In my reading experience, the sub-genre of urban fantasy feels like a very fluid thing to me, sometimes difficult to distinguish from the sub-genres of magical realism and of paranormal, save for paranormal being its own mixture of romantic and speculative fiction. And speaking of speculative fiction, that’s another genre that gets muddied with that which we call urban fantasy.
At its core, urban fantasy is basically when a story takes place in a world where the modern world we know intersects with fantastical elements. Honestly not sure that that modern setting has to necessarily even be urban (i.e., take place in a city), but that aside, I’ve come to appreciate a story that does take a city and fabricate a world of fantasy that lives and thrives beneath it, unbeknownst to those who live in the mundane above.
My first encounter with a story like this was Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, which took the city of London and reconstructed it as a city in which a very supernatural world is buried within its heart. The story revolves in part around our protagonist Richard Mayhew, a perfectly normal bloke from Scotland who lands a job smack-dab in the hubbub of London, only to find himself broken away from his normal life and getting wrapped up in the true nature of the metropolis’s underground. The other part of it involves a society built from London’s Underground, called the “Underside”, a kind of medieval, feudalistic world that’s more brutal, but also more exciting than what’s on the topside, interweaving beings like mythic boars reminiscent of the minotaur, even angels (touching on that tiny niche of literature that likes to use angels and demons and other beings celestial and malevolent as story devices). I definitely shelve this book next to all other books that have had a huge impact on me and the way I look at the world and think about how to imagine it in my own head.
Apart from Gaiman’s way with words and how he can take anything normal and turn it into something magical, along with his obvious personal interest in drawing from classic and ancient mythologies, just the idea of a city harboring not only a world of its own, but a world of its own that transcends normality intrigues me in the fact that when you look at how intricate a city can be, it almost feels like its possible, and its cool to think about.
To paraphrase, I think Owen Wilson’s character in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris put it best, that every little street and alleyway in a city has its own story, there’s a poetry to it. True, he was talking about Paris specifically in that context, but I think that applies to all cities. And as it happens, that film too dabs into what I’d more call magical realism than anything like urban fantasy, but even so, it’s a story that takes place in the modern world that intersects with a fantastical element, that element being that every night at midnight, something happens that causes Wilson’s character to slide through time from the present day to the 1930s, during one of Paris’ heydays of literary genius from writers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald and artists like Picasso.
Which I think is what I find so fascinating about the concept of turning urban settings into playgrounds for the fantastical, interwoven with what we know of as reality. Thoughts like this occurred to me while I was finally getting around to watching the sequel season to the anime, Durarara!, Durarara! x2, which features multiple story lines and characters living in Ikebukuro, Tokyo, interwoven with elements of the supernatural, creating urban legends out of things like dullahans, guys with superhuman strength, and cursed sentient swords alongside gang brawls and entanglements with the yakuza. Apart ftom this sequel season taking things in a much darker turn, it’s cool to see the expansion of the Narita-verse, so to speak.
It makes for some really cool stories, and I just wanted to take a moment and share my love for it. For those who find their everyday world mundane, it’s nice to imagine that just at the edge of what they can see, there’s a fantastic world stirring and writhing and pulsing, and even funner to imagine getting caught up in it.