Down These Strange Streets
An anthology of stories edited by Gardner Dozois and George R R Martin
THE BASTARD STEPCHILD
There’s a new kid on the shelves in bookstores these days. Most often he can be found back in the science fiction and fantasy section, walking with a certain swagger among the epic fantasies, the space operas, the sword- and-sorcery yarns and cyberpunk dystopias. Sometimes he wanders up front, to hang out with the bestsellers. They call him “urban fantasy,” and these past few years he’s been the hottest subgenre in publishing.
The term “urban fantasy” isn’t new, truth be told. There was another subgenre that went by that name back in the 1980s; it mostly seemed to involve elves playing in folk-rock bands and riding motorcycles through contemporary urban landscapes—usually in Minneapolis or Toronto, both of which are very nice towns.
The new urban fantasy may be some kin to that 1980s variety, but if so, the kinship is a distant one, for the new kid is a bastard through and through. He makes his home on streets altogether meaner and dirtier than those his cousin walked, in New York and Chicago and L.A. and nameless cities where blood runs in the gutters and the screams in the night drown out the music. Maybe a few elves are still around, but if so, they’re likely to be hooked on horse or coke or stronger, stranger drugs, or maybe they’re elf hookers being pimped out by a werewolf. Those bloody lycanthropes are everywhere, though it’s the vampires who really run the town . . . And don’t forget the zombies, the ghouls, the demons, the witches and warlocks, the incubi and succubi, and all the other nasty, narsty things that go bump in the night. (And worse, the ones that make no sound at all.)
Try being a cop in a town like that.
Try being a private eye.
The bastard subgenre that is today’s urban fantasy is the offspring of two older genres.
Horror is the mother that gave it birth. (And that’s
The father of today’s urban fantasy, however, is the mystery story. And not just
In his classic essay in
Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man.
The heroes and heroines of urban fantasy fit Chandler’s prescription perfectly . . . though I expect that even Marlowe himself would be surprised at just how unusual some of them can be. But maybe not.
Truth be told, the private eye of Chandler and Hammett and their hard-boiled successors has more in common with the vampires and werewolves of horror fiction than with most real-life private investigations. Whereas their fictional counterparts are solving murders, unraveling plots, and walking through the bad neighborhoods that even the cops dare not enter, the real-life PIs spend their days documenting adultery for sleazy divorce lawyers, dealing with corporate security and industrial espionage, and investigating fraudulent insurance claims. The urban fantasists are only taking the trope one step further. Sam Spade has more in common with Harry Dresden than either of them do with the people you’ll find listed under “Private Investigators” in the yellow pages.
Raymond Chandler also wrote:
The private detective of fiction is a fantastic creation who acts and speaks like a real man. He can be completely realistic in every sense but one, that one sense being that in life as we know it such a man would not be a private detective.
The heroes of urban fantasy come out of the hard-boiled mystery, while the villains, monsters, and antagonists have their own roots in classic horror . . . but it is the
You would think this twain could never meet. But bastards can break all the rules, and that’s half their charm. The chains of convention need not apply.
Consider, for example, a case wherein a dead body is found drained of all blood.
If a reader comes upon that scenario in a horror novel, he knows at once that there’s a vampire lurking about somewhere. The cops may or may not twig to it, depending on the world the story is set in, but the reader knows the answer: the book says HORROR on the spine.
If a reader comes upon the identical scenario in a mystery novel, though . . . Well, now he knows it is definitely
In both cases, genre expectations define and shape our reading experience and color the ways in which we will perceive the events of the story.
It is only when the bastard stepchild takes the stage that real uncertainty sets in. Now we’re dealing with a hybrid form: part fantasy, part mystery. All the conventions must be called into question. Suddenly the puzzle is a puzzle again. Maybe it’s a vampire, maybe it’s a psycho, maybe neither, maybe both, maybe something else entirely. Better keep reading to find out.
“Better keep reading to find out” are the sweetest words any writer can hear.
Of course, today’s urban fantasists are by no means the first to cross the classic private eye story with fantasy and horror. Poe himself did it, with those murders in the Rue Morgue. Arthur Conan Doyle confronted Sherlock Holmes with the Hound of the Baskervilles . . . and though, in the end, the hound proves no more supernatural than Lassie, the story’s frisson all comes from the possibility that he may be something much darker and more frightening.
And then there is Robert A. Heinlein, the most unlikely proto–urban fantasist of all . . . but what else is one to make of my favorite Heinlein story, “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag,” wherein the mousy Hoag hires a husband-and-wife team of private eyes to investigate what it is that he finds under his fingernails when he wakes up every morning. Is it blood, or . . . something else?
(I won’t spoil the story by telling you. The Bird is Cruel.)
That’s the great thing about this bastard stepchild. The streets he walks are just as mean as those that Spade and Marlowe walked, but considerably stranger . . . and they can take you most anywhere. As the book that you hold in your hand will show.
My partner in crime Gardner Dozois and I did not restrict ourselves to a single genre or subgenre when assembling this table of contents. Instead, we reached out to fantasists, mystery novelists, crime writers, romance