The Urban Fantasy Anthology – Review

Review of The Urban Fantasy Anthology. Ed. Peter S. Beagle and Joe R. Lansdale. San Francisco: Tachyon, 2011. $15.95.
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In The Urban Fantasy Anthology, Peter S. Beagle and Joe R. Lansdale have created a much-needed collection of urban fantasy suitable for classroom instructors, academics, and interested laypersons alike. As Beagle notes in his introduction, “urban fantasy has become so vibrant, and has evolved so rapidly, that it has emerged as a distinct marketing category.” This book brings together a variety of important stories in the field from both grand masters of fiction and comparative newcomers, creating an important text for anyone interested in urban fantasy. Perhaps more importantly, however, the anthology creates a collection that leaves the impression of a genre (and series of sub-genres) still developing.

The Urban Fantasy Anthology

Beagle and Lansdale have chosen to divide the collection into three categories: Mythic Fiction, Paranormal Romance, and Noir Fantasy. The sections are introduced by Charles de Lint , Paula Guran, and Joe R. Lansdale, respectively. However, the section introductions illustrate the difficulties inherent in defining a genre, particularly one as new as urban fantasy. Indeed, beyond the basic element of the fantastic in a modern setting, the various section editors themselves show little consensus about what constitutes an “urban fantasy” story. In the introduction, Beagle claims that “I still think that urban fantasy’s most important distinction is that it isn’t The Lord of the Rings” (9). Each section editor’s introduction provides his or her ideas about the concept of “urban fantasy,” deepening and enriching the conversation surrounding the genre and its various sub-genres—a move that will, I suspect, more firmly entrench the various categories, despite everyone’s apparent reluctance to do just that.

Charles de Lint entitles his section introduction “A Personal Journey into Mythic Fiction”—and given the fact that de Lint’s novel The Jack of Kinrowan: A Novel of Urban Faerie inspired the term “urban fantasy” (much as his fiction participated in inspiring the genre itself), the development of the genre and de Lint’s development as an author might well be synonymous. However, de Lint writes that he “found the terms ‘urban fantasy’ and ‘contemporary fantasy’ unsatisfactory . . . partly because not all the works we were looking at were urban, or set in the present day” (18). His use of the term “mythic fiction,” then, arises out of the fact that, as he notes, the difference between other urban fantasy books and what he calls mythic fiction is that “the magical/mythic/folkloric elements of these books is colour and shade, rather than the substance of the story. The new urban fantasy story remains rooted in the genres from which it sprang. Its magic is more often matter-of-fact—bricks and mortar—rather than something that leaves the reader with a sense of wonder.” Mythic fiction, he implies, should create that wonder missing in other kinds of urban fantasy.

Included in the first section are two stories by de Lint himself, as well as one each by Emma Bull, Neil Gaiman, Jeffrey Ford, and Peter Beagle. These are certainly not stories of the matter-of-fact or brick and mortar, but their forays into the mythic vary widely. Gaiman’s otherwise apparently prosaic tale of a novelist-turned-screenwriter invokes the magic of the silver screen in the era of silent film as well as that of Victorian stage magicians, while Beagle’s story of a medieval tapestry unicorn set free in the modern world by a sympathetic museum-goer reads more like the works included in the “Paranormal Romance” section. All of the stories, however, deal with worlds of myth and legend, from a road-tripping Jesus and Satan in Ford’s “On the Road to New Egypt,” to an elf who plays music in a coffee shop in de Lint’s “Make a Joyful Noise,” to a Native American shape-shifting crow in Bull’s “The Bird that Whistles.”

Like the other section editors, Guran is uncomfortable with the term “urban fantasy”—but unlike de Lint and Lansdale, she also takes exception to the term “paranormal romance,” noting that many of the works categorized as paranormal romance are as likely to trace their origins to other genres. As she points out, Charlain Harris’s initial Southern Vampire Mysteries novel (the basis for the HBO series True Blood) “won an Anthony Award as Best Paperback Mystery of 2001” (139, emphasis Guran’s). For Guran, the central shared characteristic of fiction in this category is “an intersection of ‘the other’—the magical, the strange, the weird, the wondrous, the dark that illumines, the revelation of the hidden—with the mundane, the world we know” (145).

The anthology includes in this section stories by de Lint, Kelley Armstrong, Norman Partridge, Carrie Vaughn, Patricia Briggs, Bruce McAllister, Suzy McKee Charnas, and Francesca Lia Block. In many ways, Guran is right—Block’s story of a grieving-mother-turned-zombie-hunter-P.I. (“Farewell, My Zombie”) and Vaughn’s tale of a party-crashing zombie created by a controlling boyfriend (“Kitty’s Zombie New Year”) seem more mystery than romance. Similarly, Charnas’ “Boobs”—the story of an adolescent girl becoming a werewolf—ends more in horror than romance (though not entirely in either), as does Armstrong’s “A Haunted House of Her Own.” Indeed, of all of the excellent offerings in this section, only McAllister’s “Seeing Eye” seems to conclude with the potential for love that is the hallmark of commercial fiction romance novels.

Although none of the authors of the introductions are entirely at ease with the term “urban fantasy,” Lansdale is the most outspoken: “It’s not my purpose here to round up these stories and brand them. They can be tagged to some degree, but they are not confined by the tag” (275). Lansdale also notes that “this section of stories owes less to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and more to noir and writers who tripped the dark fantastic with gleeful enthusiasm” (276) such as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Ernest Hemingway, Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, and Flannery O’Connor (among others).

The Noir Fantasy section includes two stories by Lansdale and one each by Thomas Disch, Susan Palwick, Holly Black, Tim Powers, and Al Sarrantonio. Steven R. Boyett’s short story “Talking Back to the Moon,” also included in this section, is the only previously unpublished work in the collection. Only in this portion of the anthology do the selections seem to fully live up to their section name: these stories are dark. Disch’s “The White Man” is chilling in its depiction of a young Malawi girl encouraged to hunt vampires in Minnesota, and in Palwick’s “Gestella,” the reader follows a domesticated werewolf wife as she spirals down to her inevitable horrific end. Black’s “The Coldest Girl in Coldtown” dispels any romantic notions about vampirism, while “Talking Back to the Moon” offers a bleak post-apocalyptic world, even for werewolves and centaurs. “The Bible Repairman” and “Father Dear” both feature parents making dreadful sacrifices for their children.

The anthology has a few weaknesses, perhaps unsurprisingly for a collection attempting, in part, to both stabilize and expand conceptions about a relatively new genre. Guran’s section introduction, for example, relies fairly heavily upon comments in Landsdale’s section introduction, though Guran’s precedes Lansdale’s—but this is really only a problem for a reader reading the anthology in strict order, and I suspect that most casual readers will pick and choose among the stories available. More problematically, Beagle’s introduction attributes “cheerful werewolf heroines running radio call-in shows” to Laurel K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series (10)—a mistake that perhaps indicates an only passing familiarity with the “Paranormal Romance” version of urban fantasy, as the werewolf in question is actually from Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty Norville series. Ultimately, though, The Urban Fantasy Anthology offers a much-needed collection of what Beagle calls “raw, consciously commercial fiction, feeding an unquenchable hunger for walks on the wild side, blending and shaking up familiar themes until they are transformed into something new and meaningful” (11)—an affordable collection that brings together some of the best stories to be found in urban fantasy, accompanied by an accessible critical framework. Despite its minor flaws, it’s an absorbing collection—so much so that I read it in a single sitting—and the consistently well chosen stories overcome the taxonomical tensions among the various section introductions.

~Margo Bond Collins

* Originally published in Monsters and the Monstrous. 2.1 (2012): 96-8. (