When people asked me, in my former life when I sold books for a living, to recommend something to read, I had two lists in my head. The first were the sure sales, the easy ones. Neil Gaiman, if the customer showed even a slight inclination toward magic, otherwise Stephen King, Elizabeth George, and Karen Slaughter. You get the idea. The second list was for people that came back to see me. It was my list of authors that changed my life.
Top of that list was Charles DeLint. I came to him in the late 1980’s with his first collection of short stories Dreams Underfoot.
Traditional fantasy settings, knights, castles; these were what I had grown up with. But DeLint’s magic of a dark city alley was new to me. The stories in Dreams Underfoot are set in the mythical modern city of Newford and include many references to fairy tale and myth. He mixed real life and magic seamlessly. One of the most beautiful of these is “The Moon Is Drowning While I Sleep” which is about a woman who travels from her normal life into the dream world in search of her mother. Another story, “In the House of My Enemy” is about the effects of child abuse and the beginnings of healing from it. It does what the best of genre writing is supposed to do; uses magic to talk about what we cannot talk about.
When asked why he chose to explore these themes, he gave the perfect answer which I have never forgotten. He said that he wrote about them because they still happen.
Simple, and so obvious. When I was confronted about writing “dark” stories, I used to feel guilty. My stomach would drop. I didn’t have an answer, and I was afraid that it was because there was something wrong with me. His answer changed my life, nearly as much as his stories.
Charles DeLint was also the first of my writing idols that I met. I wanted to tell him that he inspired me and gave me courage to write about the scary, important things. Of course, what was in my head stayed there. I stammered “thank you” as he signed my book and then I ran back to my hotel room.
But later that night, when my roommate decided it was a normal thing to crash at ten pm (Saturday at a scifi convention!), I slipped out with my notebook and diet coke and went to the lobby.
Our hotel was swank with a fancy fountain and a channel of river running through the floor complete with koi begging for popcorn. I sat in one of the cushy chairs and began to scribble on my story. Somehow the koi got in there. Eventually, I looked up from my page, in the wee hours, and saw another bleary-eyed writer sitting across the lobby. Charles DeLint, I realized, and my heart stopped.
He didn’t look up and I couldn’t disturb him. But I know that some of the magic of his pen leaked out into the air and settled into my story.