Muse and Reverie is a collection of short stories by a prolific author I’ve only recently discovered, Charles de Lint. Despite the gorgeously gloomy cover and author recognition, I would’ve passed on this one had I realized that it wasn’t a novel. It’s true.
I have a block against short story collections because my attention span sucks enough as it is. When I read I want to dive deep and not come up for air for a few days not hours. While some of our greatest novelists were even better short story writers, and I’m sure I’m missing out on some good ones, the few contemporary collections I’ve tried have disappointed. ‘The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake’ comes to mind.
Sooooo imagine my surprise when the first story, ‘Somewhere in My Mind There Is a Painting Box’, which I mistook for a first chapter, hoisted me up on its ephemeral wings only to end on page 49. How rude, I thought. Then I read the next one and the next one and wanted to cry because de Lint sets the storytelling bar so high that those who come after him will have to pretend his bar does not exist at all. And I will have no tolerance for okay shorts; they have to go somewhere fast – preferably somewhere rooted in folklore, mythology or plain old magic – and grab a hold of your face like you’ve got nowhere else to be for the next, oh, six hours.
The thirteen stories in this collection waste no time with polite introductions. They vary in length, have a few shared characters and mostly take place in a city called Newford. If you’re new to de Lint, let down your guard. He writes in a world not very removed from our own, only the things we imagined possible as children are often a reality here.
‘Somewhere in My Mind There Is a Painting Box’
Seventeen years old and Lilly is in the woods, sketching with berries and tea because she has no money for paints, when she discovers a painting box. On further inspection, it belongs to one of her heroes, a naturalist who vanished with a colleague in the woods twenty years ago. The box leads her down a dream-like path to a place where faeries are true and time hardly passes. She’s faced with a choice between continuing to seek small bursts of magic in regular life or to see the other side, where colors are paralyzingly vibrant and the real world could never measure up again.
Our worlds aren’t meant to mix – not anymore. They’ve grown too far apart.
Now here’s a tale inside of a tale. If you’re not a fan of meta, perhaps you’ll at least enjoy the faeries. Having a boyfriend takes its toll on friendships, family relationships and a woman’s art. See, Mona wants to get outside of her head and write a comic that’s not all about herself. So she begins to collaborate with Nina on a story about Refinery Faeries. They’re finally getting the tale on its feet and the best thing that could ever possibly happen to a writer happens: the faeries jump out of the page and tell their story as it needs to be told.
This is the way stories are supposed to be. True to themselves, not to how we want them to be.
‘A Crow Girls Christmas’
The crow girls, Maida and Zia, have big news. They’ve gotten jobs at the mall as Christmas elves. The best part is the all-you-can-eat candy canes. The kids get a few, but the crow girls basically eat themselves out of a job. As possibly the oldest living beings, so old I guess they’re young again and have no idea how powerful they are, the crow girls are a silly hoot. It’s a fun story.
Of being bad bad candy cane-eating girls.
This one has a similar premise to The Mystery of Grace, only it’s not over complicated with logic or peppered with rockabilly references. It’s also one of the longer, more developed stories with compelling characters both dead and alive. We start with what seems like a made for TV scenario – a man who killed his younger brother in a drunk driving accident spends his entire life wishing ‘if only’. A quick turn of an old rusty key in the broken down car that crashed years ago and the man gets his wish.
Other stories take you down to underground cities where trolls present the lonely and hopeless an intriguing alternative to the lives they know. There’s another one about the hour before dawn when the dead pay visits to the living. You may prefer to skip around depending on story length and time available, but I read this collection straight through in the order the stories were arranged. Like listening to an album for the first time, I wanted to read it how it was meant to be read.
Charles de Lint has won me back to short stories. I’m turning a new leaf, or page. Since this is his fifth story collection, I have four more guaranteed good times before venturing out of this Canadian author comfort zone.
Where should I go next? Who’s your favorite short story writer?