Charles de Lint, the pioneer of urban fantasy
The very first urban fantasy work was probably the novel Moonheart: A Romance by Charles de Lint published in 1984. At that time, however, the term “urban fantasy” hadn’t been coined yet. Urban fantasy was defined in 1997 by John Clute and John Grant in their Encyclopedia of Fantasy as “texts where fantasy and the mundane world interact, intersect, and interweave throughout a tale which is significantly about a real city.”
Ironically the series that launched urban fantasy wasn’t set in a real city, but in an imaginary one. Newford invented by Charles de Lint represents a typical American city, with its wealthy residential areas and its slums, its beachfronts and its wastelands, and, of course, its vast network of underground tunnels. Newford series started with the short story “Uncle Dobbin’s Parrot Fair” that appeared for the first time in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine in 1987. In 1993 several short stories by Charles de Lint, all set in Newford, were compiled by Terri Windling and published under the title Dreams Underfoot.
Dreams Underfoot is a memorable read. We meet colorful characters, grow attached to them, and explore the mysteries of Newford in their company. Some stories border on magical realism or surrealism, for example “Freewheeling,” where a street kid steals bicycles to set them free. For him even unanimated objects have a soul, a mind of their own, and therefore deserve to be free. Is he insane, or is he perceiving something real, a magic hidden in mundane objects? We will never know. Throughout the book, reality, myth, and magic intertwine so intimately that sometimes it’s impossible to tell what’s real and what’s illusion. Whether magic is real or not doesn’t change the meaning of the stories, however. What matters is what people believe in. Such is the theory of consensual reality: things exist because we want them to exist.
Dreams Underfoot has been compared with works of literary fantasy such as Little, Big (1981) by John Crowley and Winter’s Tale (1983) by Mark Helprin.
Sex and fey and rock and roll!
Some would say that the first urban fantasy novel was the War for the Oaks (1987) by Emma Bull. Not sure I agree, but let’s talk about this book. It tells the story of Eddi McCandry, a young singer who lives in Minneapolis. She is having a bad day, or rather a bad night. She has broken up with her boyfriend and left his band, and later she finds herself running from a sinister man and a huge dog. The two creatures are one and the same: a phouka, a faerie being who has chosen Eddi to be a mortal pawn in the age-old war between the Seelie and Unseelie Courts.
War for the Oaks isn’t the most appropriate title for this novel, as the war of the faerie courts is not at the core of the story. Rock music is. A good title for this book would be Eddi and the Fey (the name of Eddi’s band) or even better Sex & Fey & Rock & Roll! Emma Bull was a musician; she played guitar and sang in the Flash Girls, a goth-folk duo, and was a member of Cats Laughing, a psychedelic folk-jazz band. No doubt that her passion for music inspired the War for the Oaks.
This novel would be better described as paranormal romance rather than urban fantasy. The plot revolves around Eddi and her love life (and her sex life, although there are no explicit sex scenes). There is even a love triangle between Eddi and two supernatural beings, a narrative device that will later become a hallmark of paranormal romance.
Overall, there isn’t much action in this book. Most of it (especially the middle part) is filled with dialogues between Eddi and the phouka or other members of her band. Although there are some good ideas, they are not exploited in this novel, for example the role Eddi was supposed to have in the reformation of seelie courts. On the positive side, the writing style is inspired, and the story is quite imaginative, but the characters are clichéd (the valiant price, the noble queen, the evil witch, etc.) The phouka is an exception as he seems to be more subtle than the others.
Overall the War for the Oaks is a light read, enjoyable if you like paranormal romance, but not a must read in my opinion. I mentioned this book for historical reasons, because it set the stage for more successful novels and series blending urban fantasy with paranormal romance.
For completeness I also mention Bedlam’s Bard (1998) by Mercedes Lackey which has similarities with the War for the Oaks. Again this is a story about music and elves in a contemporary setting. It’s interesting to see how urban fantasy writers integrated folk and rock music into their narratives. Charles de Lint’s stories often mention music, and this is no coincidence. In the 70s fantasy and horror literature influenced popular music to a great extent, therefore it’s not surprising that, in the 80s and the 90s, music returned the favor, so to speak, by inspiring a new breed of fantasy stories. This vast subject deserves a separate post; for now let’s return to the matter at hand and talk about vampires!
Here be vampires!
Today we couldn’t imagine urban fantasy without vampires. They are everywhere. It wasn’t the case in the early 90s, however. The novel that introduced vampires into urban fantasy was Guilty Pleasures (1993) by Laurell K. Hamilton, the first instalment of the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series.
As I already mentioned in the post on the origins of urban fantasy, it’s difficult to establish the boundaries between vampire fiction (a subgenre of horror fiction) and urban fantasy. In my opinion, the difference between horror and fantasy is that the former tends to be more introverted while the latter is more extraverted. Horror fiction often focuses on what the characters feel, with an emphasis on strong negative emotions such as anger, fear, sorrow, etc. Fantasy, on the other hand, relies more on the sense of awe, and usually involves extensive world building to achieve its effect. This is by no means an absolute rule, but I think it applies quite often.
Guilty Pleasures is difficult to categorize as it borrows from horror, thriller and fantasy genres in equal measure. The novel takes place in a world where vampires revealed their existence to the living. As one would expect, such a revelation cased quite a stir, if not panic. After all, aren’t vampires preying on humans? What should be the legal status of a vampire in our society? Should they have the same rights as the living?
The author of Guilty Pleasures happily skips over social and legal aspects of this problem to focus on action. Anita Blake has a most unusual job: she’s an animator working for the police. She raises the dead so the police can interrogate them. Convenient for the police, isn’t it? Your key witnesses are dead? No worries, Anita Blake will resurrect them for you!
Her other job is even more dangerous: she executes vampires. If she has a court order of execution, she can kill a vampire in all legality. If she doesn’t have a court order… Well, she kills those bloodsuckers anyway. Not all vampires are portrayed as bloodthirsty monsters in the novel, but it’s implied that most of them are. We are not far from the situation portrayed in the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003). In short, Anita Blake is a self-appointed Agent 007 with a license to kill, and she uses this license quite liberally, eliminating the bad guys whether they are living or undead. By “guys” I mean both males and females, as the main villain of the novel is a female vampire. No sexism here.
Guilty Pleasures is the kind of novel that keeps the reader engaged from the first to the last page. Hamilton excels in the art of creating and maintaining tension. Her writing is visceral, full of strong sensations. However, it would be unfair to say that the novel is only sensationalist. Underneath a relatively shallow vampire hunting story, one can discern some interesting observations about human psychology.
Hamilton is probably the first urban fantasy author to step into the realm of female fantasies. In the following decade, many writers will follow her on this path. Those fantasies are not as innocent as male writers imagined them. For example, many women are attracted by men with strong personalities, to say the least. We knew that at least since Byron and his poems about charismatic, yet dangerous men. Cinema has been exploiting this theme since the early 40s. Danger and romance—a winning combination! Humphrey Bogart’s characters may have been tough, even dangerous sometimes, yet none of them could compete in both sophistication and ferocity with Anne Rice’s Lestat or Hamilton’s Jean-Claude.
Sophistication, ferocity and sex appeal—that’s the winning combination for a vampire in an urban fantasy novel. Hamilton understood that and represented vampires as the embodiment of the deepest female desires. Although this view can seem shocking at first, it is surprisingly insightful considering recent scientific evidence. (For scientific information on this subject I recommend the Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology, 2nd Edition, D.M. Buss, ed. Wiley, New York, NY. In particular see the chapter Women’s sexual interests across the ovulatory cycle: Function and phylogeny by S.W. Gangestad, R. Thornhill and C.E. Garver-Apgar.)
We will continue this discussion in my next post on urban fantasy, as there is a lot to say on this subject. Now let’s talk about another urban fantasy author who contributed to shape the genre. He needs no introduction; ladies and gentlemen, I give you Neil Gaiman!
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
Neverwhere started as a television series first aired in 1996 on BBC Two. It was written by Neil Gaiman and Lenny Henry, and directed by Dewi Humphreys. Later that year Gaiman adapted the series into a novel. And what an influential novel that was!
Neverwhere is a parallel world that coexists alongside ours, but normally cannot be seen by us. Sometimes, for mysterious reasons, people “fall through the cracks” and become part of this unseen universe. Gaiman uses this as a metaphor for social exclusion; these people are no longer part of civilized society, lose everything they owned, have to live homeless and obey the ruthless rules of the underworld. Yet, as grim as this place originally appears, it is full of adventure and magic, which makes it more appealing for a romantic soul than our safe and predictable technological world.
There are no vampires or werewolves in Neverwhere, but there are all sorts of fantastical creatures, some of them stranger than others. In this novel, the protagonist discovers the existence of an invisible London, the London Below. Every London Underground station hides a secret world that reminds us of the city’s medieval past. There is a monastery under Blackfriars, at Earl’s Court lives an actual earl with his court, and under Angel hides… well, an Angel! Interestingly there is no paranormal romance in Neverwhere, not even a hint—this is urban fantasy in its purest form.
I believe Neverwhere is one of the best urban fantasy novels. Witty, imaginative, but also thought-provoking—this is what the genre was meant to be. The main focus of an urban fantasy story should be the city, the urban life with its contrasts and paradoxes.
Urban fantasy may be an escapist genre, but this is an ambiguous escapism that always brings us back to reality. In Neverwhere, this ambiguous escapism appears through the tribulations of the protagonist between the London Above and the London Below, the former representing reality, and the latter representing fantasy.
Gaiman produced other noteworthy works, in particular the comic book series Sandman and the novel American Gods (2001) for which he received several awards, including Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and Bram Stoker Awards (see my post on science fiction, fantasy and horror awards for details on those awards).
In the next post on urban fantasy, we’ll talk about the evolution of the genre in the first decade of the 21st century, starting with Jim Butcher and Kelley Armstrong.