Urban Fantasy Examined Part Two: A Thought on Shakespeare, Gothic Romances, and Charles de Lint

When I first discovered urban fantasy, I thought it was brand-new. I was wrong. It’s actually been around for a very long time. At least a few hundred years by my best estimate.

If we define urban fantasy as being contemporary fantasy — fantasy stories that take place in the same historical setting is the time they were written, we begin to realize that a great deal of literature has actually been urban fantasy.

Even if we discount the old fairytales — a staple source of inspiration in modern contemporary fantasy — we can still find traces of the genre, easily identifiable, as far back as Shakespeare. Though I would contend that Hamlet and McBeth are contemporary fantasy despite their slightly historical setting, it becomes hard not to see the Tempest or A Midsummer Night’s Dream as being exactly what were looking for.

By the time we hit the Victorian era, we really start to see urban fantasy began to shine. Most of the dark fantasy stories of that era had the same primordial template as modern paranormal romance. In fact, many of the Gothic novels were referred to as Gothic romances. Most of the stories of the time were also written in first-person which is a tradition still carried on by most urban fantasy and paranormal romance authors.

It’s hard to think of the works of H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allen Poe, Mary Shelley, and Bram Stoker as being contemporary fantasy because of their age. At the time, they serve the exact same audience as modern urban fantasy. The same people who enjoy reading about Harry Dresden or Mercy Thompson would have been fans of Dracula and Frankenstein.

The horror genre in general really kept urban fantasy alive throughout most of the pulp era and the second half of the 20th century. I always find it ironic that we credit Charles de Lint with being the father of urban fantasy. The borderlands series didn’t come out until the late 1980s.

It’s a testament to the damage that the publishing industry and booksellers have done and categorizing fiction that we were able to recognize contemporary fantasy until it was biting us in the butt. It’s even more telling that we adopted the term urban fantasy to mean all contemporary fantasy — as long as it doesn’t have a romantic plot.

I understand the desire to claim the genre as something new. I don’t want to admit that my grandfather was probably just as savvy with the contemporary fantasy as I am. I like to think of such a huge part of my life as being unique to my generation of readers and story consumers. I’d like to think that Anita Blake and Joss Whedon gave birth to something that my parents didn’t have. Mostly, because the speculative fiction genre was so massively dominated by the science fiction and fantasy writers of yesteryear.

I want to be able to make the claim that the genre is new so our generation can be putting a stamp on something. But, the truth is, it has a long and rich literary tradition and there’s nothing more special about urban fantasy that there is any other genre of storytelling. Putting our own stamp on it doesn’t mean that creating something new. It means finding a new way to tell that story.

And that’s something I think our generation has done exceptionally well. If you do look back on the last 30 years of contemporary fantasy writing, you’ll notice a tendency at the beginning — back in the 1980s — to follow the exact same primordial template for storytelling that powered Frankenstein and Dracula, the Case of Charles Dexter Ward and the Masque of the Red Death.

For as much grief as modern urban fantasy writers get for continuing to play on the same formulas, I think we actually tend to stray from them farther than our predecessors in the 80s and 90s. Joss Whedon may arguably be the greatest storyteller of our era, but even he followed the idea of taking a metaphysical entity and using it as a stand-in for completely mundane life events. Are all of those demons that represent the issues that students deal with in high school really any different than personifying tuberculosis?

Now, I’m not criticizing those writers. Far from it. I’m just pointing out that despite a long and acclaimed history, the urban fantasy genre is still in its adolescence. I blame the stunted growth on the lack of respect. The genre received before a few years ago. I think now that contemporary fantasy is being embraced — a fact we can probably credit to JK Rowling — it has enough gravitas to stand on its own.

That gives it modern contemporary fantasy writers a much firmer foundation to grow and experiment. I, for one, am really looking forward to seeing where we can take it.

Which is what I’ll write about next week.