Urban Fantasy Is All About Magic

So, the Grand Unifying Theory, aka What I’ve Been Thinking About This Week. It started as an effort to explain where Lightbreaker fits in the urban fantasy framework, and has become a bit broader (again, no one should be surprised to hear that phrase come from me). Essentially, urban fantasy is all about magic, and as such, is really all about Secret History.

Trying to define urban fantasy these days is a bit of a trick, especially with the marketing muscle behind paranormal romance. But I think it comes down to both magic and intent, which as Crowley would like to remind us, are the two key facets of being that every magus focuses on: what are the Secrets, and what do you intend to do with them. The traditional trappings of urban fantasy—the monsters that go bump in the night: werewolves, vampires, demons, et al—are no longer a metaphorical device to signify the Great Mystery. They have become entities unto themselves; they are no longer simply the Other, but have been bequeathed the status of Mysterious Stranger. If you need to draw a clear distinction between urban fantasy and paranormal romance, this is it: when the monsters become objects of attraction and are no longer the mechanics by which the extra-ordinary nature of existence is considered.

Urban fantasy is about power, and how that power is manifested and manipulated (i.e., “magic”). It is about how the world is really different than we think it is. When we sleep at night, that which slumbers during the day awakens, and that includes our own secret selves. Joseph Campbell, in The Hero With a Thousand Faces, his landmark examination of the structure of myth, argues that the protagonist, having been selected to be the hero, must leave the normal world and travel into the world of myth in order to pursue his quest. Mircea Eliade distinguishes between “sacred” space and “profane” space, and argues (in The Sacred and the Profane, naturally) that these sacred spaces are where the Divine has breached and our entire magico-religious intent is bent around attempting to recreate these cosmological ruptures again and again. We seek an understanding of the world; we want to Know the Unknown. Urban fantasy is simply an effort to comprehend the Mystery through subjective modes of experience.

If you look at thriller market, you’ll see it is filled with authors who dance along this knife edge of belief. Clive Cussler. James Rollins. Dan Brown. They all want to tease us with a hint of the Great Mystery, but none of them want to commit to it. None of them want to be nailed down with the fact that they’ve just used “magic” as part of their argument. Why not? Is it because magic is too tied to belief, and we’re too afraid of alienating our audience by suggesting something behind the profane? They can hint at it; they can wink and give you a sly nudge that asks: “What if I’m not kidding?”

I’d like to charge urban fantasy to be a bit braver. To stop hiding behind the trappings of Monsters as Metaphors, and start engaging in what drove Shelley and Stoker to put those monsters in their books, to start exploring the inner mysteries that occultists, alchemists, mystics, and philosophers have been chewing over for centuries. Let’s step up and continue the Adventure.

Anyway, that’s my argument. Thank you for dropping by this week to read and comment on it. I do appreciate the chance to throw some things on someone else’s wall and see what sticks. You may find me on the web at markteppo.com, the ubiquitous Live Journal , and you can email me directly at darkline (at) gmail (dot) com.

2 comments on “Urban Fantasy Is All About Magic

  1. Mark, as I mull over your highly-readable manifesto, I find a number of comment-worthy insights and observations, but I can’t seem to zero in on what I want to say. I think it’s because you have identified a line between two genres, or sub-genres, which makes me question my own literary intent. That’s not a bad thing at all, it just makes me wonder if I need to choose more specifically which genre I really am.

    I could claim the gray area, but I don’t want to cop out and straddle the paradigm fence. Henry James, when asked if The Turn of the Screw was a psychological thriller, replied that it was simply a ghost story. I have always thought that it was both. To me, Shelley’s Frankenstein is more science fiction than fantasy, as is much of H. P. Lovecraft’s lore about ancient aliens and devolving fish people. But at least Lovecradt presented those creatures as real, not imagined, in the context of the stories. Now I guess I’m just thinking out loud. See what you’ve done? You made me think!. I’m just not sure yet of my conclusions.

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