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Down These Strange Streets: Editor Gardner Dozois on Urban Fantasy

Down These Strange Streets

Urban fantasy is hot right now, and the editors of Down These Strange Streets have been on a bit of a roll themselves-- so we thought we'd highlight this relatively recent collection of cases of death and magic in the city by some of the biggest names in Urban Fantasy. Contributors include New York Times bestselling authors Charlaine Harris, Patricia Briggs, Diana Gabaldon, Simon R. Green, S. M. Stirling, and Carrie Vaughn.

The editors are similarly august. George R.R. Martin has had some modicum of success with a little series called Song of Ice and Fire, while Gardner Dozois, who edits a year’s best series and used to edit Asimov’s SF Magazine, has won fifteen Hugo Awards and twenty-eight Locus Awards for editing, plus two Nebula Awards for writing.

I was curious to ask Dozois—to whom I made my first professional sale back in the Jurassic Era—for his take on “Urban Fantasy.” By the late aughts, the term seemed to have shifted from its original meaning—my recollection being that a publicist at a major NY house deliberately and successfully tried to apply it to what we might broadly call paranormal romance.

Dozois’s take mirrors mine in the sense of noticing a change in taxonomy: “Defining ‘Urban Fantasy’ is a bit tough these days, and it may be that the term has been made too all-inclusive to be really useful. In their The Urban Fantasy Anthology, editors Peter S. Beagle and Joe R. Lansdale divide ‘Urban Fantasy’ up into three sub-categories--Mythic Fiction, Paranormal Romance, and Noir Fantasy. Of these, Mythic Fantasy seems closer to what I would have called Urban Fantasy throughout most of my career, stories--often (but not always) lighthearted--that deal with the intersection of magical realms with the modern world, with the intrusion of fantasy creatures into everyday reality, and, occasionally, with what happens when mortals blunder into enchanted lands where they shouldn't go.”

He rightly notes that “the most influential ancestor of Paranormal Romance seems to have been the TV show "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer," with the intrepid protagonist, almost always female, usually super-powered to one degree or another, sometimes a supernatural being herself, battling various Creatures of the Night--vampires, werewolves, demons, zombies.

By contrast, "Noir Fantasy seems to be very similar to Paranormal Romance, except with more emphasis on private eyes, mean streets, criminals and murder, and other noir elements drawn from Black Mask writers such as Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler, as well as from old black-and-white noir movies. Pop a vampire into The Maltese Falcon, and it would become Noir Fantasy.” In the less complicated past “Many things in both Paranormal Romance and Noir Fantasy would have just been called Horror.”

Influence from “hard to define” subgenres like Slipstream and Steampunk have made “Urban Fantasy” even more amorphous a term. Dozois’s own preference regarding the terms? “To keep the term Urban Fantasy for what Beagle and Lansdale call Mythic Fiction, and call the other two Paranormal Romance and Noir Fantasy, but the water is probably already too muddied for that.”

Of the three, Dozois prefers Mythic Fantasy the most: "Stuff with deep roots in the old Unknown magazine, which both Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett have admitted to being deeply influenced by, and which also has roots that branched out into Swords & Sorcery or Heroic Fantasy…and the work of people like L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt.” Benchmarks for this kind of fiction according to Dozois include “The two anthologies drawn from Unknown, titled Unknown and Unknown Worlds, De Camp and Pratt's The Incomplete Enchanter, The Castle Of Iron, and Land Of Unreason, and Poul Anderson's Three Hearts And Three Lions.” More recent examples include Charles de Lint, Esther Friesner, Neil Gaiman, Tom Holt, Tim Powers, Emma Bull, and by the fairytale anthologies of Ellen Datlow and Terry Windling.

Pre-Buffy Paranormal Romance roots, Dozois believes, “probably go back to Weird Tales and especially Fritz Leiber, who practically invented the form with stories like "Smoke Ghost," Conjure Wife, and Our Lady Of Darkness, carried up through the decades by people like Steven King and all the other horror writers of the '80s, given more of a ‘romance’ flavor after the initial Big Horror Boom of the '80s by people like Anne Rice and Laurel K. Hamilton, and carried down to the present by Charlaine Harris, Patrica Briggs, Sherilynn Kenyoun, Carrie Vaughn, and many others.

Noir Fantasy seems to me like a somewhat later specialization, growing out of the popularity of Paranormal Romance and taking it in a somewhat different direction.” Regardless of the complications of taxonomy, the perks of editing an original anthology are always the same for Dozois: “the surprise is just how many good writers are out there, and how different the mood and tone and method of attack can be from author to author in stories dealing with the same general theme.”

He and Martin are already hard at work on their next anthology, entitled Dangerous Women.

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This is a very good article, I discovered your blog checking aol for a related subject matter and came to this. I couldnt find to much other information on this article, so it was nice to discover this one. I will be back to look at some other posts that you have another time.

Thanks for the clarification about genres. It can get confusing anymore, that's for sure....

No mention in book or article about TIm (T.A.) Pratt's Marla Mason books? And as much as I love Buffy and Joss Whedon, "Cast a Deadly Spell" (1991) predates Buffy by six years, and is an even better example of the genre, to my mind. Wish I could remember the name of the one-off, alternative "comix", comic book where I first encountered the genre, personally--black and white, incredibly precise and detailed line art, and a clever, quirky story involving an intrusion from another dimension in a bowling alley, if I remember right; it was beautiful, brilliant, and unique in my experience at the time (around 1987 or so, I think), and I have two copies in a box somewhere...

And I second the amazement at managing to leave out Butcher's Dresden novels.

Ditto for Larry Correia. Come on guys. Guess I can't accuse you of too much literati snobbery when you mention "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", but, shame, shame.

How can you possibly have an article on Urban Fantasy and not mention Jim Butcher's urban wizard Harry Dresden??

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