TT: The Mean Streets of Urban Fantasy

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Rev your engine and take a spin around the Unser Racing Museum with me.  Then join me and Alan as we venture into the mystic streets of urban fantasy.

Wonder Doesn't Stop

Wonder Doesn’t Stop

JANE: A few weeks ago, Alan, you referred to “Buffy/Twilight urban fantasy rubbish.” (TT Roger Zelazny: Master of Odd Twists.)

This, of course, triggered a desire in me to make urban fantasy in its various incarnations our next topic.  Shall we?

ALAN: Yes, let’s.

JANE: Even before we get into discussing specific writers, the term “urban fantasy” provides a fruitful ground for discussion.  Compared to some of the sub-sections of fantasy we’ve discussed, “urban fantasy” – as a distinct term – is relatively new.

Do you know when the term came commonly into use?

ALAN: This is purely anecdotal, but I think I first became aware of it in the early 1990s, and the stories that brought it to my attention were mainly by Charles de Lint.

JANE: I smile…  You’ll see why eventually, but I want to try out a definition of urban fantasy first.

As I see it, one of the major elements of urban fantasy is that the fantasy story takes place in an urban environment. This is a great contrast to much fantasy, which is pastoral in nature.  Indeed, in a great deal of traditional fantasy, cities are considered non-magical places, even antithetical to magic.

Although in urban fantasy the setting is usually contemporary, many of the magical elements draw on myth and folklore, or use traditional magical elements.   Even more importantly, in urban fantasy, the magic belongs in the city.  Magic isn’t reserved for a single odd shop selling magical curiosities or a cabal in hiding.  In urban fantasy, the faerie folk, to cite one commonly used trope, continue live among humanity as they always have.  They’ve just adapted.

ALAN: You’ve hit the nail right on the head – in urban fantasy, the fantastical elements are tightly integrated into the story. They are perceived as normal and open, part of everyday life (initially they might take some of the characters by surprise, but acceptance soon follows).

JANE: I mentioned above that I was rather late even being aware there was something called urban fantasy.  You can imagine my confusion when, some years ago, I became aware that the types of story the term referred to had expanded.

I’d been peripherally aware that once again there was a resurgence of interest in fiction about vampires and werewolves – often in a softer, more romantic mode than they had been presented in the Horror boom of the 1980’s.  The term by which these stories were called initially was usually “paranormal romance.”   There may have been another…  Supernatural something?  If so, it slips my mind.

I’ll admit, I’m not much interested in either vampires or romance as the driving elements of a plot, so I pretty much gave these a pass. Since it seemed to me that many of those writing this new “urban fantasy” were influenced by the Buffy television show, I tended to refer to these stories as “Buffy Fic.”

ALAN: Lovely phrase. It’s very descriptive. The first time I heard you use it, I immediately filed the serial numbers off and started using it myself.

JANE: That’s cool!

ALAN: It’s this tendency to throw the supernatural kitchen sink into the mixture and, at the same time, to de-emphasise the role that our contemporary society plays in the events of the story that makes me sneer at this kind of story. I think the strength of the genre lies in its contemporary real world setting and the fantasy elements should have a part to play in the contemporary real world problems of the characters. The further away you get from that, the more the supernatural is emphasised over the more mundane, the less convincing the story becomes.

Though having said that, all is not hopeless and there are some examples of Buffy Fic that I’ve enjoyed a lot.

JANE: Me, too.  Well, since there seem to be two related but distinct types of fiction both being referred to as urban fantasy, maybe we can start by discussing the older variation, then move to the newer one.

However, as usual, I need to go write!  Let’s save this discussion for next time.

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30 Responses to “TT: The Mean Streets of Urban Fantasy”

  1. Peter Says:

    Of course if you’re defining “urban fantasy” as “fantasy that takes place in an urban environment” then Fritz Leiber is the father of the genre…

    • janelindskold Says:

      Why not give a few titles? I enjoy Lieber and I’m sure other people would appreciate your recommendations.

      • Peter Says:

        I was thinking specifically of the Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories (collected starting with Swords and Deviltry and continuing with Swords Against Death, Swords in the Mist, Swords Against Wizardry, The Swords of Lankhmar, Swords and Ice Magic, and The Knight and Knave Of Swords – they’ve all been republished fairly recently, at least in electronic editions).

        As a caveat, these are definitely fantasies, and they absolutely take place in an urban environment, but they’re not “urban fantasy” in either the “Faerie is alive and well and living in downtown Ottawa (or Minneapolis or Toronto or Albuquerque)” or the “BDSM porn with vampires and werewolves” sense, since the city of Lankhmar, where most of them are set, is a secondary-world creation.

        Even if we add “contemporary” to the definition Leiber’s still a pretty good contender for one of the progenitors of the genre with Conjure Wife (okay, for limited values of “contemporary” since it was written in 1943). Conjure Wife usually gets categorized as “horror” along with a lot of other “fantasy in contemporary settings” work that appeared magazines like Unknown and Weird Tales (things like Boucher’s Compleat Werewolf), but I think that’s mostly down to shifting genre definitions, where any writing with fantastic elements that wasn’t set in space (science fiction) or a secondary world (fantasy) got lumped into horror.

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    Buffy Fic?

    Um…no. I do like urban fantasy, but I’m not a fan of the Buffyverse or Twilight at all, and I don’t see them leading the way. I’d point instead to the Minnesota based Scribblies (Steve Brust, Patricia Wrede, Emma Bull, Will Shetterly, Pamela Dean et al.), and I’d give them credit, along with Charles de Lint, for a lot of seminal urban fantasy, such as War for the Oaks and the Borderlands series.

    Can we give credit where credit is due?

    • janelindskold Says:

      No offense, but we we never said that “Buffy Fic” led the way. The opposite, in fact. We noted that this trend evolved later — but eventually adopted the same term.

      In the weeks to come, I believe you will see your request acknowledged — although we don’t necessarily chat about all the same authors. Mileage does differ!

    • Heteromeles Says:

      Works for me. I got confused by the vamp/wolf thread interwoven with urban fantasy, since I tend to group them separately. Certainly, if we’re talking about werewolves and vampires in an urban setting, we could argue that the classic movies (and Bram Stoker) were the genesis of both. The Other Crowd was relegated to more sylvan fantasies until relatively recently.

      I haven’t read Leiber’s Our Lady of Darkness, but I’d draw a link between urban fantasy of the Scribblies’/90s variety and the rise of Wicca and other pagan religions. Not that all the practitioners were pagan (although Emma Bull is certainly out of the broom closet), but (to me at least) there’s a temporal fit between the 90s openness to paganism and the popularity of urban fantasy at the same time.

      The more modern vamp/wolf stories are rather different. While it might be snide to say these are marketed to mainstream, even Christian, readers, I think there’s some bit of truth in this bias. Mixing sex and death, heaven and hell, and throwing in a soupcon of bestial transgression may well appeal to people for whom heaven and hell are more real than the Otherworld and reincarnation.

      • janelindskold Says:

        Well… You’re a bit behind the times, sir. As of a couple years ago, the term “urban fantasy” began to be widely applied to the “werewolves and vampires in urban settings with lots of romance” stuff. That’s why I brought it up… I was pretty confused since some of my most popular material had been labeled “urban fantasy” in the older model.

  3. Paul Says:

    I hadn’t thought of Fritz Leiber, but Peter is right. In retrospect, he is the earliest I can remember. It may be Charles de Lint who gave this sub-genre of fantasy its name, though. When Leiber was writing, fantasy was just fantasy, regardless of its emphasis. (Much like science fiction, before we had military SF, alternate history, space opera, social SF, etc., etc. …)

    • Louis Robinson Says:

      Not to be pedantic [well, I guess it is to be pedantic, if I’m honest], but there were acknowledged divisions in SFF while Fafrhd was still hot off the press. In fact, those stories were being called ‘sword & sorcery’ by the time the later ones were published, and ‘space opera’ was in use well before that.

      • janelindskold Says:

        We’re all being a little pedantic here — as Alan and I admitted from the start. We had two reasons for wanting to do this long thread on the various sub-genres of Fantasy and SF.

        One was my desire to provide definitions for would-be writers because, boy-oh-boy, did I find it hard to figure out who wanted what where when I started submitting stories.

        The other was it gave us a happy excuse to talk about books and authors we have enjoyed (or in a few cases,not enjoyed despite their wide spread popularity).

  4. janelindskold Says:

    Peter… I’d say Fafhrd and the Mouser don’t fit the “usually contemporary” element of what is commonly called “urban fantasy.” Certainly, contemporary or not, the term is more often applied to “real world” vs “imaginary world” stories.

    Sword and sorcery — yes! And among the best of the best, but urban fantasy,no.

    _Conjure Wife_ though… It’s been a while, but I think you’ve got it there — thought I think at the time it would have been called “horror.”

    • Heteromeles Says:

      As noted above, I haven’t read Our Lady Of Darkness (1977), but if one puts on one’s Wikipedia goggles, it looks like an urban fantasy in some respects.

      Actually, another precursor to urban fantasy of the Vamp/Wolf flavor is Jack Williamson’s Darker Than You Think (1940). Then again, so much of vampire, werewolf, and zombie lore comes from the classic Hollywood films that it would be remiss not to mention those as well.

      • janelindskold Says:

        I LOVE _Darker than You Think_ but I would term in SF/horror. I actually wrote a variation on the story for a Jack Williamson tribute anthology. Jack liked it, which had me very, very happy.

        As for the rest… Give us time, man! Kindly note the last line of this post!

    • Peter Says:

      Oh, quite right on the Lankhmar stories, which was my (tongue deeply in cheek) point in the original comment on your definition, which left out the “contemporary” part – despite their being fantasies firmly set in an urban environment, they aren’t “urban fantasy” (same thing goes for things like Simon Green’s Hawk and Fisher novels, or Glen Cook’s Garrett books, or the Thieves’ World or Liavek anthologies, all of which are definitely “fantasy rooted in an urban environment” but not “urban fantasy”..

      I’m pretty sure Conjure Wife got tagged as horror when it was first printed – certainly the 70s paperback reprint I have says “horror” on the spine. Same thing with Boucher’s Compleat Werewolf, which was more or less contemporary with Conjure Wife (there was quite a bit of proto-urban-fantasy being published in Unknown and Weird Tales, but a lot of it got tagged as horror.)

      • Louis Robinson Says:

        Interesting about the labeling of Conjure Wife, since it wasn’t _shelved_ as Horror, at least not in the first printing – I;d never have seen it, otherwise, since I simply didn’t look at those shelves. No interest at all in horror.

        Not, at least, horror of the fictional sort. The Last Battle is grim enough, but I was something of a student of the seamier side of WWII at the time: why make up horror that isn’t very when we were barely 20 years out of Auschwitz and Buchenwald,just heading for Tet [although we didn’t know it yet], and the Gulag was doing a land-office business. Not to mention what few of my slightly older contemporaries were refusing to believe about the Cultural Revolution.

        Opps! sorry, wrong soap box! But still, my reaction to The Tell-tale Heart was ‘Huh?’ I thought, and still do, that The Necklace was far more horrific.

      • Louis Robinson Says:

        Sorry, that should have been “quite a few of my…”

        I have trouble seeing the reply box on this screen for some reason, so my proofing is occasionally iffy.

      • Peter Says:

        Interesting that it wasn’t shelved as horror – may just have been a case of somebody shelving it with the other Leiber, I suppose. My paperback copy definitely says “horror” on the spine.

  5. Cat Says:

    Peter, sorry to disagree with you but Green’s Nightside stories are UF as they are explicitly set in an urban environment, the secret heart of London. And his zhawk & Fisher seies likewise take place in a well defined city. Indeed all of the ones you exclude are UF!

    • Peter Says:

      No need to apologize for disagreeing, it’s half of what makes these definitional discussions fun 🙂 I do think that the contemporary, real-world setting is a pretty major element of Urban Fantasy (the genre), as opposed to urban fantasy (any fantasy that takes place predominantly in a well-defined urban environment) – a lot of the magic of Urban Fantasy is that you can walk past the place where Eddie first met the Pooka, or Wizard fed the pigeons, or look at a block of buildings and wonder if it’s Tamson House – you can’t visit Sanctuary, or Haven, or Tun Faire, or Lankhmar the same way you can Minneapolis, Seattle, or Ottawa.

      • Cat Says:

        You just tossed out the most successful UF series of all time in terms of novels and short stories: Chales de Lint’s Newford series as that city is very much is fictional.

      • Peter Says:

        Got to admit I haven’t read much of the Newford material…in no small part because of the move away from the real-world setting that sucked me into _Moonheart_ way back when. (I’m kind of curious about how you define “success” here, by the way – volume of material? Sales?)

        The thing is that no matter where you draw the boundary, you’re *always* going to have outliers that are “obviously” part of the genre (but don’t fit the definitions you’ve drawn) and others that obviously *aren’t* part of the genre (but do).

      • Cat Says:

        There’s at least a dozen novels and prolly more a hundred stories set in Newford and its surrounding region. I can’t think of any other UF series that’s stayed going that long.

        It sold successfully for years and most of the novels are still in print.

      • Heteromeles Says:

        Here’s the stinker: how are we to deal with comic books? I mean, DC Comics’ Superman’s Metropolis and Batman’s Gotham City are obviously both New York clones. Are we to say that they’re not Urban Fantasy? Should we especially compare them to Marvel’s Spiderman and Fantastic Four, which are explicitly set in New York? Is Marvel Urban Fantasy, while DC is urban fantasy?

        As I pointed out above, we miss quite a bit when we talk about Urban Fantasy only as novels. This is especially true for the Vamp/Wolf Romance swamp, which draws its mythology largely from classic movies and rather little from old fairy tales.

        Similarly, why restrict ourselves to movies, when most of us grew up with comics? If we incorporate the comics, arguably the two longest-running continuous UF series are Superman and Batman, with their spinoffs into movies, TV, and yes, novels.

        (To head off anyone who wants to call Superman SF and not fantasy, let’s do a thought experiment: Superman gets about 3 kWHr/day from solar energy, which is supposed to power his super powers. Since he’s faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, as well as having at least megawatt heat vision energy dumps out of his eyes, I’d say the dude runs a massive caloric deficit and is always on the verge of starving to death, sun or no sun. Since we never see him scarfing pounds of lard and pounding back the frappucinnos to keep his energy levels up, he must be magical. Therefore, he’s in a fantasy universe).

      • Peter Says:

        “Here’s the stinker: how are we to deal with comic books?”

        I’m partial to sticking my fingers in my ears and running around in circles chanting NYAH NYAH NYAH NYAH I CAN’T HEAR YOU IA IA SHUB NIGGURATH just because opening that can of worms leads to madness, or at least the mountains thereof (and as you point out, even if we rule out comics as a medium, we’re still left with the novelizations).

        Ultimately if you’re looking for a definition it’s hard to beat Damon Knight’s (“Anything I point to when I say [genre name]”). Norman Spinrad’s (“Science fiction is anything published as science fiction.”) is pretty solid too, although it leaves out some of the seminal work before “urban fantasy” became a marketing category.

        Oh, and I’m not sure I agree on the Fang/Fur swamp draining from classic movies – a lot of the examples I’ve seen seem to draw much more on each other, and honestly if I were looking for foundational works I’d be a lot more likely to point to The Story of O than anything with Lon Chaney or Bela Lugosi.

      • Heteromeles Says:

        I won’t disagree about The Story of O, although I think that both “chick-lit” and more traditional formula romance have contributed their plots.

        However, the trappings of the stories tend to be cinematic. Things like werewolf vulnerability to silver comes out of The Wolf Man, for example. Zombies in fiction are almost entirely out of Hollywood. Real zombies, in their Haitian setting, are much more rare. Actually, to put it more bluntly, most of these monsters now come straight out of the AD&D Monster Manual, unless the writer is more versed in folklore or willing to do a bit of research. But that’s still another non-book source now, isn’t it?

  6. Peter Says:

    Well, the AD&D Monster Manual *is*, technically, a book….

    I don’t think these things are primary sources, though. The Wolf Man may be the ultimate progenitor of the werewolf/silver trope, but it’s at least four or five generations back.

    • Heteromeles Says:

      Agreed. I just don’t think that one can talk about the origins of urban fantasy strictly by referencing previous fantasy stories. Other media do play a key role here, especially with the vamp/wolf romances. To me, this is interesting, because (and I may be wrong), literature generally leads the way inpopularizing new tropes that then spread to more expensive media like film, TV, and games. Here, it seems to have worked the other way around.

      Is this your longest reponse thread yet, Jane?

      • Peter Says:

        I think the three classic Universal horror movies have made the shift into our society’s myth cycle in a way very few other “new” media have managed – Superman and Batman perhaps, maybe Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse and the Roadrunner – to the point that the I suspect that (with some notable exceptions – Night in the Lonesome October, anyone?) the people who are using those tropes aren’t even aware of their origins, they’re just taken as given.

  7. Paul Says:

    Apparently it’s pretty hard to pigeon-hole genres within genres, even though publishers insist on trying. The Gray Mouser et al was fantasy; it was also sword and sorcery. Leiber’s “Conjure Wife” was fantasy. It was also horror. I may have to accept Damon Knight’s definition, via Peter, to wit “Anything I point to…”

    • Louis Robinson Says:

      It can be impossible to pigeon-hole _genres_, never mind subgenres. I’ve had people [rather younger than I 😉 ] refer to McCaffery’s ‘fantasy’, and even shelve her there. As far as Anne McCaffery, John Campbell and Betty Ballantine were concerned, Pern is science fiction; a lot of people see ‘dragon’, and that’s the end of it.

      And, to make it interesting, they do have a point. Like a lot of SF, Pern is hip-deep in psionics – and that, as far as anyone has been able to determine, _is_ fantastic. The old classification of Science Fantasy was a nod to the fact that often enough you can’t really tell the difference, so why not just lean back and enjoy the story?

      As for urban fantasy, some very interesting arguments here. After reading, I find myself coming down in the position that Urban Fantasy is defined by the real-world setting. That doesn’t mean real places, always, BTW: Stephen Leacock never says ‘Orillia’ in Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, but no one has ever doubted that that’s the place he was writing about. In the same way, de Lint’s Newford may not be on any map, but he’s assembled it from the real cities most of us live in. Tanya Huff does use the real Toronto [I’ve driven through the place where the cops hit the unicorn in ‘Gate of Darkness…’ many times] or Calgary, and she knows them as they are. Her friend Michelle Sagara built Elantra from the ground up, and she knows it as she wants it to be. That’s much of the difference: a setting that is, that the author has to work within, vs. a setting that has to work within the author, so to speak. Neither, really, is “better” than the other. Enchantment Emporium is Urban Fantasy, Cast in Ruin isn’t – but the city itself is actually far more important in the latter story than the former.

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