Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Gypsy Armageddon

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 43
Charles de Lint, Mulengro

In a comfortable middle-class Ottawa neighborhood, a prosperous Eastern European immigrant’s house burns quickly, the flames almost obscuring a strange rune painted along the walls. Janfri la Yayal saves his fiddle, and, to his neighbors’ consternation, just walks away. Across town, two detectives examine a body so savagely mauled, it sickens even veteran cops. It appears the work of feral pack animals, but signs of human presence make them suspect something darker afoot.

In the 1980s, Charles de Lint pioneered urban fantasy, long before paperback publishers repackaged the genre as hardboiled mystery spin-offs. His works generally ran toward gentle, thoughtful humanism and understated psychological drama, coincidentally starring demigods and pixies. This book stands out from most of de Lint's canon of work by being mainly a horror novel. Okay, dark fantasy really, but it scares you badly and reminds you why you love being alive, because it could disappear so quickly.

Janfri la Yayal has a secret his shocked Canadian neighbors don’t know. They think he’s a professional Hungarian fiddler, but he’s secretly Romany, the people also called Gypsies. He’s become famous playing his people’s tunes, selling Gypsy culture at a mark-up. And he recognizes the mysterious rune on his burning house: “Unclean.” He’s been violently exiled from the one people who’ve been exiled more than Jews, leaving him completely alone. Now he only wants to clear his name.

Briggs and Sandler, Ottawa municipal police, want to bring the killer to justice. But clues give conflicting direction: their killer might be human, beast, or something altogether different.Their research uncovers Romany myths of the monstrous Mulengro, a human master controlling bound spirits, driven by purposes unique and inscrutable. The lawmen seek Ottawa’s marginalized Gypsy community— only to discover they’ve suddenly vanished, shrouded in darkness, a caravan of black sedans and anonymous camper vans.

Charles de Lint
These stories lead quickly into one of Charles de Lint’s trademarks, the Cast of Thousands who don’t realize they share converging quests. Ola Faher, an aging Gypsy, manages to delay the Mulengro, though afterward, she knows she's an imminent target. Jeff Owen, a journalist, Dr. Rainbow, a yurt-dwelling hippie shaman, and Yojo la Kore, a gypsy youth readying for her last stand, want to stand up for the people they love.

And the mysterious Mulengro wants to purge his people. Like all good villains, the Mulengro believes himself the hero of his odyssey. His disfigured face and entourage of destructive spirits conceal motivations downright Nietzschean in their savage purity. He kills to serve goals beyond others’ ken. But behind everything, he remains tortured by the past. A survivor of incomprehensible evil, the Mulengro remembers firsthand the moment his Romany people very nearly became extinct.

This book, first released in 1985, predates Newford, the catchall Canadian city that dominated de Lint’s work throughout the 1990s and 2000s. De Lint pioneered the technique, now common, of situating his stories in one shared world, and one could imagine this fitting into that setting. When Ottawa's close-knit Gypsy community begins dying violently, several independent stories originate, converging on a forest cabin where an apocalyptic showdown determines whether the punishments of history continue into the contemporary world.

This reads like something Stephen King might have written back before his work became tiresome and repetitive. I don’t make this comparison lightly. De Lint shares King’s mobius story structures, and love of history impinging on today. The further along you get, the harder it becomes to put the book down. Nothing feels extraneous, nothing feels like a misfire. This is a prime book for people who have never touched fantasy, horror, or Charles de Lint in their lives.

De Lint’s substantial Gypsy content is key to the story. he Romany hold massive audience appeal largely because, even today, they remain largely invisible, dwelling secretly in society’s margins. Therefore, they remain often opaque to outsiders’ romantic, ahistorical notions. Many people demand accuracy in this sort of thing, but the Gypsies are so notoriously secretive that fact-checking isn't an issue. What matters is this: I can imagine these characters, in these situations, performing exactly these actions.

It's amazing, with the slim amount of narrative and the beautifully cinematic characters and situations, that this hasn't been adapted before now. Perhaps soon. De Lint paints an elaborate, fast-moving image for the mind’s eye, and a masterpiece of pacing. Modern technology could turn this into the most beautiful dark fantasy film in history, no problem. Easily readable and worth a second look, this book is one that will become a treasured part of your library in short order.

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