Friday, August 12, 2011

Review: The Urban Fantasy Anthology Edited by Peter S. Beagle & Joe R. Lansdale

The Urban Fantasy Anthology (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) is edited by two powerhouses in genre and beyond – Peter S. Beagle and Joe R. Lansdale. They have amassed 19 previously published stories, 1 original story and 4 non-fiction essays that attempt to capture what the genre of urban fantasy really is. The result end up being more of a highlight of the identity crisis of urban fantasy rather than a clarification, while providing some interesting and fun reading.

As I discuss the details of the anthology below, I give my thoughts and reactions in the order the material is produced in the anthology. The resulting review ranges from short reviews of individual stories, to reactions to the essays, and ends up being nearly an essay of its own.

Introduction. Beagle writes a good and informative introduction to anthology that I largely find myself agreeing with. He outlines the evolution of urban fantasy from its beginnings, with a general evolution from what this anthology categorizes as mythic fiction to paranormal romance and finally to noir fantasy. Beagle spends a good bit of time discussing Buffy the Vampire Slayer and essentially credits it with the creation of paranormal romance and the shift away from mythic fiction in urban fantasy. A quick look at the original copyright dates for the stories in the anthology reveals how this is an over simplicity – the earliest paranormal romance story was first published in 1989, predating Buffy. The oldest story included is actually from the noir fantasy section (which is presented as the final evolution of urban fantasy in this introduction) and was first published in 1983. This introduction presents a rather simplistic evolution of urban fantasy, the dates alone show that things evolved on their own and at different times, with their popularity ebbing and waning on yet another timescale. Not that I really thing Beagle would disagree with this, it’s just that he oversimplifies things a bit to get his point across.

Mythic Fiction

“A Personal Journey into Mythic Fiction” an introduction to mythic fiction by Charles de Lint (2011). De Lint presents a very personal journey of his becoming a writer and developing his style, which if you’ve read de Lint before is easily recognizable. His reflections quickly reminded of me why this is sort of urban fantasy I tend to enjoy the most.

“…the biggest difference is that mythic fiction has room for a story to be told at a slower pace. The preternatural elements are present, not only for their coolness factor (werewolves and witches and vampires, oh my!), but because fairy tales and mythology tap into a deeper part of the psyche than an adventure story can reach.”
“A Bird that Whistles” by Emma Bull (1989). This story very quickly reminded me of why I love mythic fiction so much. A young musician is taught by a fae, while he just may have taught the fae a thing or two. This is a pleasant and easy to read story with more depth than readily apparent. When it ended I was sad – I really wanted to know more.

“Make a Joyful Noise” by Charles de Lint (2005). While I wouldn’t place this among de Lint’s best work, it was a very pleasant reminder of how much of love his writing. This story of a couple of corvid (crow) immortals amuse themselves by helping out a ghost is at once melancholy and irreverent.

“The Goldfish Pool and Other Stories” by Neil Gaiman (1996). I had a huge sense of déjà vu while reading this story – whether real or not, this is that sort of story.* It’s a story about Hollywood – as much about the past as it is about the current. I love that the editors include this in mythic fiction to highlight a belief that all myths aren’t all ancient. The contemporary world is creating myths all its own and the recent past has as well. It’s really hard to separate the fact from the fiction in a story that Gaiman clearly writes about himself.

*Of course the déjà vu is real since I have read this story before in one of Gaiman’s collections.

“On the Road to New Egypt” by Jeffrey Ford (1995).  A driver in New Jersey picks up a hitch-hiking Jesus and the Devil joins them. This irreverent and surreal journey has Jesus and the Devil palling around with both less and more separating them than you may expect. The ride was fun, but the little shit in me couldn’t help but be disappointed that Ford didn’t take it even further.

“Julie’s Unicorn” by Peter S. Beagle (1997). Beagle’s story of a young woman who unintentionally releases a unicorn from an ancient painting is an interesting exploration that ultimately didn’t stick with me very far.

Mythic Fiction. These five stories all look deep into the past in one way or another. They tend to be melancholic yet ultimately hopeful with a strong feeling of retrospect, even when they are set in the now.  I think it must be this introspective and backward look that touches me in a deeper and more meaningful way than other stories in this anthology.

Paranormal Romance

“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Urban Fantasy” an introduction to paranormal romance by Paula Guran (2011). Guran presents a very interesting and rather defense exploration of the origins of paranormal romance while she eschews the term – she prefers the far more awkward urban fantasy/paranormal moniker. Guran seems unhappy with the stories included in this section of the anthology and goes on further to say that this sort of story doesn’t lend itself to short fiction. I disagree. I believe that it’s more likely that the majority of writers in this sub-genre don’t write short fiction. Guran’s essay quickly becomes rather tedious – she rambles, she’s defensive and I have no better understanding on what this sub-genre is. However, Guran does correctly point out that while Buffy certainly played a big role in the popularity of this sort of fiction, it was not the origin of it. The anthology still calls it paranormal romance, but apparently the authors writing it hate the term. There are of course good reasons for this – particularly where there is disparity between how male and female writers are treated when writing essentially the same thing – how many male urban fantasy writers earn the label paranormal romance. It is also noted that there are plenty of examples that do fit firmly into a label of paranormal romance – often more from a traditional romance background. Ultimately, it’s unfortunate that Guran’s essay comes off as a bit too defensive and whiney in places and looses the effect that it could have.

“…all the fiction collected [in this section] has something in common: 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.

Our world is in perpetual need of this otherness. It entertains and, at its best, enlightens. We need both.”
“Companions to the Moon” by Charles de Lint (2007). A young woman begins to question her relationship and suspect her partner of infidelity, but she’s not prepared for the truth. Inclusion of this story in the paranormal romance section is curious – there is a dominant romantic aspect that is probably the reason behind the placement, but the tone and style of de Lint’s writing probably make this a better example of mythic fiction. And as with de Lint’s earlier story, his writing style appeals to me at a very personal level.

“A Haunted House of Her Own” by Kelley Armstrong (2009). A couple purchase their dream home in hopes of converting it into a successful bed and breakfast – and nothing makes for a more successful B&B than a haunting. This is another curious story to place in this section of the book – I felt this was much more of a standard horror story. A pretty darn good horror story.

“She’s My Witch” by Norman Partridge (1995). A passion-filled relationship between two youths, with a pretty standard dominant male (though not abusive) and submissive girl. Only the twist is that he’s dead and she’s the witch who brought him back. In this story we have a much better fit for what this anthology calls paranormal romance – someone who is down, who is overlooked, comes into their own and others come to regret it.

“Kitty’s Zombie New Year” by Carrie Vaughn (2007). A New Year’s party comes to a shocking halt when a zombie shows up at the door. The story itself has much more in common with horror than paranormal romance, though Vaughn’s novels certainly fit the label. I love that the ‘heroic’ actions aren’t exactly traditionally heroic.

“Seeing Eye” by Patricia Briggs (2009). Witches and werewolves falling in love. This is paranormal romance. And a pretty enjoyable story as well.

“Hit” by Bruce McAllister (2008). A hit man is hired by angel to kill a vampire. The price – redemption. Here is yet another example of a misplaced story – this is more of a combination of mythic fiction and noir fantasy than paranormal romance. But, forget the labels, this is one of the best stories in the anthology.

“Boobs” by Suzy McKee Charnas (1989). “Boobs” is the story of a teenage girl’s journey to early womanhood by being the first in her class to grow real breasts and have her period. Then she turns into a werewolf and eats the boy who picks on her. It completely lacks romance but otherwise fits well. While I can’t relate to this story on a personal level, I imagine that many female readers will find this a rather enjoyable read.  

“Farewell, My Zombie” by Francesca Lia Block (2009). The general theme of this section of the book is that stories that don’t really belong are forced in. This story is probably the most forced - there is no romance, heck, it could be argued that in spite of the zombie title and talk of zombies in the story that it has no real speculative component at all, particularly considering that I’m not sure the main character is actually sane. This is true horror – a mother suffering extreme grief from the loss of her son, to the point where she seems to have invented an alternative world. Either that or zombies really are out to get her, it’s a bit unclear. Whatever it is, this is the most powerful story in the anthology.

Paranormal Romance. The introduction and following stories reveal a fundamental aspect of this sub-genre – it suffers from an identity crisis. It doesn’t know what it is or what it wants to be. Most of the stories included seemed to be forced in to lend it legitimacy. I suppose they could be attempting to broaden the sub-genre that becomes limited by using the paranormal romance label. Or maybe there really is a lack of good short stories to include here. Whatever the cause, the result is that the stories included don’t feel quite right. Guran seems intent on ducking and dodging the romance side of the label and Beagle and Lansdale seem at a loss on which stories to include. It almost seems they try so hard to avoid the Buffy-wanna-be’s that they missed the boat entirely on the sub-genre so many love. Well, get some confidence, stand up for yourself and kick some ass – don’t shy away from what the genre is. It is paranormal romance, sometimes less and sometimes more on the romance. Romance can be of the sexual/attraction side or a something taken out of Romanticism with 21st Century wish-fulfillment and kick-ass adventure. And the best of it has a near post-modern vibe. It works, people buy it, people are entertained, and some people will deride it. However, I wish there was more of deeper discussion on societal pressures that make this so popular – such as a reaction to the post-cold war world of anonymous terrorism and fear of the dark, complete lack of confidence in our government’s ability to govern and the rising equality of women, minorities, and others that still has a ways to go. Or maybe we all just wish we could release some kind of an inner-beast.

Noir Fantasy

“We are not a Club, but We Sometimes Share a Room” an introduction to noir fantasy by Joe R. Lansdale (2011). This anthology really develops into a fascinating journey through the subgenres of urban fantasy with the three introductions: first justifying the need for a label, then bitching about a bad label and the search for a new one, and finally Lansdale concludes with a very eloquent discussion on the lack of meaning of labels and how writers don’t (or at least shouldn’t) write for a label. With that you know that the stories to come will bust right through the label.

“The White Man” by Thomas M. Disch (2004). Here’s another story that is hard to call truly speculative or even horror as many of the noir fantasy subgenre trend to. It could be speculative – perhaps there really are vampires in the story. Or perhaps it’s African folklore coming into conflict through immigrants in America – and of course the white man. Or maybe it’s just a charismatic preacher manipulating a young girl. Whatever you choose to call it, it’s certainly a thought-provoking story.
“The fiction has the stink of urban about it…either because they take place in the city, or display the weaknesses of humanity in large numbers and close quarters. The terror is often due to the actions of people: pollution, street crime, over population, dehumanization, and so on. What supernatural elements there are, are dragged out of the haunted house and into the tract house and walk-up apartment, or they take place in the wasteland of some horrid aftermath brought on by the mistakes of civilization.”

“Gestella” by Susan Palwick (2004). This and the next story are the anti-paranormal romance stories of this anthology. The werewolf in this story is submissive, she is not empowered, she is the victim. And this is not overcome as would be expected. I love what the story does, though I can’t say I enjoyed the story.  

“The Coldest Girl in Coldtown” by Holly Black (2009). A young woman is infected – she may become a vampire or she may be able to wait out the infection and live. She has a choice to make. Like the story before it, this could be paranormal romance, only it turns out be more of an answer against paranormal romance. This one works – the end is absolutely terrific, heavy on the terror.

“Talking Back to the Moon” by Steven R. Boyett (2011). This is a post-apocalyptic journey through the remains of LA with a young girl and a centaur. The story is subtle and surreal, and I simply wanted more. There is so much behind this that I want to know – this one should be a full novel.  

“On the Far Side of the Cadillac Desert with Dead Folks” by Joe R. Lansdale (1989). More post-apocalyptic fun, this time in typical Lansdale style as a bounty hunter catches his target only to be captured by a weird zombie religious cult. My instinct would not have been to classify this as any form of urban fantasy, but that doesn’t take away from this being one of the best stories in the anthology.

“The Bible Repairman” by Tim Powers (2005). This is a surreal story of an old man who repairs bibles. He’s damaged physically and emotionally, a consequence of his former profession. A new job comes up, one he can’t refuse. This is a story I need to read again – it’s deep and cynical, though maybe not as much as on first take. Another of the best offered in the anthology.

“Father Dear” by Al Sarrantonio (1983). “Father Dear” is another dark, surreal tale that feels post-apocalyptic even though it’s not. It’s the story of son’s reaction to the destruction inflicted by an abusive father destroys with a bit of twist.

Noir Fantasy. It’s either funny, ironic or some odd combination of a bunch of things that the noir fantasy section doesn’t really have any true noir stories. More seem to be post-apocalyptic, though a dark, surreal mood may be the more common thread. This seems another example of forcing a label that just doesn’t fit, or intentionally choosing stories that don’t fit the label. Either way, it serves to highlight the identity crisis contemporary urban fantasy suffers. It’s also interesting that the stories included in this section are more stylistically diverse – from second person to first person to subversion and all with a surreal aspect that is just as other-worldly as the speculative components.

The bottom line is that this is a solid anthology, all the stories are good, and there is a distinct lack of the dud story all too common in anthologies. There aren’t a lot of truly great stories, but all are entertaining and good enough. I’m not sure if the goal of the anthology is met – I can’t say that I really have any better of an idea of what contemporary urban fantasy is than I did before reading it. It’s certainly a range from mythic fiction to paranormal romance to fantasy noir, though many of the stories chosen work mostly as a reaction to the labels given. Perhaps this anthology is more of a statement of what urban fantasy isn’t than what it is. Either way, it shows the huge range of contemporary urban fantasy as well as reminding us that it’s been around for a while. Mostly, The Urban Fantasy Anthology highlights the identity crisis that the genre/sub-genre faces. No one seems to know what urban fantasy is. A few have ideas of what it should be, but the reader is left with ‘I’ll know it when I see it’ rather than easy definitions with clearly defined boundaries. I suppose, that’s just how it should be.


michael zavis said...

Hi, enjoyed your review, just thought you'd be interested to know that the Boyett story, "Talking Back to the Moon," is an excerpt from his upcoming novel AVALON BURNING. It's the third in his Change series (ARIEL, ELEGY BEACH).

Neth said...

Thanks for that info - I'm not surprised by this, it felt more like an excerpt than an independent story.


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