The Light Fantastic

11 Oct

This is the first of two linked posts about the sub-genre of urban fantasy, in which the tropes of pastoral or heroic fantasy are brought into a modern setting. Within the elements common to all urban fantasies – a city in which supernatural events occur, the presence of prominent characters who are artists or musicians or scholars, the redeployment of previous fantastic and folkloric topography in unfamiliar contexts – there are two fundamental strains of urban fantasy. In the first, a more or less recognisable city – New York or London, Minneapolis or Galveston, Newford or Bordertown – is revealed to be in contact with the realm of Faerie, or some magical realm, and the resultant narrative redeploys the tropes and characters of older fairy tales and folklore, forcing them into collisions with a contemporary urban milieu. This I have termed the ‘Light Fantastic’, as it tends to involve a strong element of wish-fulfilment. In the second, what I have termed the ‘Dark Fantastic’, a greater debt is owed to the gothic or horror genre – the distillation of mankind’s greatest fears and nightmares rather than hopes and dreams – but more on that next time.


The fantastic city has roots in utopian and quest literature all the way back to the Ur of Gilgamesh but the explosion in size of European and American cities that accompanied the Industrial Revolution created a new kind of literature of the city. The rhetorics of urban fantasy might be seen as a form of artistic resistance to the terror and wonder of the modern city – present, for example, in the use of idealised occupations such as artists, writers, musicians and scholars as protagonists. The mysterious nature of the urban sublime is here given a face and voice through the authors’ repurposing of the same folkloric elements that animated and drove the pastoral fantasy in the nineteenth century. In that strain of urban fantasy in which ordinary people encounter (often) creatures out of British folklore – the Seelie and Unseelie Courts, for example, as in War for the Oaks and Bordertown – the fey characters incarnate the sublime that the disaffected human protagonists desire, and for which they either came to the city or were attracted to music or art once they got there.

Underworlds feature prominently in the texts of the urban fantastic, reconfigured and adapted to their new environments. In Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, London Below is a fantastic world whose geography and nature reflect the names of various London Underground stations. Knightsbridge becomes the perilous Night’s Bridge, we meet an angel named Islington and a dangerous group of Black Friars, and so on. The protagonist of Neverwhere, Peter Mayhew, is drawn into a vengeful fallen angel’s plot to reclaim his place in heaven; he meets a variety of magical characters and defeats the plot, returning to London Above. But there is nothing for him there, now that he knows of London Below. At the end of Neverwhere, he has returned Below, in the company of the alluring Lady Door. Neverwhere thus neatly encapsulates several of the urban fantasy’s constituent qualities: the fantastic pocket universe, the sense of alienation from city life that creates a desire that (in the urban fantasy) only the encounter with the uncanny can satisfy; and the flight from the city in the end.

London is also the focus of another Below, that of Tim Powers in The Anubis Gates. Here, a cabal of Egyptian sorcerers determines to reawaken their gods and unleash them on London as revenge for British suppression of pagan worship in the early nineteenth century. Their first attempt fails, and in the process creates the titular gates, which allow English professor Brendan Doyle to travel back in time in the company of an immortality-besotted millionaire. Doyle, a Coleridge scholar with a passion for the little-known (fictional) Romantic poet William Ashbless, undergoes a harrowing journey through a subterranean London presided over by the clown-wizard Horriban, who serves the Egyptians. Doppelgängers abound, and Doyle ultimately discovers that he has become Ashbless, as the Egyptian cabal runs afoul of the hunger of its deities, and London is saved. The Anubis Gates is at once a clever time-travel story and a prominent example of the intersection between urban fantasy and what might be called the magic historical, in which existing historical people and events are repurposed and given hidden fantastical motivations. It is also of interest because of the way it hearkens back to the tradition of novels in which a European city is under supernatural threat from a force that represents a less advanced or colonised culture (e.g. Bram Stoker’s Dracula).

An American example of such a story is Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks, in which the two courts of Faerie – Seelie and Unseelie – do battle for control of the city of Minneapolis. Eddi McCandry, an aspiring musician, is enlisted in the battle by a phouka, and plays a pivotal role in events while events play a pivotal role in shaping her into the kind of person and musician she has always wanted to be. Bull’s Minneapolis is thoroughly infiltrated by fey creatures of every stripe, as are the various artistically inclined protagonists of Charles de Lint’s novels. Newford, the mongrel city of de Lint’s creation, incorporates elements of a number of North American cities, from Ottawa to Seattle, and, like Bull’s Minneapolis, it is continually both threatened and enriched by the magical presence of fairy creatures. Urban fantasy’s protagonists are often musicians or artists, but in the American urban fantasy of the 1980s and 1990s in which Faerie comes to the big city, the narratives’ saturation in music is remarkable. Music – especially punk – becomes an emblem of alienation (as it was in the real world), but it is the punks and alienated dropouts who encounter the numinous (and perilous) presence of Faerie, whether in Minneapolis or Bordertown or Newford. In this way certain of these fantasies become consolatory and incorporate a powerful wish-fulfilment element.

The family romances of Sean Stewart historicize and complicate the urban fantasy by rejecting the hero motif entirely in favour of deploying the fantastic as a way of investigating the vexed and dangerous bonds that hold families together. The Night Watch and Galveston occur in the aftermath of an event known as the Flood, in which various forms of magic returned to the world, taking on local inflections and sweeping away the technological society that existed before. In The Night Watch, Vancouver and Edmonton are divided, with pockets of ordinary humans trying to maintain what they can of their previous ways of living in the face of an overwhelming threat from the magical powers that surround them. The story pivots on the character of Winter, whose father has held together the Southside of Edmonton at the price of a terrible bargain with supernatural forces. The survival of her people demands a sacrifice of Winter that she never agreed to make, and this central theme of sacrifice pervades Galveston as well.

Written after The Night Watch, Galveston is set some seventy years previously, in the immediate aftermath of the flood that caught the city in the middle of Mardi Gras revels. All of the half-believed carnivalesque absurdities of Mardi Gras have become real: magical Krewes control different aspects of the city, most prominently the Krewe of the lunar god Momus, whose underworld Carnival dictates much of what happens in the daylight city above. Opposed to him are Sloane Gardner and Joshua Cane, both of whom grapple with Momus for reasons of desperate love – Sloane for her dying mother and Josh for Sloane. In the end, whatever salvation they find is contingent; the sacrifices they make only enable a coming generation to make sacrifices of its own. Momus most clearly articulates the novel’s disagreement with the closed returns to equilibrium that mark traditional genre literatures. “Life is not fair,’ he tells Sloane just before cheating on a bargain between them. “The universe is not fair. The game is rigged. You can win for a time – find love, hope, happiness. But in the long run, the house always wins. It always wins. That’s the truth.”


The fantastic city is old, if not in its current incarnation then by virtue of being built on the remnants of preceding cities (and previous narratives). There is a consciousness in these stories of having come late to the party, of being interlopers into a story already written, of endlessly seeking after a meaning that would have been available had we only not arrived quite so far along in the history of the place whose essence we can never quite comprehend. Figurations of this sentiment abound in the texts of contemporary urban fantasy: the towering bones of China Mieville’s New Crobuzon, the creeping fungal intrusions of Jeff VanderMeer’s Ambergris, the incarnations of historical Id in the subways of London, and so on. The Light Fantastic tradition, coming from the enchanted village to the demonic city, explodes the ‘myth of rural England’ cultivated by British writers of the First World War generation (such as Tolkien, for the arcadian longings of The Lord of the Rings are of a piece with this tradition). In writing of contemporary youth escaping adolescent alienation and finding dangerous kindred spirits in the elven rebels and parading krewes of the fantastically colonised city, urban fantasists locate the sublime not in the innovation of the city by the fantastic, but through a fantastic reconstitution of the nature of the city itself.

3 Responses to “The Light Fantastic”

  1. simon7banks October 11, 2015 at 8:23 am #

    So will there be a genre of the suburbs or of internet-linked people living in the countryside?

    Very interesting and I’m flagging this so I can seek out a couple of these books.

    One of the problems with Dark Fantastic stories is that it’s very difficult for the reader to believe the victory of the dark may happen – just as in the Doctor Who SF series, if nearly every episode features a threat to the very existence of Earth, we get very used to it somehow surviving.

  2. Nathan October 11, 2015 at 11:29 pm #

    I believe Tom Holt’s Ye Gods! actually used the idea of the underworld looking like the London Underground before Gaiman did. Not that I think it’s a rip-off or anything, just authors thinking alike.

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