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The Guardian - Urban Fantasy is About More Than Sex with Were-Leopards



The numinous. The weird. The fantastic, or even the spiritual. Whatever name it goes by, humans have a profound need to glimpse some greater reality beyond our mundane existence. And there’s nowhere more mundane than a modern city, where everything down to the light fittings is human-made, and even the darkest alley is under CCTV surveillance. If there is anything numinous in modern London, it must be perfectly camouflaged in the colours of a Caffè Nero.


That does not, of course, stop us from imagining. Urban fantasy has become one of the most successful genres in modern publishing, and can often be found occupying its own section in the bookstore. For most of the 90s and 00s, urban fantasy was only talked about by core fans, but today, popular characters such as detective Harry Dresden and vampire hunter Anita Blake have powered the genre to bestseller status. With a TV adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods due to start shooting in March, could urban fantasy be about to give us the next Game of Thrones?


While recognised as a master of traditional horror fiction, there’s also a strong case for British novelist Clive Barker as an early exponent of fantasy in urban worlds. From his breakthrough short story collection, The Books of Blood, through early novels like Weaveworld and the world-renowned Hellraiser mythos, Barker’s work is remarkable for its willingness to see the stuff of horror – the familiar cast of vampires, were-creatures, zombies, demons and other monstrous entities – not simply as horrific and repellent, but also as darkly fascinating and appealing.


It’s this high-octane fusion of horror and attraction that has fuelled urban fantasy’s success. Vampires have always always embodied the darker aspects of human sexuality, but in urban fantasy, those aspects are allowed full rein to express themselves. Were Bram Stoker’s Dracula rewritten as an urban fantasy in today’s style, Mina and Jonathan Harker would form a polyamorous relationship with Count Vlad and the trio would become a crime-fighting threesome. While it’s all too easy to not take seriously a genre that so often resorts to sex between humans and were-creatures, there is far more to urban fantasy.


Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim novels seem to owe as much to their author’s life in California as to the traditions of horror they riff on. On one level, Kadrey is writing a fast-paced action novel about the revenge-driven return of a hitman from the fighting pits of hell to the mean streets of Los Angeles. On quite another level, Sandman Slim is detailed reportage of the true weirdness of the US’s most liberal and bohemian state. If you’ve ever sauntered along San Francisco’s Mission Street wondering who your fellow pedestrians really are beneath the tattoos, piercings and hipster outfits, Richard Kadrey’s novels will let you in on the secret.


It’s this role as a chronicler of contemporary city culture that partly explains urban fantasy’s massive under-the-radar-success. Annie Bellet’s self-published Twenty-Sided Sorceress series is set in the offbeat world of role-playing games and comic retail. Protagonist Jade Crow is a simple gamer, nerd and sorceress running a game and comic store in Idaho, but the underworld just won’t leave her alone. Specialist stores of the kind Bellet chronicles were the lifeblood of sci-fi fandom for decades. And yet Bellet’s funny and astutely observed novels are one of the few times these sub-cultural meccas have appeared in fiction.


Charles Stross is best known for his hard SF novels of both near and far future speculation. But his Laundry Files novels, exploring a branch of the British secret service dedicated to policing the paranormal, are among the most entertaining urban-fantasy series of recent years. Not least for Stross’s excellent pastiche of classic spy-thriller novelists such as Len Deighton and Ian Fleming. In a recent blogpost, Stross explored the more serious underpinnings of urban fantasy, concluding that in a world of multilayered digital technologies, the fantastic offers a better metaphor for life today than the older toolkit of science fiction.


A gateway to the numinous that allows us to express our darker selves; a chronicler of contemporary society’s weirder side; a metaphor for lives transformed by technology. There really is a lot more to urban fantasy than sex with were-leopards.

"Cuius testiculos habeas, habeas cardia et cerebellum."

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  • 1 month later...

Finished The Man in the High Castle. Picked up the new Folio Society Edition. Started it years ago when I was in my heavy PKD phase. Ready to binge watch the series after I finish Jessica Jones. 









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"Things are funny...are comedic, because they mix the real with the absurd." - Buzz Aldrin.

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