Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Urban Fantasy

1. A City is a place; urban fantasy is a mode. A city may be an Icon or a geography; the UF recounts an experience. A city may be seen from afar, and is generally seen clear; the UF 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. UFs are normally texts where fantasy and the mundane world intersect and interweave throughout a tale which is significantly about a real city. There are many exceptions – Mary Gentle's Rats and Gargoyles (1990), is set in a fantasy city "that is called the heart of the world" – but the general principle still holds: the city of a UF may be located in a Secondary World, but in such a case it has been created not just as a backdrop but as an environment, as in Simon R Green's Hawk & Fisher series.

Taproot Texts from which the UF evolved are not easy to find before the 18th century; perhaps the only example worth noting is the Satyricon by Petronius Arbiter (?   -66), though some of the more mercilessly organized post-Renaissance utopian cities – like the circular example in Tommasso Campanella's City of the Sun (1623) – may have provided significant counterexamples to writers a few centuries later. Many of the stories assembled in The Arabian Nights (see Arabian Fantasy) are set in Baghdad and Cairo, but use these cities only as backdrop.

It is reasonable to argue that UFs derive primarily from the notion of the Edifice, and edifices came into true literary existence only with The Castle of Otranto (1765) by Horace Walpole (see Gothic Fantasy). The headings under which Frederick S Frank anatomizes the form in The First Gothics (1987) also work to describe the early forms of UF: claustrophobic containment (see Bondage); subterranean pursuit; supernatural encroachment (see Supernatural Fiction); "extraordinary positions" and lethal predicaments; abeyance of rationality; possible victory of Evil (see Parody); supernatural gadgetry, contraptions, machinery, and demonic appliances; and "a constant vicissitude of interesting passions".

Early UFs tended to be described in terms beholden to the Carceri d'Invenzione (1749-1750) and Vedute (1745-1778) of Giovanni Battista Piranesi – two sets of drawings in which urban scapes are seen in unmistakably theatrical terms. The first set depicts shadowy, illimitably complex imaginary prisons; the second confabulates ancient and modern Rome in images whose chiaroscuros are haunted and echoic. Piranesi was deeply influential in shaping the early 19th century's sense of the nightmare of the city, and remains important still, as demonstrated by explicit references in various texts (two instances being Russell Hoban's The Medusa Frequency [1987], in which Piranesi is evoked to describe a Soho [see also London] that verges on the Underworld, and Lucius Shepard's The Golden [1994], where Castle Banat is seen in Piranesan terms). Piranesi's Labyrinths and abysses suggest pantheons of dark architects, innumerable troupes of players.

As it is a story centrally involving an edifice almost indistinguishable from the city whose heart it comprises, the novel which most clearly marks the relationship between edifice and UF is Notre-Dame de Paris (1831; trans Frederick Shoberl as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame 1833 UK) by Victor Hugo (1802-1885). This novel is not fantasy, but it was a seminal influence upon Eugène Sue, whose Les mystères de Paris (1844; trans anon as The Mysteries of Paris 1844 UK) is a full-fledged UF in everything but the absence of a specific supernatural element, though its central avenger hero – Rudolf von Gerolstein – is a superman figure whose roots in Legend lie very deep, for his ability to appear in any disguise makes him a kind of benign Trickster. More importantly, the novel popularized the kind of multilayered episodic "Mysteries" plot that Charles Dickens had already experimented with in novels like Oliver Twist (1839), which is set in London, and which Alexandre Dumas would bring to perfection in The Count of Monte Cristo (1846), much of which takes place in Paris.

Dickens and Sue both tended to imagine internal kingdoms within the city (made up of anything from criminal societies to collaborating lawyers) which operated as Microcosms and Parodies of the larger Reality; whose inhabitants were described in terms as alienated, and as fascinated, as those used to describe the native nations of the Americas or Africa; and which were often physically interconnected, by tunnels and secret passages, with that larger world. These interior worlds, in works by both authors, tended to contain characters who were themselves Shadows of the makers and rulers of the ostensible world above (see also As Above, So Below), just as the subterranean chambers beneath the city shadowed the palaces which lorded its heights. Disguises were rife, as were melodrama and a fascinated grappling with the sense that whole segments of the city – whole populations – could be described according to their class, and were indeed frequently seen as fitting into extended panoramas illustrative of urban life. These panoramas enforce a sense that the work of both authors was clearly shaped by a central ongoing analogy between the city and the hierarchical world of the theatre, a sense that the city was not only a Cauldron of Story but more specifically both setting for and participant in the telling of tales about a reality that could only be perceived as layered, interwoven, colour-coded (see Colour-Coding) and allegorical.

Much of Dickens's fantasy – most notably A Christmas Carol (1843) – was set in London, which with Paris has remained a central site for the UF mode, both being venues so irradiated with story and mystery that tales set there often have an air of the fantastic without in fact invoking the impossible. As the century passed, fantasy writers – from Robert Louis Stevenson through G K Chesterton and beyond – made particularly intense use of London, as did the artist Gustave Doré; as the 20th century nears its end, both Steampunk and Gaslight-Romance texts tend to focus upon this city, possibly as a result of continued international fascination with the Sherlock Holmes mythos, but they are by no means on their own: Peter Ackroyd's Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (1994; vt The Trial of Elizabeth Cree: A Novel of the Limehouse Murders 1995 US) and The Great Fire of London (1982) occupy the same territory, though not inherently fantasy (while at the same time not not fantasy), and Christopher Fowler's Roofworld (1988) and Michael de Larrabeiti's Borribles sequence are particularly powerful evocations of the Wainscots that every Londoner knows exists but has seen, as it were, only out of the corner of an eye. Michael Moorcock, too, seems captivated by the locale, as in his Fabulation Mother London (1988). Paris is still an important UF locale, as it has been ever since Honoré de Balzac's La Peau de chagrin (1831; trans as Luck and Leather: A Parisian Romance 1842 US; vt The Wild Ass's Skin 1888; new trans Katharine Prescott Wormeley as The Magic Skin 1888 US); Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera (1910) is steeped not just in the Opéra but in Paris itself. Other cities significant for the UF subgenre include Chicago – Martin H Greenberg's Fantastic Chicago (anth 1991) is a typically specific anthology – Liverpool (primarily because of the work of Ramsey Campbell), Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York (most stunningly in Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale [1983], although Highlander [1986] also exploits its setting expertly and Thomas Pynchon's V [1963] can be regarded as the paradigmatic "urban fabulation" – Newer York: Stories of Science Fiction and Fantasy About the World's Greatest City (anth 1991) ed Lawrence Watt-Evans is of interest), Prague (whose environment hugely influenced Franz Kafka and which of course was the setting for Gustav Meyrink's The Golem [1915]), San Francisco, Seattle (as in Megan Lindholm's The Wizard of the Pigeons [1986]), Toronto (a favourite venue for Charles de Lint and other Scribblies), Venice (the Daphne Du Maurier story and the movie based on it, Don't Look Now [1973], are noteworthy) and Vienna (often used by Jonathan Carroll).

As the 20th century has advanced, UF writers have intensified the model developed by Dickens and Sue. Fantasies of History are often set in cities, and Contemporary Fantasies and Instauration Fantasies are also set more often than not within urban surrounds. Fantasies which may be describable under any or all of these three rubrics tend varyingly to share certain structural elements that make cities their natural venue: they tend to Crosshatch the mundane world with Otherworlds, often locating within cities the Portals through which such intermixings are announced; they tend to emphasize the consanguinity not only of intersecting worlds, but of peoples, times (see Timeslip; Time Travel) and stories (see also Urban Legends) as well; they tend – fairly enough – to treat the late 20th century as an essentially urban drama, so that conflicts within the city resonate throughout the worlds; and, like most fantasies, tend to try to achieve a sense of Healing.

Imagined cities in which UFs are set are legion, from Batman's Gotham City (a much fantasticated New York) to the New Zealand city in The Navigator: a Mediaeval Odyssey (1988) to Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar to Terry Pratchett's Ankh-Morpork, scene of the partly UF City Guard/Night Watch sequence. The mirroring cities of Gene Wolfe's There Are Doors (1988) are never identified, either in "this world" or "the other", but they are fully realized in a way that makes this one of the most profoundly urban of all UFs.

There is an increasing sense that writers may well be conceiving the typical inhabitant of the great cities as a kind of hunter-gatherer figure, one better able than suburbanites or farmers to cope with the crack-up of the immensely rigid world system created over the previous few thousand years. The urban venues of many cyberpunk novels, from William Gibson's Neuromancer (1984) on, seem in this light almost to read as Books of Instruction for survival in the new forest. [JC]

2. The above is a rare instance in which this encyclopedia's terminology has been superseded by common usage. As a publishing category which has risen to enormous popularity in the twenty-first century, Urban Fantasy has come to denote the subgenre of stories set in an alternate version of our modern world where humans (often with special Talents) and supernatural beings – most typically Vampires, Werewolves, assorted other Shapeshifters, and very humanlike Elves or Fairies – interact via adventure, melodrama, intrigue and Sex. A closely related, indeed overlapping, publishing classification is Paranormal Romance. [DRL]

see also: Peter S Beagle; Charles Brockden Brown; Emma Bull; Peter Conrad; The Land of Faraway (1987); David Lynch; Night Cry; Pan; Steampunk; Jeanette Winterson; Wolf (1994); Wolfen (1981).

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.