In the mid-80s, there was a sudden sharp rise in an intriguing sub-genre of fantasy literature which is commonly tagged with the term Urban Fantasy. There was a sudden swell in the number of books, comics, and role-playing games that went off down this new path, and authors who were known for other sorts of stories began to spin a new kind of faerie tale…one that captivated many readers, including myself.
This genre can now be thought of to include numerous popular franchises including, arguably, the Harry Potter and Percy Jackson books, the Twilight series, and the Dresden Files novels. For me, however, the height of Urban Fantasy will always be the mid-80s to early 90s, and I want to look back at some of the seminal pieces that really defined the genre long before Harry Potter waved a wand.
My first forays into reading urban fantasy can most likely be traced to 1988. I was mid-way through College then, and I was avidly reading comic books of all sorts. A new comic was coming out from DC, and I’d seen an ad for it in the back of other books. On a black background, a strange, pale blue figure with gleaming red eyes was holding a palm full of glowing golden sand, and a tagline said “I will show you terror in a handful of dust.” I wasn’t wowed by the ad, but the cover of the comic was unique, seeming to be part sketch, part photograph. I picked up the book, thumbed through it, thought the art looked interesting, and decided I’d give it a try, despite my initial reticence.
I’m speaking, of course, of Neil Gaiman’s incredible comic series “The Sandman.” For me, it’s the cornerstone of my love of urban fantasy.
If you’re somehow unaware of Mr. Gaiman’s amazing block of work, The Sandman is the story of Morpheus…not the Roman god of dreams, but literally the concept of Dream, personified. The series, by and large, is about stories, the relationship between truth and mythology, and change. To paraphrase Gaiman himself, the Prince of Stories must choose between Change and Death, and he makes his choice.
The series features other characters from DC comics, generally in cameos, but occasionally in leading roles. It also often has little to do with Dream himself, who is frequently a moving force behind the scenes, rather than the main character.
Although I’ve read plenty of other Urban Fantasy comics, such as the 90s version of House of Secrets, the Books of Magic (honestly, Gaiman could probably have presented a pretty good lawsuit against Rowling), and much more recently, Fables and The Unwritten, The Sandman will likely always hold a special place in my heart, and no other Urban Fantasy comic seems likely to take its place.
A Novel Idea
This article was actually inspired by me reading the first Charles de Lint novel I’d read in years, so I’ll begin with him. Charles de Lint wasn’t the first urban fantasy author I read, but he really found a way to marry concepts I loved on their own into a delicious mélange. His novels blend modern urban life, Celtic and European fairy tales, Native American folklore, alternative music, and more. right from the start, with some of his early novels like Moonheart, you got the sense that de Lint has great insight into the workings of magic and faerie, and his almost offhand ability to weave characters and places from his various stories together makes you feel like his world has an independent existence that he’s just looking in on.
It’s easy to play 6 Degrees of Separation in the Urban Fantasy crowd, primarily thanks to the efforts of Terri Windling. As both an author and editor, she has really been a champion of the genre. She helped promote and publish Charles de Lint, Emma Bull, and other authors who love to mix the wildness of faerie with the rush of daily urban life. She edited the series Borderland, centering around a city that bridges the gap between Faerie and the Real World. Imagine elf bikers, wolf boys, and anything else you can imagine trying to get along in an urban sprawl.
Terri Windling is also the creator of the “Fairy Tales” series of novels, in which various authors spin modern retellings of classic tales, often in an urban fantasy environment, such as Pamela Dean’s “Tam Lin”, which transports the Scottish legend to a liberal arts college in the Midwest, or Jane Yolen’s “Briar Rose,” which is basically Sleeping Beauty with ties to the Holocaust.
There are so many great books in this genre that it seems a crime to omit any of them. Emma Bull’s marvelous “The War for the Oaks”, John Crowley’s epic “Little, Big,” anthologies like The Horns of Elfland, Will Shetterly’s Borderland spin-offs…. I could make an article of nothing but titles, and it would barely scratch the surface.
I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t mention Mr. Neil Gaiman again. Through his own novels of urban fantasy, such as Neverwhere, which was originally created as a script for a BBC series about homelessness, American Gods, the Graveyard Book, Anansi Boys, and others, Gaiman has been revitalizing the genre, and I hope more novels of this type will come our way for years to come.
You’ve Read the Books, Now Play the Game
There are a lot of RPGs on the market now that can be termed urban fantasy. The first one that I can remember coming out was Shadowrun, but that game was such a mélange of different ideas that it never really struck me as urban fantasy. Instead, I’m going to rant about the one I consider the father of the genre: the original World of Darkness games from White Wolf Publishing.
It’s hard to remember what the state of the RPG industry was like in 1991, but my personal recollection is that things didn’t look good. Dungeons and Dragons 2nd Edition had come out in 1989, and I remember that a lot of us were already bored with it by 1991. The changes that had come were fine, but it was still virtually the same game as it had been since 1974, and the revolutionary changes of 3rd edition were still almost a decade in the future. A lot of us had been playing the game for a long time (I’d been playing continuously since 1979, personally) and were feeling like we’d matured past the confines of heroic fantasy. We wanted something grittier…something more cool. D&D just didn’t feel cool any more…if it ever exactly had.
And here came Vampire: The Masquerade, ready to scoop up the jaded masses of gamers like myself. It touted itself as a gothic-punk world of horror. I mean how cool was that? Goths and punks, living together! Talk about urban! And fantasy? Well, it was there…even the earliest bits of Vampire the Masquerade lore mentioned the presence of wizards and fairies living between the cracks of the world.
And that’s even assuming you were too cool to think of vampires as “fantasy” characters.
The promise of the early books came to fruition with the further installments of the game. For bloody, visceral horror, we got Werewolf: The Apocalypse, and we suddenly understood why the vampires from the first game were so freaked out by the Garou. Then we got Mage: The Ascension, with its heavy doses of consensual reality weaving. For those who didn’t think the game were depressing enough, we got Wraith: The Oblivion. And then we got Changeling: The Dreaming.
Ah, Changeling. I already wrote my love letter to it in my earlier article about Five RPGs Worth Trying. But I couldn’t get away with an article about urban fantasy without mentioning it. My love of it is what inspired me to seek out authors like Charles de Lint in the first place. It also caused me to listen to music from Steeleye Span, Fairport Convention, Loreena McKennit, and more. Anything that brings you a connection to good music and good literature is a fine thing indeed. The fact that it also ends up having you tell some fabulous stories is just another win.
It’s worth mentioning in closing that some fairly decent stories came out of Changeling’s run, as well. Don Bassingthwaite’s “Pomegranates Full and Fine” is an excellent Changeling-laced novel with, hey, a gay romance in it! The anthology “The Splendour Falls” also has some great pieces in it, such as Sealskin, by Kevin Andrew Murphy.
What Did I Miss?
I know I’ve barely begun to talk about this genre. I know you’re sputtering, wondering how I could’ve left out the particular book, comic, game, musician, TV show, etc., ad infinitum that you have in mind. So tell us! I’m no expert on the subject; just an interested amateur. Is there a favorite piece of work in this genre that I missed? Let us all know about it!