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I can feel the panic welling up inside me once more, a swelling wave of hysteria and dark despair. If there was only one person I could turn to, one person to confirm that I haven’t gone crazy, that world has…But there’s not. I have nothing, no one to hold on to, not one anchor to reality except for what lies inside my head.

What lies inside my head. All these memories. So many of them, with such detail. How can they all be lies?

About ten years ago I began rabbiting on to whomever would listen about something I called ‘modern fantasy’. In a nutshell, I was on the look-out for stories set in the present day that belonged to the fantasy genre, but featured neither magical swords, or elves. A modern update of the type of fiction Hope Mirlees and Lord Dunsany wrote before the Tolkien cottage-industry swept across the genre.

Jonathan Carroll is one such writer, as is John Crowley, who’s Little, Big to my mind ranks up there with classics such as Lud-in-the-Mist. The next name I mention when discussing this topic is Charles de Lint. Nowadays I imagine his work would be pitched to take advantage of the current ‘urban fantasy/dark romance’, sub-genres. Yet his writing manages to be both highly metaphorical, while also rooted in character building. His novels tend to feature large casts of twenty-somethings faced with dreamlike realities that they have to muddle their way through, in between paying rent and dealing with lousy relationships.

Trader seems at first to be have an atypically narrow cast of characters, as it begins with two men, Max Trader and Johnny Devlin, switching bodies. Max is a luthier, a craftsman who finds it easier to judge the quality of a piece of wood than the people he meets outside his workshop. Johnny is a user, who accepts no responsibility for his life and takes a selfish pleasure in manipulating people, such as his ex Tanya, into doing favours he has no interest in returning. Only now Johnny finds himself in Max’s body and it seems all his financial woes are over. He owns an apartment, a successful business and people even stop him in the street having read an interview with ‘Max’, in specialist magazines. His body’s original owner is having a much harder time of it. Max wakes to the sound of two women screaming at him to repay money he has stolen. That same day, still confused at being trapped in this new body, he is evicted and with no money is force to live rough on the streets.

Then he meets the man wearing his body, who casually dismisses him with the threat of calling the cops. After all who would believe this story?

Young Nia does. She lives in Max’s building and befriended him before the body swap happened. She can see that this new Max speaks, moves and acts completely differently. It almost seems as if someone else is inside Max, controlling him and then she begins to suspect that he is not the only one to have been changed.

The stage is set for a conflict between the two men that will cross from this world into another dimension, where their very souls are threatened by spirits and old gods.

As I said initially this seems to be a simple story a good man and a bad man trapped in each other’s lives. A magic realist The Prince and the Pauper perhaps. But de Lint brings a lot more to the table. When Max becomes homeless it is easy for people to assume when he talks about his life being stolen from him, he simply means the livelihood he squandered that led to his living rough in city parks. He meet a fortune teller names Bones, who off-handedly reveals he has invented his whole precognition gig – but that doesn’t mean it is not true. When he talks to Max about living in a second skin, he assumes the Indian means being down and out, having to reinvent yourself. Once again though, why can it not be both.

An assortment of bohemian artists and performers are introduced, the ideal people to give any credence to body swapping and ream worlds malarkey. Sometimes their interludes feel distracting though. I felt we never learned enough about Devlin, although he’s a louse seems to sum it up.

An entertaining fable, with sense of whimsy.

“Traction-engines!” he said with evident loathing. “I saw one scratching itself at the back of a haystack. I thoroughly barked at it.”

“They should be barked at,” I said, as politely as I could.

“Most certainly,” said the Dean. “If things like that got to think they could go where they liked without any kind of protest, we should very soon have them everywhere.”

On my first flight home from Australia I took Lord Dunsany’s novel The King of Elfland’s Daughter to read on the plane. Until today it was the only other book by the author that I had read and to my mind, is one of the most perfectly written fairy tales ever published. Written with an extraordinary visual detail and a gentle good humour, it cheered me up immensely.

I am happy to say that this second visit to the fiction of Lord Dunsany was equally satisfying.

Our narrator chances upon an eccentric Dean whose views on the transubstantiation of the soul capture his attention. As they discuss such matters over a few glasses of Tokay, the elderly gent suddenly takes a turn and begins to speak of events that occurred before he was born. His listener is astonished, as the degree of detail employed by the Dean seems beyond the capacity of a drunkard’s imagination. If anything the man sitting beside him appears refreshed and quick-witted, speaking fondly of the good old days. When he used to be a dog!

Slowly the story’s narrator becomes convinced that the Dean has access to memories from a former life, but he is frustrated by the drip of information he is able to wrangle during these strange drinking sessions. He learns how dogs relate to one another and view the ways of their Masters, the joys of the hunt and the pleasure taken in teasing pigs (barking “Pig! Pig! Pig!” really annoys them). Strangely the Dean mentions romance, but avoids discussing it directly. His fascinated drinking companion sets about attempting to rigorously extract as much information as he can, even to the point of measuring how many glasses of Tokay it takes to transport this man of God back in time.

This is a wittily written and amusing little fable. The Dean’s experiences raise a veil on the mysteries of Oriental theories of reincarnation for the narrator. In many ways the book teases the reader with its notions on religion. Is it arguing that the Christian church is too removed from debating questions of spirituality? Or is it proposing a stronger relationship between Eastern and Western varieties of faith? The appearance of a Maharajah sadly fails to bring any more clarity to the protagonist’s questions relating to his unusual friend. Unfortunately he is more interested in polo than the mysteries of the soul.

The dog’s life, it would seem, is the good life and the Dean (speaking as a dog) even argues that the British industrial revolution has taken too great a toll on the English countryside. There is a rich nostalgia on show for the Victorian era here, one that speaks more to the values of the author than anything else. This is still a story written with great verve and warm wit that argues the greatest thing you will ever learn is –

“Never trust a teetotaller, or a man who wears elastic-sided boots.”

A film adaptation was released in 2008 starring Peter O’Toole, Sam Neill and Bryan Brown. My edition of the novel also includes the screenplay by Alan Sharp and a series of set photos from the filming.

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