Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Return to the source

I have a habit of reading the same books over and over instead of moving on to new ones. Last week I wrote a post on Piers Anthony's Killobyte, which I reread recently and enjoyed as much as the first time I read it 13 years ago. In that post, I offhandedly mentioned Jack, the Giant Killer, the first Charles De Lint book I ever read, back in fifth grade. Over the years I've gone on to several other books and stories of his, but this one stayed in my memory as his greatest work. Rereading it now, I'm rethinking that judgment. It isn't as good as I remember.

The book was his contribution to a series of modernized fairy tales by various fantasy writers. The classic tale he chose to update was "Jack the Giant Killer," but he threw in elements of various other stories (including the related and better known "Jack and the Beanstalk") as well as some folkloric material.

De Lint was ideal for this project, since his specialty is incorporating traditional fantasy into a contemporary urban setting. He could easily write mainstream fiction if he wanted. His books always begin in the real world, and he has a reputation for drawing believable female characters. But he also has a lifelong interest in mythology and folklore. His passion for the subject always comes through in his fiction.

The "Jack" of the book's title turns out to be a young woman named Jacky, who lives in modern-day Canada and has no belief in fairies, elves, or sorcerers. Depressed after her boyfriend walks out on her, she is walking down the street drunk one night when she witnesses a bizarre sight. A biker gang chase down and kill a strange little man by shooting lightning at him through a staff. The dwarf's corpse soon disappears, as does a mysterious man who was watching from a nearby house.

Naturally, she thinks she hallucinated the incident, but one item from the scene remains: the dwarf's red cap. When she returns to the spot a few days later, she discovers that donning the cap allows her to see into the land of Faerie, a world of gnomes, giants, and other mythical races. They all live right in the modern world, occupying the same space and traveling on the same roads. They've always been there, and always will be there, but most mortals are unable to see them.

This intriguing premise is part of what I remember loving about the book. I especially enjoyed the names of the creatures, which include the Gruagagh, the hobs, and the bogans, a race of pirate-like ghouls with a penchant for the phrase "Hot damn!"

The book also has an element of female empowerment, as a tiny woman from the contemporary world becomes a fighter and learns to kick Giant butt. (I have a theory that this book, published in 1987, inspired Buffy, the Vampire Slayer.)

Unfortunately, the novel soon gets bogged down in plot details that aren't quite as compelling as the early scenes promise. Jacky is called upon to rescue some enchanted princess (or something) and restore order to the land. There's a lot of names and places to remember, and my eyes soon glazed over.

De Lint wrote in the introduction that what attracted him to the character of Jack, who shows up in at least three classic fairy tales, was his mixture of luck and pluck; he is, according to De Lint, "both foolish and clever."

But it isn't until a while into the novel that we get a sense of this character in Jacky. The book doesn't feel much like a fairy tale. It seems to owe more to Tolkien than to Grimm. There is even an enchanted object that corrupts the one who wields it, just like in Lord of the Rings.

This weekend, I read the 1990 sequel Drink Down the Moon for the first time. In some ways, I enjoyed it more than the first book, even though it departs even farther from its fairy tale origin, with scarcely any giants in the plot. It is more of a typical De Lint novel.

It continues the adventures of Jacky, now a permanent resident of Faerie. She's forced to confront a powerful villain called the droichan, who is considerably smarter and scarier than the rather witless giants and bogans from the first novel.

The book contains much joy and humor, but the scene I will probably remember for the longest is riveting. The droichan captures Jacky and uses magic to torture her. I will end this post with an excerpt from this scene. Do not read further if you aren't interested in getting nightmares.
"When my kind dies," the droichan said, "truly dies, this is where we go."

One by one, Jacky's senses deserted her. Sight went first--from a gauzy veil to nothingness. Her other senses compensated, becoming more acute.

She heard her own raspy breathing, the droichan's light breaths. In the Tower itself, the cries of the bogans and other creatures readying for war....

Then her hearing went.

Now she could smell the sharpness of her own fear, the earthy smell of the droichan. The open window of the Tower brought in the scents of autumn with a bog-reek of sluagh and bogans.

Smell went.

She could taste her fear now--a raw vomit sour in her throat. The salty sweat that beaded her lips.

Taste went.

There was nothing left but touch. The hard wall at her back. The vague kiss of a breeze on her skin. Then her nerve ends began to tingle and go numb. Limb by limb, feeling withdrew until she was devoid of all sensation.

No outside stimuli entered her. She might as well have been immersed in a sensory-deprivation tank. But there was no peace to be found in this. No rest. No solace. She hadn't chosen to withdraw from the world to capture some inner harmony. She'd had her senses stolen from her by a monster and been cast adrift in a bleak void of his making.

There was no way to measure time.

A moment could have passed and it could have been forever. An eternity slipped by in a scurry of seconds. Blank, utter panic came gibbering up from the back of her mind and flooded her brain....

She was here forever.

She might already have been here forever.

Escape was impossible. Without the droichan's help, she couldn't return to the world.

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