I once had a dream of Urban Fantasy. In this waking dream I found myself occupying a coign of vantage that allowed me to gaze upon all of London from the inside, as though from within a vast edifice, a Memory Cathedral through which—after a lifetime of ensorcelled research—one might trace the Deep Brass Markings of the Secret Master who had made it possible for us to live together in the overlapping time-countersunk constellations of the world city, and to kill each other off only rarely. Urban Fantasy, I wrote in 1995, while still in thrall to the dream, was
a mode. A city may be an icon or a geography; the Urban Fantasy recounts an experience. A city may be seen from afar, and is generally seen clear; the Urban Fantasy is told from within, and, from the perspective of characters acting out their roles, it may be difficult to determine the extent and nature of the surrounding reality. Urban Fantasies are normally texts where fantasy and the mundane world intersect and interweave throughout a tale which is significantly about a real city. . . . It is reasonable to argue that Urban Fantasies derive primarily from the [originally Gothic] notion of the edifice. The headings under which Frederick S Frank anatomizes the form in The First Gothics (1987) also work to describe the early forms of Urban Fantasy: claustrophobic containment; subterranean pursuit; supernatural encroachment; "extraordinary positions" and lethal predicaments; abeyance of rationality; a possible victory of evil; supernatural gadgetry, contraptions, machinery, and demonic appliances; and "a constant vicissitude of interesting passions."
And so on, for quite some time. The passage above is, in fact, an early portion of the urban fantasy entry in the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997), co-edited by John Grant and me, in the body of which are instanced various figures who seemed important to the dream of the city from within: Giovanni Piranesi, Eugene Sue, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, G. K. Chesterton, and on into the moderns and their cousins whom we reckon up by dozens, mentioning en passant a few writers who have continued to work today, and who appear in one or both of the anthologies under review—Peter S. Beagle, Emma Bull, Charles de Lint, Christopher Fowler—and citing at the close William Gibson's Neuromancer (1984), which was not fantasy but which was a pure World Edifice from Within kind of tale.
To describe this take on Urban Fantasy as a dream is to hint at something central to my awareness back then: that one was fixing meaning onto a term that had not previously been foregrounded as the description of a mode or genre. This tangled nest of connections (1700 words in all) was, in other words, made up; it was a trawling in the Cauldron of Story for a way to describe stories about the central habitation of the human race upon our planet, the world city and its sad parodic suburban appendices where most of us live now. Which did not mean then, or now, that I'd staked a claim that could stand up in BigThink Assizes; the term is obviously anyone's to use in any fashion anyone wants to use it. All the same, though I wasn't very clear about this in 1995, and continue to grasp at straws whenever I try to catch fantastika on the wing today, it does now seem absolutely clear that any story of the fantastic set upon this planet in the twenty-first century either deals with where we live, or sucks vacuum. So when I saw the words "Urban Fantasy" in the titles of the two compilations under review, a slim hope dawned: that the tales assembled might be set in locations that mattered to the stories told: that they might not all be stories recounted in the first person singular by protagonists fascinatedly resolving (or not resolving) issues of dysfunctionality attendant upon their being vampires, or werewolves, or creeps, as explained down to the last detail through long wallowings in wadded-kleenex Me-Infodump: that they might be stories that brailled the world. They might be stories where—as I scribbled in a fit of rage on the rear endpaper of the Beagle/Lansdale werewolf's breakfast of a book after reading Carrie Vaughn's "Kitty's Zombie New Year," a listless vignette from 2007 set in an anonymous Denver—the setting mattered. "If it's the same story wherever it happens to be set," I wrote, "it isn't Urban Fantasy."
Turns out I wasn't exactly the first to say this. In the introduction to her assemblage of original stories, where she mentions a central criterion for her selections, Ellen Datlow says much the same thing: "I wanted to the city to be as important as anything else in the story," she says, "—in other words, where the story takes place should matter, in some way, to the story." That this needs to be said says much. Perhaps we should glance first at the reprint anthology by Peter S. Beagle and Joe R. Lansdale, The Urban Fantasy Anthology, see where their tales of choice are set, how many of them are told in the first person, whether any of them are not told by paranormal critters, whether any of them are more (rather than significantly less) frightening the second time around (the basic criterion that marks genuine Terror off from Affect Horror). Location (listed downslope from the genuine world city to the suburb to nowhere): none in New York or London; five in Los Angeles; one each in Chicago, San Francisco, Denver, Seattle, Minneapolis; the rest unnamed or nowhere you'd remember. First person narratives: eight (if you include a second-person singular tale) out of a total of nineteen. Paranormal entities: I gave up.
The anthology itself is divided in three. Part One, Mythic Fiction, introduced by Charles de Lint, includes one fine story—Neil Gaiman's "The Goldfish Bowl and Other Stories" (1997), set in a cinema-haunted Los Angeles, with a third-person narrator—which is about where it is set, and which could not have been set elsewhere. The default Scribbly stuff, presumably inserted with the aid of the de Lint collegial wand, and which makes up most of Part One, did not stick in the mind. Part Two, Paranormal Romance, introduced by Paula Guran, is heavy on the first person, heavy on puberty and menarche, heavy on fangs and infodump; Suzy McKee Charnas's famous werewolf-tale "Boobs" from 1989 holds its own against the damp flannelling that followed (as per here) her use of the paranormal to say something about the world, though in this case it is the suburbs that are understood, not the real world which they drain of blood, as it were paranormally. Guran very kindly quotes from the urban fantasy piece I quote from above, but uses it to describe the dear dead past of genre. Fair enough. Part Three, Noir Fantasy, introduced by Joe R. Lansdale, is by far the most successful section of the book. Thomas M. Disch's "The White Man" (2004) desolately supplements his Minnesota Quartet sequence, conceiving in true fantastika fashion (that is, with the deadpan literalness central to the twentieth century's finest fiction about the twentieth century) of whites as the true vampires who have desiccated Minneapolis. Susan Palwick's brilliant and haunting "Gestella" (2004) gives the life story of a werewolf and wife (again without metaphor) as exemplary of the life of wives (and monsters) in a world where time is owned by our masters. "Talking Back to the Moon" (previously unpublished) by Steven R. Boyett, set in an intricately characterized post-holocaust Los Angeles, is told in a dense muscular what-next gonzo tone that (one hopes) will not flag in the full novel this tale must be a portion of. And Tim Powers's "The Bible Repairman" (2005), set in a San Bernardino intimately shaped by alley-magic of the sort necessary if the lives of the owned are to seem tolerable until death takes them, is savagely swift and tied to place.
Six superb stories out of nineteen. A good batting average, as stories go. But the rest of the book—excepting Jeffrey Ford's neat vignette and the editors' own stories and Al Sarrantonio's totally non-urban-fantasy Bad House horror tale—edges into the preposterous, if making some kind of argument about how to get the modern world is concerned. I suppose the problem lies in the title rather than in Beagle's and Lansdale's choice of stars. Because the title makes us think somebody is having a thought in there.
Ellen Datlow, in her Naked City: Tales of Urban Fantasy, does stick her neck out, having-a-thought-in-there-wise, but escapes pretty well scot-free because she is such an excellent editor, with a clear (and, one guesses, ruthless) instinct for the memorable, regardless of how stupid a story may sound in synopsis. And, as I mentioned above, she wants her stories to be about somewhere. But let's repeat the analysis by number. Location (again listed downslope): five stories set in New York (unsurprisingly, three of the best stories in the book are set here); one each in London, Mexico City, Berlin, Chicago, San Francisco, New Orleans, Seattle, Denver; the rest scattershot. First person narratives: five out of twenty (a much lower proportion than the Beagle/Lansdale). Paranormal entities: I gave up.
None of the stories whose authors are listed on the cover, presumably at the publisher's behest, are very good. They are by Jim Butcher, Patricia Briggs, Melissa Marr, and Holly Black. They were all publishable, it is possible to see why they were included; but the real book lurking within, the book one suspects Datlow is quietly very proud of, is entirely different. Each of these inner stories is an Urban Fantasy, in the sense she advocates. Richard Bowes's "On the Slide" (New York) is about escape, in the way Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City (2009) and Jack Finney's "The Third Level" (1950) are about escape: escape from the loved monster in the mirror: but coming home to her. "Oblivion by Calvin Klein" (London) by Christopher Fowler savagely cleanses its protagonist's soul of immurement in the kind of London those who think they own London think to impose on the rest of us. Peter S. Beagle's "Underbridge" (Seattle) and Kit Reed's "Weston Walks" (New York) fit comfortably and properly into our high expectations of their work. But the two most remarkable stories in Naked City are by relatively new authors: "The Projected Girl" (Haifa) by Lavie Tidhar and "The Way Station" (New Orleans and St. Petersburg, Florida) by Nathan Ballingrud are both heartbreakers, long tales intensely immersed in child or child-like protagonists who are themselves utterands of their homes, but homeless. The first addresses the Final Solution; the second addresses the underclass that fills our dreams of City, our dreams of home. John Crowley's "And Go Like This" (New York), which is set in 1963 (the year Buckminster Fuller said the whole human race could congregate in Manhattan and dance the twist), is a paeon to a time, now gone from our dreams, when the folk of the world could indeed come together, and dance together with room to breathe. Jeffrey Ford's "Daddy Longlegs of the Evening" (set no place that registers) would be an allegory of the fate of modern man, if it was not, instead, pure story about the same. "The Skinny Girl" (Mexico City) by Lucius Shepard is both neat and voluminously resonant, but does not quite seem to end. And Caitlín R. Kiernan's "The Colliers' Venus (1893)" (in a steampunk Denver here called Cherry Creek) is an engrossingly indirect narrative at the climax of which the eponymous figure—who is Gaia in bondage—turns to holy ash, which is coal dust that fills the lungs, which is to say she imprints us with our fate.
The best stories in both anthologies, being about our world, do not pretend to tell us that all will be well, that all things will be well if we listen, down to the last sweet-tooth detail, to the child inside. Paranormal romances told by sweeties no longer feed us joy or terror, not any more. They are yesterday's newspaper. If it is our fate to breathe dust, then let it be the dust of the world we live in.