Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

Fantasy writers in English rarely see London whole, from the outside, or as a vista to be described; the City serves them, above all, as a venue for works of Urban Fantasy, with New York (and debatably New Orleans) coming in a fairly distant second. For fantasy writers, to evoke London is to conjure a set of Icons and Legends of unparalleled depth in time, all set within a frame whose complex, theatrical immensity seems inexhaustible.

There is much for fantasy writers to draw on. Lewis Spence, in Legendary London (1937), provides a convenient overview of the place of the city in the national Myth of Origin of the British people, though he notes in passing that the Arthurian cycle more or less totally excludes London from its version of the Matter of Britain. Gog and Magog (he intimates) should properly be thought of as Guardians protecting London from the rest of the world. But London is too large, and fades too slowly into regions whose density for the imagination lessens significantly, to have a Threshold, or to be defined as a Polder. Its effect on the imagination of writers is centripetal: once inside its bournes, stories tend to remain there.

A fair number of fantasies have been set in pre-19th-century London. Lisa Goldstein's Strange Devices of the Sun and Moon (1993) is set in Elizabethan times, as are various tales featuring John Dee, like Peter Ackroyd's The House of Doctor Dee (1993) and John Crowley's Aegypt sequence. Virginia Woolf's Orlando (1928) begins about the same time, as does Jeanette Winterson's Sexing the Cherry (1989). But most urban fantasies are set no earlier than the early half of the 19th century, the period when London was growing into the first world city.

The first great wave of stories set between 1850 and the devastating outbreak of World War I was unsurprisingly written by contemporaries. Charles Dickens is of course pre-eminent; but Wilkie Collins set work of interest in London. From around 1880, London – or Babylon-on-the-Thames – became a kind of Shared World for writers like Robert Louis Stevenson, whose New Arabian Nights (coll 1882) and More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter (coll 1885) with Fanny Van de Grift Stevenson were of great importance for importing of Arabian-Fantasy elements into the urban-fantasy mix. Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) seems no more conceivable outside its East End frame than the savageries of Jack the Ripper. Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes tales are generally set in London, or in its Water-Margin suburbs whose social and racial ambiguities reflect the actual water margins of the overstretched British Empire. Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) reflects a London become overripe. Fergus Hume's Aladdin in London (1892) – like F Anstey's The Brass Bottle (1900), Barry Pain's The One Before (1902) and many more – continue the interplay between Arabian fantasy and the London venue. Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1899) conflates the interior of Africa with the Thames estuary, where Marlowe tells the tale within the darkness of the purlieus of the world city. G K Chesterton's The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904) and The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare (1908) are both set in London, and could be set nowhere else. Wyndham Lewis's Mrs Duke's Millions (written circa 1908; 1977 Canada) is similarly locked into the world of the city.

Steampunk stories are normally set in the 19th century – and very frequently in London. London steampunk includes novels like James P Blaylock's Lord Kelvin's Machine (1992) and William Gibson's and Bruce Sterling's The Difference Engine (1990 UK) – though it would obviously be silly to exclude a novel like Tim Powers's The Anubis Gates (1983) from the category. Many of the Gaslight Romances so popular in the last two decades of the 20th century – e.g., Mark Harris's (?   -    ) Dark Brotherhood sequence – are set in London.

London itself is less frequently the subject of stories. Many of Michael Moorcock's tales – pre-eminently the Jerry Cornelius sequence and Mother London (1988) – could be so described, as could all of Iain Sinclair's (1943-    ) poetry and fiction, the most comprehensive examples of which are Downriver, or The Vessels of Wrath (1991) and Radon Daughters: A Voyage, Between Art and Terror, from the Mound of Whitechapel to the Limestone Pavements of the Burren (1994). But most contemporary fantasies use the city as an all-surrounding given. They include: Martin Amis's Other People: A Mystery Story (1981); Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus (1984); Michael de Larrabeiti's Borribles sequence; Eleanor Farjeon's Gypsy and Ginger (1920); Christopher Fowler's Roofworld (1988); James Herbert's Rats sequence; Russell Hoban's The Medusa Frequency (1987); Robin Jarvis's Deptford Mice and Deptford Histories sequences; Tanith Lee's Reigning Cats and Dogs (1995); C S Lewis's The Great Divorce: A Dream (1946); Kim Newman's Anno Dracula (1992); Brian Stableford's Werewolves of London sequence; Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897); P L Travers's Mary Poppins books; and Rebecca West's Harriet Hume: A London Fantasy (1929). There are many more. [JC]


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.