the way, they stopped being about the frisson of the unknown, the dread that crawls up your spine, or the sudden shock of a horrific surprise. Instead, they mostly seem to be rather clinical portrayals of gruesome deaths, each one a little more inventive and graphic than the one before it, with a plotline tying together the "money shots" that are about as interesting as the "plots" you'll find in a porn film.

But much as I dislike most of what's being done in contemporary horror film, I still carry a great affection for the classics, especially the old black & white films. So I was delighted with the arrival of Monsters in my P.O. box.

It's a loving tribute to the Universal pantheon: Lon Chaney in Phantom of the Opera, Bela Lugosi's Dracula, Boris Karloff's Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, The Wolf Man, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon.

There are lots of terrific stills from the films, and remembrances by some of the children of the famous actors, as well as essays by Jennifer Beals, John Landis, Rick Baker, and others who write well about what they know well.

These films still stand the test of time. When I was a teenager, they spoke of the passage between life and death. They evoked mystery and awe as they peeled back the shadows to give us a glimpse into the impossible beyond.

And this book will also stand that test. It's a beautiful and affectionate tribute to a more innocent time, when what happened off-screen (and therefore in our imaginations) was a hundred times more frightening than the graphic splatter of blood on a contemporary film screen.

*     *     *

Spirits That Walk in Shadow, by Nina Kiriki Hoffman,
Viking, 2006, $17.99.

We all know the disorientation of starting at a new school, or the first day on a new job. We're in over our heads, desperate not to screw up, and feel anything but comfortable.

That's certainly the case with Kim Calloway on her first day on campus. But Kim has more problems than most of us might in such a situation. For one thing, she's suffering from a weird, debilitating depression that comes and goes. For another, her new roommate is, to all intents and purposes, a witch, from a long family of the same. This would be Jaimie Locke (who was first introduced to us in The Thread That Binds the Bones, but don't worry; no familiarity with that book is required to enjoy the one presently in hand.)

Then it turns out that Kim's depressions are being forced upon her by a creature called a viri, and before she knows it, her life is filled with Jaimie's magics, the benefits of being befriended by a presence (sort of a small household god), and the protection of a whole gaggle of Jaimie's cousins. Oh, yes, and she learns a couple of things that would give anyone a good excuse to be depressed: the viri will probably kill her, and there's nothing that her new friends and benefactors can do to stop it.

Though they certainly mean to try.

Nina Kiriki Hoffman is one of a small group of writers who, when I get a new book by them, whatever else I'm reading gets put aside so that I can read it first.

Spirits That Walk in Shadow was no exception, and didn't disappoint me for a moment.

I love the way Hoffman looks at the world. She has a great insight into character—especially young characters such as the college-aged kids in this book—and one of the most inventive minds I've found when it comes to playing around with ideas of magic. Everything in her books always feels fresh.

This time around, she shifts first-person perspectives every chapter. One will be told from Kim's point of view, the next from Jaimie's. What this does is let us see the magical world through Kim's eyes; we get to share her wonder and delight, as well as her fears. But we also get to see the mundane world through Jaimie's eyes, because she's as new to what her family calls the world of Outsiders (non-magical people outside their extended families) as Kim is to magic.

So we get two tales of discovery; two views of the same situation that build upon each other, creating a deeper resonance.

I mentioned earlier that Hoffman does youthful characters well. What I should also mention is that they're presented in such a manner that adults will get as much pleasure and insight from their company as the YA audience to which the book is being marketed.

If you've never read Hoffman before, you are in for such a treat. Start with this book, then go back and read all the rest. You won't be disappointed.

*     *     *

World's End, by Mark Chadbourn,
Gollancz, 2000, £6.99.

If this was a weekly television series, rather than a book column, it might start off: Previously on Books To Look For, we were discussing Mark Chadbourn's Book of Shadows, a two-issue comic book mini-series that serves as a prequel to the author's The Age of Misrule trilogy. I enjoyed the two issues so much, I mentioned that I was going to track down the prose books to see if Chadbourn could deliver the goods without the benefit of Bo Hampton's artwork.

The quick answer is: yes.

There is a small but growing (I hope!) number of writers who are reclaiming fairyland and the otherworld from what sometimes feels like a never-ending flood of books that treat magic and wonder as no more than weaponry in vast wars between the forces of good and those belonging to some Dark Lord.

Not that there's anything wrong with telling war stories, in using elves and orcs as battalions, or magic as a weapon. After all, such stories offer up high drama, and conflict keeps readers turning pages. But the sense of wonder gets lost, and I miss it.

I know, I know. I go on about this far too much in these pages. But I think what happens is, I'll read the rare book that does offer the reminder that an encounter with the otherworld is a moment of awe that changes lives, and I'll realize how much I miss it otherwise.

Chadbourn's writing certainly reminds me. His books brim with characters whose lives change, who are brought to the brink of impossible joy, and equally impossible terror and despair, through their encounters with magic.

In later books, a war could well be brewing, but in this first outing we meet an unlikely group of five humans who are charged with reclaiming the four magical artifacts of Britain. When the artifacts are gathered together in the right place, they can be used to call back the lords of light to combat the forces of darkness that are wakening from one end of Britain to the other—perhaps all over the world. But these lords of light might have their own agendas, and the forces of darkness aren't entirely hell-bent upon the destruction of everything, and—

Well, it's a lot like the way the non-magical world works, actually. Everyone isn't necessarily who or what they seem to be, and while World's End ends at a natural place for the reader (and the characters) to take a breath, it's obvious that there's still a lot of story to come.

But what I loved about this book was the first encounters the characters have with the new world order, how they struggle and prevail against the darkness, and how, occasionally, they are rewarded with enormous insights.

Chadbourn appears to be a busy man. After starting his career with four horror novels, at the time I write this, he's now two-thirds into his second fantasy series (The Dark Age). That's a nice weighty number of books. The good thing about coming to an author such as this, at this point in his career, is that there's so much material to catch up with.

*     *     *

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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