The Long and Diverse History of Urban Fantasy
April 16, 2012
As part of my gig at the Williamson Lectureship last month, I gave a short talk on a topic of urban fantasy. And here it is (it’s not verbatim — I went a little extemporaneous in spots — but this is the write-up I worked from):
But, my dearest Catherine, what have you been doing with yourself all this morning? Have you gone on with Udolpho?”
“Yes, I have been reading it ever since I woke; and I am got to the black veil.”
“Are you, indeed? How delightful! Oh! I would not tell you what is behind the black veil for the world! Are not you wild to know?”
“Oh! Yes, quite; what can it be? But do not tell me—I would not be told upon any account. I know it must be a skeleton, I am sure it is Laurentina’s skeleton. Oh! I am delighted with the book! I should like to spend my whole life in reading it. I assure you, if it had not been to meet you, I would not have come away from it for all the world.”
“Dear creature! How much I am obliged to you; and when you have finished Udolpho, we will read the Italian together; and I have made out a list of ten or twelve more of the same kind for you.”
“Have you, indeed! How glad I am! What are they all?”
“I will read you their names directly; here they are, in my pocketbook. Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, Mysterious Warnings, Necromancer of the Black Forest, Midnight Bell, Orphan of the Rhine, and Horrid Mysteries. Those will last us some time.”
“Yes, pretty well; but are they all horrid, are you sure they are all horrid?”
“Yes, quite sure…”
–Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, Chapter 6
This passage features two characters from Austen’s Northanger Abbey discussing their favorite gothic novels. Modernize the language and this could be an online chat or forum about urban fantasy. What this tells us: readers and fans haven’t changed all that much. And what we think of as a new genre maybe isn’t all that new after all.
I’ve spent the last five years or so appearing on panels called “What is urban fantasy?” or “What’s up with all these kick-ass heroines?” and I’ve been trying to figure it out as I go like everyone else. That I’m most often identified as an urban fantasy author, rather than a science fiction and fantasy author, came as a surprise to me, because I write it all. And urban fantasy, in its current form, as it’s currently most commonly defined, didn’t actually exist when I started writing novels and trying to get them published, and my first few short stories began appearing in Weird Tales and Realms of Fantasy and the like.
That I have a career at all is because of urban fantasy. I have a series of novels that fits into this niche that came along about the same time they started being published, and so it became a bestselling series of novels. It’s a great example of that elusive luck people talk about.
As an urban fantasy author, it behooves me to think about what urban fantasy actually is. Here’s what I’ve got: when I started paying attention to things like sub-genres and book marketing, it was the early nineties, and urban fantasy as a term existed. It was mostly used to describe the works of Charles de Lint, Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks, the Terri Windling edited Bordertown series. It was elves in rock bands, it was traditional fairy tales set in the modern world, usually urban settings. Before that, urban fantasy might have meant any kind of fantasy set in a city — Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar stories, for example. Vampire novels that followed in the footsteps of Ann Rice were something different — these works included Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s Saint Germain series, PN Elrod’s vampire detective series, Tanya Huff’s Blood series. The “vampire” category even included Laurell K. Hamilton and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Then something weird happened, and a bunch of people noticed that the best parts of Hamilton’s Anita Blake books and Joss Whedon’s Buffy series weren’t actually the vampires. The appeal was actually women who kick ass, effectively and unapologetically. We also have a generation who grew up after first and second wave feminism, who watched the Lynda Carter Wonder Woman and Lindsay Wagner in The Bionic Woman and Charlie’s Angels at young, impressionable ages. Who also grew up with Ellen Ripley and Sarah Conner. Who took it entirely for granted that women could be heroes and kick a lot of ass while doing so. It’s this generation of writers who’ve made urban fantasy what it is today.
After the cancellation of Buffy and its spin-off Angel, a large audience of people wanted more. Vampires, demons, werewolves, witches, and so on. And characters who beat them up. Or make out with them. Or fall in love with them. Fortunately, the books were there, and the sub-genre took off.
Why call it urban fantasy? I’ve pegged 2007 as the year urban fantasy started being used to identify not just novels with fantasy elements set in the modern world, but particularly novels that feature these kick-ass heroines and vampire romance and so on. The best argument I’ve heard is that book reviewers needed a term that would distinguish more action-adventure oriented stories from paranormal romance, where the story centers on the relationship of two main characters. Urban fantasy served.
What bugs me about this, what bugs a lot of people about this, is that urban fantasy, even kick-ass urban fantasy, has been around for a very long time, and talking about it as something new obscures the influences that go into the genre. Most of the writers known for writing what’s currently being called urban fantasy have deep roots in the genre, they love mystery and grew up reading science fiction, just as much as anyone else you’d find in the SF section. Urban fantasy can trace roots to Ann Rice and the TV show Dark Shadows, but also Victorian horror like Dracula and the early gothics that Catherine and Isabelle in Northanger Abbey were reading, such those written Ann Radcliffe. These stories feature fascination with the other, characters at the fringes of society, the intersection of fear and desire, and the attraction of the forbidden. Calling urban fantasy “new” leads people to mistake it as a fad, when in truth it has wide, varied, and deep influences. It’s about making old stories modern.
Depending on how far you’re willing to spread the umbrella, the early gothic novels are all urban fantasy. Arthur Machen’s late Victorian horror stories, The Great God Pan and The Three Imposters for example, are are urban fantasy. I recently found a copy of Jack Williamson’s Darker Than You Think, because it’s a werewolf story and everyone told me I needed to read it, and what struck me is how at home this novel, originally published in 1940, would be in the current marketplace. Mysterious powers, a terrible destiny, and, of course, a dangerous romance. Even by a narrow definition, it’s urban fantasy, and it’s a bridge between the Victorian and pre-Victorian gothic tale, and modern adventure and mystery-driven supernatural stories.
I’ve had a couple of worrying conversations recently with writers looking to break in with urban fantasy novels (business of publishing aside: for about five years now everyone’s been trying to break in with urban fantasy novels, and for good reason — everyone seems to want to publish more). Their novels had zombies, zombie hunting, ghosts and magic, haunted paintings, women main characters solving mysteries, and so on, all set in some alternate modern world with magic. And these writers were sure that their novels weren’t really urban fantasy. My first reaction was surprise — urban fantasy is the hottest thing since toast, why wouldn’t you try to market your book as urban fantasy? My second was frustration — because the definition of urban fantasy has become so narrow, their books didn’t fit. Because they didn’t have a romance, or a love triangle, sex with vampires, or a protagonist who used violence to solve her problems. This is when I started to figure out the true impact of all those covers with sexy leather-clad women wielding nunchucks.
I don’t want to be part of a genre that’s so narrowly defined, so I’m doing everything I can to make the urban fantasy umbrella as big as possible. Urban fantasy is a rich genre with the potential for vast variety, and it has a long history and deep roots.
The trappings of the current wave of urban fantasy — all these weaponized women, all these monsters who are now heroes — may look new, but the stories themselves are classic. What those new trappings mean — the blurring of the lines between normal and monstrous, ambivalence about issues of women and power — that’s another talk.
I choose a wide umbrella and a long history for urban fantasy. Greater inclusiveness is always better. The genre is what we make it.