Escape to UF Mountain
I’ve heard loads of people talking about the recent upsurge in the popularity of urban fantasy, especially UF based on vampires. Obviously, series such as Twilight have had a huge impact on the perception that fantasy, especially urban fantasy, and especially urban fantasy with vampires, is on the rise.
From a quick search of the internet (and I mean very quick), I haven’t been able to find statistical proof for this assertion. However, at a cultural studies conference I just attended, the sheer number of panels on both Buffy and Twilight attests to the fact that the people who consider themselves experts on American culture assume that vampires are Big Business, not just in terms of best seller lists and box office numbers, but also in terms of cultural capital. Our culture, these multitudinous panels imply, is invested in images of the vampire and of the supernatural, in general.
I’ve also heard a lot of reasons for this upsurge in interest. One I hear quite often is that, in our difficult times, people want an escape and urban fantasy offers a trapdoor into Lalaland. On the one hand, this argument does acknowledge an urge towards cultural escapism that I think is relevant, considering the dire circumstances of our times. On the other hand, it doesn’t answer the question of why urban fantasy? Why the supernatural? Why vampires?
Neither does this argument address the nature of contemporary urban fantasy. Because one facet to the escapism argument is that, in fantasy, the good guys are the good guys and the bad guys are the bad guys. In our morally ambiguous world, fantasy offers you someone to root for. Good and evil are carefully delineated; there are Heroes! But think about that argument for a second. Most of contemporary UF upsets the historically simple dichotomies of good and evil. Gone is the supernatural creature of yore: shambling, disheveled, feasting on virgins and babies and glaring out at us with preternaturally glowing yellow eyes.
Instead we have hot vampires. Indeed, Meyer’s Edward is a big, shiny, prude. My own vampire, Ryu, is not shiny, nor is he a prude, but he’s a pretty decent guy. Jaye Well’s Sabina is an Assassin with a Heart of Gold. Stacia Kane’s demons are not only hot, but we really want the protagonist to go ahead and trust Greyson. He’s complicated, but we know he’s the right man for her! Mark Henry’s zombies are not (just) rotting brain-eaters, but hot chicks who drink Flirtinis and buy designer clothes.
So what’s going on? Why would we read UF if we want morally unambiguous fiction, when the good guys are actually the creatures of the night who should be the bad guy?
This paradox is, I think, most obviously illustrated by Mario Acevedo’s The Nymphos of Flat Rock, in which we see a soldier (a hero!) commit an atrocious act. As punishment, he becomes a vampire (evil!). Only, as a vampire, he’s still a good guy. In fact, we see him suffering, punishing himself for the sins he feels he has committed. This is a vision of good and evil; of duty and sacrifice; of honor and regret--but it’s all messed up. The vampire, it seems, is the hero, while the soldier is the unwitting pawn. But neither figure is purely good, and neither figure is purely evil. In fact, they’re the same man. One just pours blood on his enchiladas. (You totally ruined my porky, chile goodness with that one, Mario.)
What do you guys think? I may end up doing some work on this stuff, mostly to try to wrangle my fiction into my tenure portfolio, and I’m curious to hear your ideas. Why do you think we all love urban fantasy so much, and why now?