Friday, December 9, 2011

Urban legends and urban fantasy

So after hearing about all these urban fantasy stories people are writing, I've been questioning one of my original assumptions about urban fantasy: must urban fantasy derive from urban legends? I use "urban legends" as a rhetorical device (I mean, urban), but what I mean by it is mythologies created prior to the author writing. I think that a large part of this particular body of literature would suggest that urban fantasy usually draws on mythologies that are part of our cultural knowledge. Vampires, werewolves, witches; all of these are preconceived, and deeply rooted in our understanding of the fantastic and mythological. When I think "What's a fantastic being?" I think "ghosts" or "vampires", not something that I've never heard of. And often urban fantasy will redefine the conventional understanding of these mythologies, but it draws on them nonetheless.
But is that a necessary part of the urban fantasy? I thought previously that it was. I mean, cities are essentially and unique to human civilization, and so it makes sense that these stories would focus on them. And I think that these mythologies are also unique and essential to human culture. Perhaps not the myths in specific, but the idea of an old mythology being pervasive throughout a culture. Almost every culture has myths about gods or higher beings, the afterlife, and creation of the world, usually unifying all these thigns into one. And as far as I know, mythologies about creatures is incredibly pervasive throughout human culture. So surely it would make sense, in the creation of a story that involves essentially human structures like cities to also include our inherited mythologies when creating creatures that live within those cities.
However, the one big stick in the mud for me, besides perhaps one or two of the class stories, is Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere. There is no mythology that I know of that includes beings who can open doors to anywhere. There is no mythology including a fox and a wolf mercenaries who like torture. There is no Marquis de Carabas or Rat People or Market or most of what makes Neverwhere Neverwhere. The only things in Neverwhere that have pre-established roots in mythology are a) Islington the angel, b) Atlantis, which he destroys, c) that London has lots of underground layers that are believed to give it mystical or special properties, and d) monks. And these are either not central to the story's mythology or are stretching the definition of mythology pretty thin.
So can we really consider Neverwhere an urban fantasy? Grawr. It really really bugs me, and I don't have an answer.

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