MIND MELD: The Intersection Between Gothic Horror and Urban Fantasy
[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
This week, just in time for Halloween, we asked our distinguished panelists about Gothic and Urban Fantasy…
The theme of this year’s World Fantasy Convention is “Northern Gothic and Urban Fantasy”. The thesis is that Urban Fantasy represents the new Gothic; castles and haunted locations have been replaced by the Modern City.
This is what they had to say…
I suppose if you go back far enough, this is a valid theory. It doesn’t, however, happen to be mine. Probably because I’m not literate enough. I’m not sure I’ve read a single book that Michael Ashley or John Clute references in their essays.
I’ve read a lot of romances, though. And, I can tell you that there was a time in the mid-nineteen eighties/early nineties, when urban fantasy was born…as paranormal romance. As I said in my article for Lynne Thomas and Deborah Stanish’s, Whedonistas! A Celebration of the Worlds of Joss Whedon by the Woman Who Love Them, “Romancing the Vampire and Other Shiny Bits,” I’m not entirely sure which came first, the chicken of urban fantasy or the egg of paranormal romance since there was a ton of cross-pollenization, particularly when Laurel K. Hamilton was first wickedly popular, but the romance folks really started hitting this idea of a strong, spunky female lead and a supernatural lover right around that time. Instead of the stereotypical fainting wallflower female lead, suddenly there was this surge in popularity of the alpha female versus the alpha male–where the woman was as strong, or stronger, than her supernatural paramour. Sometimes she had superpowers of her own (a current staple in urban fantasy) and sometimes she didn’t (as in the time-travel romances of folks like Sandra Hill’s Viking series), but she always held her own against the hero, through strength of character and/or wit.
And, for my money, a kick-butt female lead is one of the things that distinguishes urban fantasy as a genre. Obviously, there are plenty of exceptions. But usually, the power dynamic is such that the main character has some kind of superpower or natural gift that makes them able to succeed in whatever underground (or established) magical world they stumble into/live in.
To me, that doesn’t feel very gothic. Perhaps, I’m not giving the governess who comes into the change the heart of the manor’s lord enough credit. There again, however, I’m thinking gothic romance, rather than full-on gothic literature (which I know nothing about.)
But, particularly as someone who writes urban fantasy that takes place in towns that aren’t all together all that “urban,” like Madison, Wisconsin (for my Garnet series) or Pierre, South Dakota (for Precinct 13), I’m not sure to what extent the manor/castle has been replaced by the city…or how important that is to the definition of what is urban fantasy.
To be fair, some of my earliest contacts with urban fantasy, like, Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks, did have a strong sense of the magic of place, (though, again, as someone who lives in St. Paul, I’d say it’s arguable whether Minneapolis is sufficiently city-like to qualify as “urban.”) But, the town/city does lend its own unique character to many urban fantasies, without a doubt. Could stories like these exist outside of the city they’re written in? I’m not sure, but I think some could. Buffy was, in my opinion, a prototype for urban fantasy and Sunnydale was just a backdrop that hardly exists as a character, except as a plot device, aka “The Hell Mouth.” Yet, Buffy felt very urban fantasy like, because it had a sarcastic, quippy set of characters that existed in a modern setting with supernatural/paranormal creatures running around causing mayhem and such. Our heroine sees beyond the veil and has the power to defend our world from those others, and that’s what makes it urban fantasy more than any other trait.
So my answer is a very firm: yes, no….maybe.
In Gothic and Horror, the edifice such as a castle or even a sleep-away camp grounds the story in a very confined space. The location becomes integral to the story itself.
In Urban Fantasy, I find that while the modern urban landscape can add color to the story and even allow for a familiar back-drop to draw in the modern reader, I don’t find that it specifically makes the story one way or another.
When I read Carrie Vaughn, Diana Rowland, Seanan McGuire, Adrian Phoenix, Devon Monk, Jim Butcher, Patricia Briggs, or any of the many other Urban Fantasy authors, I find that the urban landscape plays a distant third to character and plot. Move any of those characters and stories to a new setting and they will work just fine in most cases.
Granted in Kat Richardson’s books, the city sometimes plays a part in defining the overall storyline, but I believe this is more the exception than the rule proposed here.
It’s the basic concepts that apply, the generic not the specific. Jim Butcher could move Harry Dresden to Seattle and be just as an effective series.
I believe the more noir the story, the closer the place becomes a vital piece of the overall story.
But as a reader and an author I don’t draw a direct line between the genres in this fashion.
Is Urban Fantasy the new Gothic? No, it is not, and the reasons why I say this are contained within the very definitions of the terms provided on the World Fantasy website. I have no real disagreement with these definitions, and looking at the important characteristics of both literary forms – the sinister edifice, the cursed history, the protagonist struggling against overwhelming odds in the case of the Gothic; the imagined city and the intersection of the mundane and the supernatural for Urban Fantasy – I am struck by how little they have in common. What does link them? Their one indubitable commonality seems to be that they both feature buildings. But the deployment of the edifice in the Gothic is very different from the presence of the city in UF.
Another way of approaching the question is to point out that there already is a new Gothic, and that is horror fiction. Even that is not entirely accurate, but I do think it strikes closer to the truth. The difficulty we face with establishing a taxonomy here is that we are dealing with literary forms that are clearly related, thanks to the frequent use of the same elements (supernatural beings and events, a compulsory feature of UF, though optional in the Gothic and horror fiction), but the uses to which these elements are put are dramatically different. The situation is further muddied if we accept, as I think we should, that the Gothic and UF are genres, while horror is not.
In the beginning, though, the Gothic and horror fiction were one and the same. The Castle of Otranto is the first Gothic novel, and it is also where horror fiction begins. During the period of the classical Gothic, beginning with Otranto in 1764, and more or less coming to a close with Melmoth the Wanderer in 1820, the two terms are, I would argue, essentially synonymous. But the Gothic is a genre, and once we remove enough of the distinguishing elements of plot, character and setting (most particularly the edifice, according to Michael Ashley), then we no longer have a Gothic. But horror is not a genre. It has, over its history, adopted relatively stable forms of story, such that we might think it is a genre, but those forms are provisional, and horror ceases to use them once they become ineffective. This is because a work of horror fiction, as I would define if, is one that seeks to create the affect of horror in its reader, and will do so by any means necessary. So, sticking to the 19th Century for the moment, is Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat” a Gothic? No, it is not. But it is clearly a horror story, as my traumatized 10-year-old self would happily testify.
This flexibility on the part of horror, which is very much like that of a parasite, means that it can put just about any genre to use for its purposes. Thus, it would be pointless to try to decide whether Frankenstein or Alien are SF or horror, or for that matter if Se7en is a thriller or a horror film. There is no “or” here. It is a question of “and.” (In the case of Alien and Se7en, I would go further: they are horror wearing the skin of SF and the thriller.)
The Gothic has returned at different times, of course, often intersecting with the romance (in the sense of the love story, not the Arthurian tale). Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are the foundational texts in this case. The edifice remains an important element in these sorts of stories, but so, too, does the vulnerability of the characters, and here we get to what I feel is the fundamental difference between the Gothic and UF.
If we look at the classical Gothics, one of the things that they all have in common is protagonists at the mercy of forces much more powerful than they are. The universe of the Gothic is a hostile, dangerous one, and it is one with which the characters are ill-prepared to deal. I will not say that this is never the case with UF, but consider the fact that, for better or worse, the most immediately recognizable figure associated with UF is the leather-clad superwoman. She is not a universal requirement of the genre, but she clearly finds a very comfortable home in it. Whatever one might think of this character, there is an element of the power fantasy here. She is the opposite of the Gothic protagonist.
Genre boundaries are porous (for that matter, the very definition of “genre” is a contested one). There will be all sorts of cases where the distinctions between the Gothic, UF and horror will blur, and possibly vanish. But it seems to me that UF’s purpose is not, primarily, to terrify. The Gothic may no longer be synonymous with horror fiction (or at least, horror fiction is no longer just the Gothic), but it retains, I believe, its commitment to exploring the terrible weakness of being human in a world of night.
Finally, then, I believe that to argue Urban Fantasy is the new Gothic not only requires rendering one or both forms unrecognizable, but the impulse does a disservice to both. There is no need for a “new” Gothic, and UF does not need to be a “new” anything. It is its own animal, just as the ghost story, the space opera and steampunk are (and should be) practised and studied on their own terms. UF speaks to a very different set of desires and anxieties in the reader, and is a reminder that the presence of supernatural beings in two stories is no more a guarantee that they are of the same genre than is the presence of human beings themselves.
I think they are definitely cousins, perhaps once removed, but, for me, it comes down to tone. Gothic literature has a particular feel of melancholia, of despair, even when it isn’t strictly horror, even when the stories don’t contain long and dusty hallways and shadows lurking in every corner of every room. The characters are often tragic, even doomed. Take Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, or, more recently, The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson. While very different stories, both evoke the sense of dread that I associate with the term Gothic.
Many modern Urban Fantasy novels shares the traditional trappings of supernatural horror–ghosts and ghouls, vampires and werewolves–but that in itself does not make them horror nor does it make them Gothic. Two Urban Fantasy series that capture the Gothic tone, in my opinion, are Stacia Kane’s Downside Ghosts (Unholy Ghosts, Unholy Magic, City of Ghosts, Sacrificial Magic, Chasing Magic) and Maurice Broaddus’s The Knights of Breton Court (King Maker, King’s Justice, King’s War). Both series are set in the modern world, in gritty urban areas where debris-strewn alleyways have replaced the long hallways and vacant lots have become the shadowy rooms. Both series have characters that share traits with their literary ancestors, and while they are very different from each other and neither are what I would call Gothic or horror, they both perfectly capture that Gothic sense of dread, that atmosphere of despair, loss, and doom.
I love this topic, because I enjoy both Urban Fantasy and Gothic fiction. I think that’s why I see the links between Gothic and Urban Fantasy as quite tenuous—they are connected by some shared tropes, but that is where the similarities end. Both Gothic and Horror fiction contain a morbidity that most Urban Fantasies don’t achieve, and from what I’ve read on several blogs, Urban Fantasy readers usually reject the darker elements normally attributed to both Gothic and Horror novels.
In Urban Fantasy, the story tends to be lighter in tone, not in a comedic manner, but lighter in terms of the protagonist’s redemption and eventual victory over the darker forces that s/he battles. The protagonist survives with their sanity intact, and by virtue of the lessons learned, becomes a better person, or more capable in some way.
This is the critical point at which Gothic novels diverge from Urban Fantasy. In Gothic fiction, central events occur in, or around, a haunted city or house as scenery, but the true heart of a Gothic novel is the mental deterioration of either the protagonist or someone very close to the protagonist. Gothic fiction is dark in both theme and characterization with only the faintest glimmers of hope or redemption.
Any supernatural elements in Gothic fiction stand as a much darker force and often destroy the protagonist. In the Urban Fantasy, a protagonist’s supernatural abilities either enhance that individual’s capability to function, or the protagonist finds a way to subvert the supernatural elements.
That’s not to say that some Urban Fantasy novels don’t achieve a close brush with Gothic themes. Both Alex Bledsoe’s The Hum and the Shiver, and Stina Leicht’s Of Blood and Honey are good examples of Urban Fantasy that skirt on the edge of Gothic. Bledsoe gives us shades of Southern Gothic with his tale of the familial ties and the effects of war on his protagonist in The Hum and the Shiver. Likewise, Leicht gives us a very haunted Northern Ireland during one of its darkest time periods.
However, neither of these authors were trying to write Gothic fiction, they were both true to the genre of Urban Fantasy in theme and characterization. In the end, the protagonists overcome their obstacles. They become stronger by virtue of their trials, and they either vanquish or at least achieve a stalemate between the supernatural and the natural world.
On the other hand, excellent Gothic fiction is still being written. Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s novel, The Angel’s Game, is a superb example of a recent Gothic novel. Zafón utilizes both his protagonist’s house and the city of Barcelona as a haunted backdrop; however, the primary focus of the story is on the protagonist, David Martin, as he slowly goes insane. Sarah Waters’ novel The Little Stranger is very different in tone from The Angel’s Game, but is another lovely example of quiet horror that uses Gothic elements, and I can’t tell you why without spoilers, so just trust me on that one.
I’d say it’s a bit premature call Urban Fantasy the new Gothic when Gothic and quiet horror novels are still being written; they’re simply not being produced on such a large scale as their flashier cousins. Linking Urban Fantasy to Gothic is a bit of a stretch, because there is so much more to both genres outside of cities and castles and haunted houses, and I’d really hate to see one ever cancel the other out.
I don’t think urban fantasy represents the new gothic. The urban environment seems to have much more in common with hardboiled novels than with the gothic. Early Anita Blake novels, for example, are essentially crime stories with some supernatural element. The romance doesn’t even develop until later, and it’s not as though Anita’s own character changes to become a gothic heroine. TV shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer—which is a transparent influence on urban fantasy novels—are interested in exposing the seedy underbelly of a seemingly everyday suburb. That’s the work of crime/noir fiction, not of the gothic, which sought to explore the horror of the medieval past, and the spectacle of Catholicism abjected through the prism of the Protestant Reformation. Basically, in urban fantasy there is something dark which is revealed from secrecy in the midst of society, not something dark which is encountered as one separates one’s self from society.
I wouldn’t even say that urban fantasy holds the place the gothic once held in literature.
To my mind, contemporary urban fantasy is very much a modern day Gothic Horror. Of course, I’m required by AUTHOR LAW to say that. My latest, Alchemystic, is all about New York City architecture porn, including a family that lives in a Gothic house along Gramercy Park and the most Gothic of creatures—gargoyles. I’ve always loved haunted castles and the like, and I’ve found ways to work them all into my takes on modern day Manhattan, intersecting classic monsters against the modern person’s sensibilities with all the romantic elements that Gothic Horror implies.
Going back to my Simon Canderous series, I went full on Gothic, placing an artificial countryside inside a massive building (the equivalent of the Time Warner Center) that is complete with a reconstructed castle brought over from Europe. Naturally, it’s a home to vampires. So, yeah, I may be a bit partial to urban fantasy being a direct descendant of modern Gothic Horror.
In many ways, I think they’re the same. Modern urban fantasy injects action and mystery tropes into a mode of writing that’s been around for some two hundred years. To get into some genre history, there’s a direct line of descent between nineteenth century gothic and modern urban fantasy. Early gothic, such the novels of Ann Radcliff and Matthew Lewis, deal with the intersection of the supernatural with reality, issues of power and dominance, encounters with the other, and an uneasiness with female sexuality. Bram Stoker’s Dracula owes its existence to the gothic tradition, as does Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde — the gothic mode moved into an urban setting quite early on, so the “urban” side of the equation isn’t really anything new. From there we get Arthur Machen, and then the movies, the Universal monsters that brought so many of these tropes into the twentieth century. Then Dark Shadows, the Hammer Films, then the Frank Langella Dracula, then the Anne Rice vampire novels and all the authors who followed — Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, P.N. Elrod, Tanya Huff, etc. Then Laurell K. Hamilton and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the introduction of action/thriller tropes to the gothic/supernatural storylines, on up to the current conception of “urban fantasy,” where we’re still dealing with the intersection of the supernatural with reality, issues of power and dominance, encounters with the other, and an uneasiness with female sexuality. Whew.
Besides, Heathcliff and Rochester are the original brooding alpha male love interests, and that character is still populating supernatural fiction.
(I realize this is all a very rough outline and doesn’t address as broad a definition of urban fantasy as I’d like, a definition that includes the mythic mode of urban fantasy that grew up in the eighties and nineties, the work of Emma Bull and Neil Gaiman and so on, which I think is related to the gothic and can trace a lineage back to the Victorian folklorists and such. It’s a parallel development under the wider umbrella of fantasy. I’m focusing on the supernatural/horror mode, which has found such a robust new life in what I suppose we can call the “Buffy” mode of modern urban fantasy.)
I grew up reading Gothic tales (some horror, some romance, some the creepy intersection between those two genres.) As a child, some of my favorite books were by Ruth M. Arthur. Her gothics had all the classic hallmarks — girls alone in the world through being orphaned, abandoned, or simply forgotten over summer holidays; crumbling castles; mysterious events that might or might not be supernatural…
My interest in Gothic persisted — I made the leap to Edgar Allan Poe (and yes, I imagined I could hear a beating heart beneath my bedroom floor). In college, I read Wieland, the supposed grandfather of the Gothic genre, and unlike my classmates, I actually enjoyed its moody, evocative language and slow-moving plot.
And yet, I’ve never been a big fan of contemporary horror novels, Gothic or no. My imagination tends to be overactive, and too many spooky, squicky things before bedtime leads to no sleep for me. (Not nightmares — I never get that far. Just tossing, turning, and wishing the images in my mind’s eye weren’t quite so clear.)
So, imagine my surprise when I started to develop Girl’s Guide To Witchcraft — a light urban fantasy about a librarian who discovers that she’s a witch. There *were* plenty of Gothic seeds in the story — my heroine is physically isolated in a creepy cottage on the grounds of the library where she works. She discovers ancient magical secrets in the basement. She roams the streets of Georgetown, which are sometimes shrouded in mist and mystery. (Of course, she also fights with her boss in a typical urban workplace, so she’s not a classic Gothic heroine. Not quite a typical urban fantasy heroine, either — she’s not a tough-as-nails scrappy fighter like so many of her sisters in the genre.)
As I wrote, though, it became clear to me that there *is* a bond between the classic Gothic literature I loved in my youth and modern urban fantasy. Contemporary cities have become bastions of loneliness, of anonymity. Characters who live among skyscrapers can be every bit as isolated and vulnerable as characters on the moors. And there’s absolutely no reason why the poetic language that describes heather and fog and decaying old castles can’t be turned on the ever-changing, ever-the-same landscape of the city.
There’s nothing new under the sun. Or under the cloud-wrapped moon, either.
The connections between Gothic, Horror and Urban Fantasy are legion in my opinion. I think it’s true that modern Urban Fantasy owes everything to the Gothic Horror that came before it. As far as I’m concerned, and certainly in my own writing, the place is as much a character as the people. Where something is happening is just as important as what’s happening and who it’s happening to.
In the original Gothic stories, the place was often the catalyst for events. While the reactions, histories and personalities of characters was ultimately the meat of the story, the trigger was usually the location – the castle, the stately manor, the rundown psychiatric hospital and so on.
The modern urban environment is the place where humanity is at its densest. It’s the place where a person can feel totally alone while surrounded by people; literally stacked in between others in the high-rise apartment building or office block. And regardless of that utterly human environment, all the old fears and anxieties still exist. The ghosts and demons and monsters still haunt and hunt us. Indeed, in the urban sprawl those things take on a particular urban personality, corrupting them from the folkloric into the modern, with the unexpected juxtaposition of the old into the new making for an even more horrifying tale. Surrounded by people, but lost and alone in the face of the supernatural is often the grist in the mill of the most compelling urban fantasy stories. I see that as a direct result of the original Gothic, just like the city is the direct descendant of the old rundown castle surrounded by a village that’s grown too big. Wherever the human environment is evident, the uncanny is at its strongest, and the human influence is never more evident than in the city.
The other direct result of Gothic literature is the noir genre, where elements of the Gothic – mystery, seeking, unknown threats – have been rolled into the genre of crime and mystery, and the supernatural removed. In my opinion, the best of urban fantasy is when those elements are all combined – the place, the supernatural and the noir. There’s the real beauty of urban fantasy for me, and it owes everything to the original Gothic tale.
In my mind, Gothic fiction is Edgar Allan Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights – all works I read early in life. In fact, Jane Eyre with it’s madwoman in the attic is the one that stands out most. That whole feeling of doom, and the question of whether Jane was going mad, haunted, or dealing with something more mundane are things that stuck with me. Then there’s Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. I loved it. When I think back Joan Aiken really started it all for me. (She remains one of my favorite reads.) Her books set in Battersea and Nantucket are firmly linked with another of my favorites The Ghost and Mrs. Muir — due to the gloomy sea town connection more than anything. Another childhood favorite was Zilpha Keatley Snyder. (The Headless Cupid, The Velvet Room, and The Season of Ponies.) It was my mother who recommended Phyllis A. Whitney. And I remember reading as many as I could find. That is, until my father introduced me to Ray Bradbury via Something Wicked This Way Comes, and I was lost forever.
That said, I didn’t really see the similarity between Gothic and Urban Fantasy until I read the World Fantasy Con article. Now, I do. I think of Urban Fantasy as an American way of creating myth for our modern world. Human beings need myth. Seeing patterns where patterns don’t necessarily exist is hardwired into our brains. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to perceive distance or walk across a room. We make up things in order to function. (Do some reading about the science of perception if you don’t believe me.) It’s human nature. We create mythic foundations when they aren’t there–even when we don’t have a stable place in which to attach them. (See the Miami New Times article “Myths Over Miami” by Lynda Edwards back in 1997 concerning the stories created by children living in Miami’s homeless shelters. Myth brings stability and makes us feel safe. Other, older cultures live amongst myth. Americans much less so — I suspect because so many American family histories begin with immigration. We don’t have ancient castle ruins. Everything is newer. (That’s definitely the case in Texas. But you know, even the Alamo is haunted.) It makes sense that the horror monsters, ghosts, angels, goddesses, and gods took up residence in the cities since none of them have proper ruins to haunt. While writing The Fey and the Fallen books I was definitely reaching for that same gloomy, gritty feel. Come to think of it, broken down castles were once battlegrounds — just as Belfast was once a battleground. Fairies used to be the stories told to explain the unseen hiding in the darkness. We used electricity to drive all those creatures away. They no longer can live there. Instead, they crept back in by way of childhood closets and under beds. We make myth wherever we go. Even space. (Think about all the similarities between alien abduction stories and changeling stories.) Some things are primal.
The key to both styles is the “Urban” part. I believe that they’re both a modernization of traditional Horror and Fantasy, but instead of relying on rural settings – such as a quiet village in the woods, a little seaside town, or a medieval fantasy realm – that magic and horror is embedded in concrete and steel. Urban Gothic as a genre can actually be traced back to the mid-19th century with the novels Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and others. It spread quickly into American literature, especially influencing the creation of the Southern Gothic aesthetic, placing horror in the deep South – crumbling plantations instead of empty castles. Now it can be seen in novels, films, and comic books.
The Urban Gothic style affects both the setting and the movement of the characters within the story. In terms of scenery, it has in common with Urban Fantasy an affection for treating the location as another character. The city lives and breathes, blackly, menacingly…It’s also a very visual style of writing because it relies on description of those magnificent sky scrapers and abandoned industrial complexes. It also has an interest in the play of light and dark; think of how often you see a character under a street lamp, walking through a building with a sputtering flash light, or alone in a dark room lit only by the glow of the neon sign outside?
In terms of movement, Urban Gothic flips the traditional Gothic plot which tended to take characters out of a city and move them to an older, more remote, locale. Dracula, for example, took Jonathan Harker out of London, put him on a train into the Carpathian mountains, and eventually deposited him at Dracula’s castle, which is Gothic-style movement out of town. However, Bram Stoker turns from the older storytelling format by bringing Dracula himself down from the mountain and into London, where the majority of the action takes place. He’s moving the story toward the city, bringing the horror to the people.
What makes that flip possible is what Stoker described as the “teeming millions”. Gothic all about the creeping horror, the thing in the dark that separates you from your friends and devours you, alone. In some stories, that “divided from the pack” moment happens when you wander into the woods, or up the winding staircase into the attic, because there is no one else to see what happens to you. In Urban Gothic, we are already distanced from each other by our sheer numbers. Those without friends and family can be separated from the “pack” of other humans without anyone noticing. Lured down a dark alley, summoned to an empty warehouse, we leave the illusion of safety behind, but even in a crowd, were we really safe to begin with?
Like this post? Subscribe to my RSS feed and get loads more!