Going Urban

by wjw on May 6, 2016

200px-SchreckI’ve just hatched a new theory.  Which is a callow, trembling thing just out of the chrysalis, but I may be onto something, so bear with me.

My theorizing was spurred by this last weekend at the Paradise Lost workshop, for which I read some of the stuff that is called “urban fantasy,” which is distinct from the other stuff that was called “urban fantasy” thirty years ago.  My theory concerns the former.  Mostly.  So here it is:

Urban fantasy is a fantasy and/or horror story, set more or less in the present day, in which the mysterious has been removed, and the occult made mundane.

Note that I am not saying this is a bad thing.  I’m being descriptive here.

I am, however, willing to state that this is probably a necessary thing.  Because the elements of urban fantasy (vampires, werewolves, zombies, etc.) have been the subject of popular culture for decades, and have featured in movies, television, theater, roleplaying and video games, etc., what was once mysterious has become mundane.  When Bram Stoker first presented Dracula to the world, Drac was a mysterious character, with unknown powers and an unknown agenda.  Much of the book is devoted to figuring out what a vampire actually is, and what it can do, and how you can stop it.

But now everyone knows the rules for vampires, and even if the author changes them here and there, everyone knows how they are changed from the standard model.  Ditto werewolves and zombies, and various sorts of Sidhe.

Now just because vampires are no longer mysterious, that doesn’t mean there can’t be a mystery about just what it is that any particular clutch of vampires is up to.  Actions can be a mystery, but the nature of the characters no longer is.  And that seems to be what happens in urban fantasy: the rules get explained early on, and then you get on with a story in which the rules and characters play themselves out.  A mystery is almost always presented, but it’s not a mystery about who these beasts are, it’s what these beasts are planning for the rest of us.  A 400-page epistolary novel in which a vampire is presented as a great unknown probably isn’t in the cards for a modern writer.  We’ve already seen the movie.

Since I’ve just come up with this idea, and have had less than twenty-four hours to think about it, I’m reasonably certain that my theory is incomplete.  It may not even be original.  So feel free to add/contradict/enlighten.

Enter freely, and of your own free will.

Lawrence May 6, 2016 at 10:24 am

Walter, I believe you’re opening up a Costco-sized can of worms by trying to cogently define the state of urban fantasy/horror fiction as compared to the fiction of the past. Modern fans of urban fantasy and horror will definitely flinch at any anyone’s efforts to pick at the scab of contemporary commercial fiction precisely because it can’t bear much scrutiny before its juvenile qualities are exposed.

Stoker’s Dracula was horrific because the character of Count Dracula reflected a violation of Victorian/Edwardian mores in his amoral approach to personal satiation, and Dracula’s satiation – forcibly consuming the blood of his victims and thus corrupting their souls – was clearly an analogue for sexual violation or, at least, sexual promiscuity (consider Stoker’s social milieux). Van Helsing fought to neutralize this evil before vampirism became rampant in England (that is, before immoral behavior permeated English society). The battle between good and evil possessed very real overtones in the society of the time.

After a hundred years of beating the convention into pulp (no pun intended), examples such as Meyer’s Twilight neutralize the evil of the vampire hero by making the hero an animal blood drinking vampire (no worse than eating non-free range chickens, I guess) and sterilizing the romance between the undead agent and innocent human love interest. Dracula’s evil satiation is converted into typical teenage angst, and while teenage angst can be truly horrifying, it is not, in itself, a state of affairs that promotes rampant spiritual corruption.

Today, we live in a society shaped by 24-hour a day access to social media and news that beats the worst aspects of the human condition over our heads relentlessly. We are horrified on a daily basis, and because we have, for the most part, become inured to mass-murder, wide-spread disaster, war, violence, and cruelty, nothing in sober horror/urban fantasy fiction can really stir us as deeply as readers were stirred when Dracula was first released. So the conventions in commercial fiction slowly evolved into comfortable tropes that served as an anodyne to the stark horror of everyday reality. Harry Potter is incredibly popular, in part because it simplifies its readers’ understanding of the nature of good and evil (as it occurs in Potter’s universe). Who the hell has the wisdom and patience to sit down and analyze what’s happening in the actual world in which we live?

What is truly horrifying, and something that can’t be equaled in fiction, is something as insane as intelligent human beings proclaiming that a horrible event, such as the mass murder of children at Sandy Hook, was, in fact, a staged event performed by actors and initiated by ‘evil government forces’ in an attempt to turn public opinion away from the free ownership of weapons as guaranteed by the Second Amendment. When mature adults (I use that term only as a reflection of age) can’t accept the most horrific aspects of contemporary society because it impacts their simplistic understanding of political theory, then it is no surprise that this inability to bear too much reality (as Eliot once put it) leads to trends in fiction which move away from a mature confrontation with the fantastic and horrific and toward fictional representations that move through a more juvenile (simplistic) lens.

It seems to me that contemporary fantasy novels are more concerned with the internal system presented in their narratives which act as a base for the actions of the characters; and these internal systems are consistently focused through a juvenile lens. Martin’s Game of Thrones offers interesting exceptions to this concept, though the rape, murder, and etc., is often used as part of the scenery rather than as a means to examine the human condition. Again, Martin’s series is an exception, with the rule being unambiguous representations of good and evil. This simplistic approach to ideology fits the juvenile novel market perfectly, which helps to explain the explosion of novels for ‘young adult’ readers (not that I believe only young adults are reading them).

The bottom line: escapism rules (and sells), especially in a society daily overexposed to some really horrible stuff. And how writers approach the need for escapism is clearly represented in their approach to contemporary fiction, whatever the genre. Popular cinema has clearly been moving in this direction for many years (consider all the superhero movies dominating the industry, a milieux born from a comic industry aimed squarely at juvenile readers). You wrote that what was once mysterious has become mundane, but I believe that what was once mysterious (and affecting) has had its venom sacs removed in order to prevent any psychic harm done to the reader. Concepts of good and evil in fiction no longer lie in gray areas. In a way, this may be a good thing, and a way to cope with ‘too much reality’. I hope it is, and not an abrogation of the benefits of a more mature-minded fiction.

barryT May 6, 2016 at 2:19 pm

A 400-page epistolary novel? No, I agree, it wouldn’t work.
Though that’s not to say it’s not possible to have fun with vampirology, ‘cos I think it is. Have you read ‘The Rook’ by Daniel O’Malley? There’s a vampire in there – a secondary character, for sure, but his motives, origins and powers don’t appear to fit the standard template. (One of his ancestors kept himself occupied by rigging the grain markets for 200 years.) And although he is entrenched among the Good Guys no-one seems quite sure of why he’s there and how long it’ll be before he goes off on his own massively destructive way.

Foxessa May 6, 2016 at 5:56 pm

An interesting sidebar — the figure of the vampire was well-known in Stoker’s day, prior to the publication of his novel. The figure of the vampire was commonly employed to depict the Anglo-Irish and British absentee landlords of Ireland, sucking the very lifeblood of the Irish and the land. Stoker was Irish and grew up there. Other kinds of greedy guts plutocrats were also depicted as vampires, while sometimes political campaigns depicted them with a stake in those same greedy guts, wielded by “the people” — who in the England of the period were so hungry in such large proportion, the generations had lost height from malnourishment. When it came to time to enlist the men of the people into the Brit army for the Boer War and WWI, the height requirements had to be lowered for the average man of the people was 2 – 3 inches below that requirement.

bkd69 May 7, 2016 at 8:04 am

I think you could apply the same definition to fantasy as a whole, in contrast to the definition of sf as a mystery where science/nature is is the central mystery.

Another definition for Urban Fantasy that I’ve heard at a con (though the attribution escapes me), is that Urban Fantasy is horror with competent protagonists.

wjw May 8, 2016 at 1:04 am

I like the competent protagonist remark. Horror all too often depends on its protagonists being dim.

There was a robust vampire literature before Stoker— Varney the Vampire, LeFanu’s lesbian Carmilla, Polidori’s Lord Ruthven . . . Poe had some very unconventional vampire women in some of his stories. But Stoker set up the rule for vampires, and now everyone has to follow them, or explain why they don’t.

(Just as Wagner set up the rules for dwarves, and Tolkien for elves. It’s a template you’re bound to follow, unless you have some damn good reasons which you then have to explain to the reader in some way.)

(And people for some reason believe that hobbits and elves are required to have pointed ears, even though Tolkien never describes them that way. Which is a case of popular culture overriding the literary template.)

Lawrence, I should point out that vampire fiction became huge in the 1990s, shortly after HIV made its appearance. If Dracula was a metaphor for the syphilis that killed Stoker, Buffy was the heroine of the age of AIDS.

(Florence Balcombe has a lot to answer for, assuming of course that it was she who infected both Stoker and Oscar Wilde.)

I don’t have a problem with escape fiction, unless it’s that so much escape fiction sucks, and seem to be written by people with a limited understanding of reality for people with no understanding at all. “At least they’re reading,” as my schoolteacher mom would have said.

One of the primary reasons that modern literature has been defanged was the influence and money of the CIA. (I sense a future essay in this.)

wjw May 8, 2016 at 8:38 pm

Lawrence, you also raise an issue about popular fiction in general, which is that care has to be taken to make sure that it isn’t just silly. Thrillers and category romance can be ridiculous when compared against how these things work in the real world. Fantasy, with its Dark Lords and orcs and pointy-eared blond cover models, can be trivial. And don’t get me started on World War II in Space and the Old West in Space.

You have to connect all the genre elements to a larger, more important story and to the sorts of things that actually go on in human heads. Otherwise it floats off to Cloudcuckooland.

Ralf T. Dog May 9, 2016 at 12:21 am

I find, the biggest difference between the urban fantasy of today and that of 30 years ago, current urban fantasy takes place in the current time. The latter takes place in a world that looks something like the mid 1980s.

Part of the solution to vampires, wolf men and such being overly defined, make up your own fantasy monsters. Perhaps some kind of shape shifting colony of microbes that pass themselves as human and live by slowly draining the ATP from their victim’s cells. You could have them mind control their victims, dumping a bunch of dopamine into their brain, so they must come back. This would be something of a metaphor for drug dealers and addicts.

The problem with that would be, it sounds more like science fiction than fantasy. Perhaps, they magically drain the ATP from their victim’s cells, while psychically dumping lots of dopamine into their brain.

Michael Grosberg May 9, 2016 at 12:14 pm

I have a different attitude towards Stoker’s Dracula. I don’t think it’s a good representative of the “monster as unknown” type of early vampire works. First of all the word “vampire” (along with werewolf) is mentioned by Jonathan Harker around page two. Second, the plot revolves around a plot hatched by Dracula to circumvent a limitation of vampire lore (one that has been lost since then – being tied to his original burial ground). that specific lore isn’t quite outlined in the novel itself, which to me implies that the reader was expected to know it already. So both the protagonist and the reader are aware of vampires in general – what they can’t believe is that the vampire exists in the here-and-now. Thirdly, much of the plot takes place in London. For us, Victorian London is an exotic place and time, but from Stoker’s point of view, he’s setting his story in the modern age and in a familiar urban location. Lastly, Stoker crams every conceivable modern innovation into his narrative. He revels in pitting ancient horror against modern technology. This goes against any idea of Dracula being a traditional Gothic horror piece – it feels like Stoker was trying to write a modern take on an already established vampire myth. In a sense, Dracula *was* the urban fantasy of its time.
Where Dracula differs from modern works is in the extraordinary amount of evidence that was necessary to convince the characters they were dealing with a supernatural agent. Contrast it with modern protagonists who are ready to believe in any supernatural being at the drop of a hat. Perhaps the reader of the late 19th and early 20th century was less prone to crazy beliefs and conspiracy theories than the modern one?

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