Friday, July 16, 2010
Pixel Pixies and Shelf Elves
Charles de Lint’s story “Pixel Pixies” in Tapping the Dream Tree (Tor) was inspired by a friend’s suggestion that spirits now live in the wires, even more than the trees, travel through the internet, take up residence in computers and “live on electricity and lord knows what else”.
In the story, a used bookstore owner finds her computer playing up. She can’t exit her browser, and can’t switch to another window – and can’t log off without losing important data she had been working on but has failed to save. When she tries switching to sites on the drop-down “Favorites” menus she is switched to totally unrelated sites. A striking fey woman comes in and suggests she should try turning her sweater inside out. What has she got to lose? The bookstore lady tries it, and the problem disappears. The fey lady says, “If you’re lucky, they’re still on the internet and didn’t follow you home.”
This sets us up for a wild, entertaining story in which mischievous, vandalizing pixies – who can appear either as tiny men or as dancing lights the size of “the mouth of a shot glass” – come spilling out of the computer screen. What is to be done? The fey lady – identified now as an “oak king’s daughter” – has the solution: the primal, pre-church version of Bell, Book and Candle. The ritual requires a book that has never been read – in this case, a book with uncut pages. The bookstore lady finds one in her locked cabinet of first editions. And it is:
The Trembling of the Veil by William Butler Yeats, number seventy-one of a thousand-copy edition privately printed by T. Werner Laurie, Ltd in 1922.
The uncut book is placed on the sidewalk and used to trap the pixies – who are finally driven back into the computer and flushed into cyberspace when the bookstore lady boots up.
Yeats observed (in the preface to a collection of fairy tales gathered by his friend Lady Gregory) that pixies and similar “wild creatures and green things” tend to “creep towards our light by little holes and crevices”. So why not the passage of a computer screen – or even an incoming email?
"Pixel Pixies" gave me delicious shivers when I first read it, because on that same night I had been writing about Yeats for my Dreamer's Book of the Dead and had decided to give the prologue to that book a title curiously similar to that of the uncut book in the story: "The Night When the Veil Thins." In my night study, I felt the workings of a shelf elf, more than that of pixel pixies.
Charles de Lint has gone on to write a larger-scale treatment of this theme in Spirits in the Wires, one of my favorites among his Newford novels, in which he has developed a Canadian mode of magical realism. But I am sure he has noticed that pixies keep up with human technology - when they are not ahead of it - so a title for today might be Spirits Go Wireless.