I read a lot of a fantasy subgenre called Urban Fantasy. Although the name implies that these tales take place in metropolitan areas (and many of them do) the real hallmark of a UF book is that is it set in our contemporary world or a close analogue of it, with magical or supernatural elements. The narrowness of the term “urban fantasy” can lead to embarrassing terms like, “rural urban fantasy” if the story takes place on a farm.
The heroines and heroes of UF usually battle supernatural monsters, ranging from the familiar to the obscure and the flat-out made-up. While I usually love seeing what a new writer is going to do with a traditional creature, some of these magical beasties are just plain over-exposed. Here is a list of critters I could do without for a while.
Vampires in fiction have been done, re-done and overdone. They all have the T-shirt and they bristle with the forks that have been stuck into them. They need a break.
The Romanian vampires of folklore were stranger (and scarier) creatures than today’s UF brood. They often behaved as if they had dementia, or some obsessive disorder, or both. Humans would come home from the funeral of a loved one to find the loved one sitting in their favorite chair, as if they didn’t know they were dead. If a Romanian vampire were chasing you, and you threw a handful of seeds, grain, sewing pins or jellybeans down behind you, the vampire would have to stop and count every single one. (Okay, I don’t think they had jellybeans in 13th century Romania.) Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula was a genuinely scary monster because beneath his diabolically smooth manner and his skills at hypnotism, he wasn’t human.
Today’s fictional vampires are sexy female sidekicks, bad boyfriends or part of some vampire wannabe-Mafia family. They want to fit in. For a while, beginning in the late 1970s-early 80s (I think of Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s Le Comte de St-Germain as the first example) the vampire as the hero or sympathetic main character was interesting, because usually it meant they were fighting the instinctual urge to feed on their human friends and allies. That created suspense. Nowadays, artificial blood and ideas like “vegetarian” vampires have killed that suspense. Vamps need a nice retreat to the Romanian countryside to count flowers or something. Stat.
To be clear, I’m talking about USA, George-Romero-style zombies, not the entranced variety. These are the shambling, moaning, lurching, appendage-dropping living-dead of Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Shaun of the Dead and, of course, The Walking Dead.
Let’s face it: zombies are boring. They are bad conversationalists. They are slow. They aren’t very bright. What’s so scary about them, then? They eat human brains, but so do about half the things I consume daily, so that isn’t it. No, what’s scary about American zombies is how very contagious they are. No ritual “blood for blood” exchange like a vampire needs in order to turn you. If a zombie bites you, you turn into a zombie. If a zombie scratches you, you turn into a zombie. If a zombie sneezes on you… you get the idea.
You are brighter and faster than they are, but there are so many of them! And the most casual contact can turn you into one of them. They’re like those homeless people you try to ignore on your walk during your work-break; or that neighbor whose husband still hasn’t found a job. Or those people from another country who don’t talk like you and who have twelve people living in one house. American zombies are the not-very-subtle symbols of toxic capitalism… because they want what we’ve got (whoever “they” are, and whatever it is we’ve “got”) and the slightest touch makes you… like them! Yes, there is a horde of them, a few rungs below you on classless America’s invisible ladder of success, but it only takes one to grab your ankle (one bad car accident, one serious illness, one layoff) to pull you down with them, and you will lose everything.
Well, the Great Recession is over, and we’re in the Recovery now. Let’s start acting like it, and give zombies the nice dirt nap they deserve.
Critters I’m on the fence about:
Angels, Fallen and Buoyant:
In Paradise Lost, that great urban fantasy poem (yes, kidding,) John Milton created a great fallen angel character in Lucifer. Neil Gaiman created a different and equally interesting take on the Fallen One in Sandman. Gaiman’s Lucifer works for God as the warden of God’s prison. He resigns, throws open the gates of hell, and follows his dream of playing piano in a blues bar.
Gaiman gave us another successful angel character in Neverwhere.
Tony Kushner’s angels in Angels in America are three-dimensional creatures who seem at turns both magnificent and pathetic as we learn more about their situation.
Ah, the good old days.
Angels have always had a grip on the American imagination, showing up for decades and decades in American pop culture as charming infantile creatures wrongly called cherubs (and oddly, confused with Eros, the god of sexual love) and as guardian angels. In the run-up to the millennium, they became big pop-culture players; messengers of God, beings of light, lingerie models with wings. What’s not to love? Of course, it was only a matter of time until we overdosed on the whole beings-of-light thing, and had to go to the dark side.
I blame the TV show Supernatural for the over-exposure of angels. I’ll watch actor Mark Pelligrino in anything, and his interpretation of Lucifer in the show was a treat, but Supernatural’s angel storyline demonstrates exactly what’s wrong with using them as characters, particularly adversaries. It tried to pull Judeo-Christian religion into the story as a basis for a magical system. That should work, but in the strength-versus-strength, videogame-environment of current UF in general, and the testosterone-laced, homoerotic milieu of Supernatural in particular, you can’t have a compassionate God who sacrifices himself to redeem humanity. That just messes up your plot. Then you crash head-first into that familiar dilemma; God is all-powerful, and God is all-good, but evil still happens. Either God is not powerful enough to stop evil, or God doesn’t care to. With humans, the answer is simple; we have free will. It’s on us.
Angels do not have free will. For fictional creatures who work with God every day, they cannot articulate or even discuss what God’s plan for dealing with evil might be. God really needs to be out of the picture completely; so we get the “absent father” that Kushner did so well, only stepped on and watered down. Angels are simple-minded warriors or steely-eyed control freaks; angels usually hate humans, which should be a trademark of the Fallen, not the heavenly host.
Exceptions exist. Jim Butcher’s angels in the Harry Dresden series aren’t bad, especially the mysterious archangel Uriel. In the right hands, they can be mysterious, intriguing characters. In the wrong hands, they are mangy winged fascists who bloviate more than Donald Trump.
I love werewolves. I love shape-shifters in general. My introduction to the werewolf as a pop culture icon came with the 1941 movie The Wolfman. Lawrence Talbot is a good guy, an innocent, who falls under an ancient curse and changes, without control, into a monster. The wolfman story is tragic, as a human fights and loses a battle with the violent instinctual creature within.
That was the original view of a werewolf; our struggle with anger, lust, greed, violence… and the times we lose that battle. The monster werewolf was a human, battling the natural world, and the natural world was bad. In parts of Europe, wolves were a genuine threat to human lives; a human out alone was at risk, even if they were riding a horse (a pack of wolves could easily pull down a horse). Wolves also predated on human stock like goats and sheep, direct competition for the food supply. They were a good pick to stand in for dark nature.
In the 1970s our attitude toward nature started changing, and so did the werewolf in fiction. It began to morph into a character rather than a monster. In later decades, people changed the werewolf lore so that wolves could morph whenever they wanted; morphing also into heroes or sidekicks. In UF novels like Laurel K. Hamilton’s works (which I do not recommend) and Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments series, werewolves gather together in hierarchical groups called packs, usually ruled by an alpha male. The pack idea was inaccurate, springing largely from a study of wolves in captivity. The urban fantasy view of wolves often shows females as powerless within the pack political structure, having to resort to indirect means and manipulation to achieve their ends.
Still, shape-shifting is cool. A new imagining of werewolves, using the extended-family “alpha pair” model rather than tired old alpha males could be really interesting.
Critters I Could See More Of:
The Elder Gods:
I know that H.P. Lovecraft was a raging bigot and terrible person, but I love Cthulhu. I don’t know why, I just do. And I’m not alone! I saw a felted Cthulhu Christmas ornament at a kitchen shop the other day. I’ve seen knitted C’s dangling from rear-view mirrors and folks sporting tentacled Cthulhu hats. It could just be that we are beginning to admire the octopus, but I think there’s more to it.
Current UF writers are delivering the Elder Gods in great ways. Just read Cherie Priest’s stunning gothic horror novel Maplecroft, or Daryl Gregory’s novella “We Are All Completely Fine,” to see what some of our best writers are doing with those mad creatures from beyond the time-space rift.
Alif the Unseen, by G. Willow Wilson, and The Golem and Jinni, by Helene Wecker, both show how these powerful fire elementals can shine when they are given the page space to so do. More, please!
Having pontificated, I will now say that a brilliant idea brilliantly executed will make me read about any creepy-crawly, even ones on my “no-read” list. One big exception to the zombie thing: Terry Weyna’s review induced me to read The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey. It is a zombie book unlike any other, a must-read.
But it’s a big world! And there are so many of them! Worlds, I mean. Please, UF creators, step outside the smarmy comfort zone of hipster bloodsuckers, or the gross-out playground of living dead, and give us new creatures to love and fear.
I’m with you, Marion, though I’d have to add werewolves to my “had enough” list. Though I did really enjoy Ilona Andrews’s series — more for the worldbuilding of an “after the apocalypse” world in which the apocalypse is the return of magic to our world after an age of technology.
Did you know that there will soon be a TV series about Gaiman’s Lucifer? I can’t wait!
And as to Cthulhu, I’ve always wanted a pair of the Cthulhu slippers that I see from time to time. It would be kinda cool to have my feet eaten by an Elder God. Though in some odd way that also feels like tempting fate.
This is incredibly well-written. I love your descriptions of the various “creatures”. While I have not read most of the books you mentioned, your interpretations of the characters make them come clear.
I’ve been enjoying the Lucifer trailers on Youtube. He is based on the Sandman character (transplanted to LA, maybe?).