Dissections logo scissors body by Deena Warner

 


Dissections logo pterodactyl by Deena Warner


 

 

 

 



Fear, Anxiety and Dread:
Examining the Influence of Antecedent
Genres on Urban Fantasy’s Thematic Concerns
Sarai Mannolini-Winwood

 

And a city the size of this one, with all the hiding places it contained, would make such a perfect hunting ground for a demon – especially one that could look like a cloud of smog. (Children of the Night, Mercedes Lackey, 1990)

That was what they wanted, what they all wanted: to feed until they killed. The power of life and death. (The Sweet Scent of Blood, Suzanne McLeod, 2009)

They stood among the ancient grave markers of the small family cemetery, waiting. Nothing waits as patiently as the dead. (Guilty Pleasures, Laurell K. Hamilton, 2007)

Urban Fantasy (UF) has deep roots – it draws on ancient myths and folklore, the terror and gore derived from horror and dark fantasy, and the more subtle atmosphere of fear and dread of gothic literature. As a sub-genre, like any other fiction, UF touches on a wide variety of thematic concerns. However, at its core are the prevailing concerns of fear, anxiety and dread. These themes are a consistent element due primarily to UF’s choice of situating its tales in an urbanscape. The aspects of the non-rational, supernatural, violence and gore are present in UF as aids in developing the concerns of fear, anxiety and dread. However, UF is fundamentally tied to the city; thus, it is the presence of those aspects within the city that evoke these thematic concerns. The urbanscape that UFs develop are necessarily based in the real world because they conform to this need as a characteristic of the subgenre. UF authors deliberately connect the intersection of the non-rational and real-world setting of the city to unsettle the reader. As Brian Levack (2014, pp. 926–927) stated, the effectiveness of terror themes is when ‘those who are horrified at what they witness fear that they too may become victims’. The familiarity of the setting in UF works in a similar manner to popular horror fiction. It uses the threat of within-the-known to excite a negative response in the reader. As a theme, fear occurs often in fiction because it is a ‘reliable source of suspense, conflict, and reader identification’ (Attebery, 2008, p. 1). UF introduces fear, anxiety and dread into the narrative because these are recognisable concepts for any city dweller. The flipside to the modern, freeing city is the dichotomous den of darkness and danger. In turn, UF deliberately develops particular landscapes that are able to feature these thematic concerns.

Within the boundaries of the city are spaces and vantages that offer a uniquely disturbing landscape that is able to inspire fear, anxiety and dread. As a form of fantasy fiction, UF is an imaginary and illusionary subgenre that offers itself easily to the creation of liminality. As such, authors have seized on this and developed liminal spaces within the city. Such transitionary locales offer a thinning of the boundaries – a way for the supernatural to intersect with the ordinary. They are temporary and at times able to occur unexpectedly. Thus, they appeal to our inner anxiety about the changeable nature of the world. Their continued presence throughout the tale evokes fear and dread, opening up the space to examine the inherent fears of city dwellers. Further, owing to the focus on concerns of death, dying and the undead, UFs are populated with terminal landscapes – both in the physical locales associated with these concerns and the inclusion of undead characters who challenge the linear concept of existence. Places belonging to the dead are already touched by emotional awe and fear, since they are an unwelcome reminder of mortality. Thus, the creatures of the undead are a challenge to the sanctity of life, as they must take others’ lives to continue their own. It is easy to see how the undead evoke the same fear and dread as the landscapes they inhabit. The senses of fear, anxiety and dread are further developed by the presence of the city edifice. Arising from a history of gothic edifices, the city edifice contains the boundaries of the cityscape. It fulfils the characteristics of claustrophobic confinement, subterranean pursuit and supernatural encroachment.i The city acts to enclose, confuse and subvert the ordinary and orderly spaces of the city. Beneath these urban landscapes further lies a continuous tension – an anxiety at the heart of the modern city. The mythologies and locales of the UF city draw on ambiguities and tensions recognisable in real cities. The conflict between the past and present threaten the continued progression of the modern city. As such, by exposing locales of the past and allowing insidious incursions by mythological creatures, the past encroaches on the modern city and threatens its safety.

Any form of dark fiction draws on these similar thematic concerns as they work to unveil the deeper psychological concerns at place in the literature. They help to reveal our worldly concerns and, as such, indicate why readers are drawn to them. This point was made by Dani Cavallaro (2002, p. 6):

We cannot resist the attraction of an unnameable something that insistently eludes us. Narratives of darkness nourish our attraction to the unknown by presenting us with characters and situations that point to something beyond the human, and hence beyond interpretation – a nexus of primeval feelings and apprehensions which rationality can never conclusively eradicate.

Cavallaro argued that readers are drawn continually to tales that evoke their darker imaginings. A reader may realise also that the monsters of fiction are frightening because they are already present and representationally believable in our minds (MacAndrew, 1979, p. 8). Yet stock monsters, extreme violence and obvious metaphors are not enough to evoke readers’ deeper, more primal fears. The traditional role of dark fiction is to help readers learn to dispel their fears (Attebery, 2008, p. 1). Thus, it is necessary for the narrative to develop believable (in the context of the story) elements that unsettle, but do not evoke disbelief. UF authors must then draw on atmospheric qualities to guide the reader into moments of fear, dread and anxiety within the believable boundaries of their cities. The atmospheric element is best explained by H. P. Lovecraft (2004, p. 105):

The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplained dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain – a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.

UF relies on both the unsettling insertion of the supernatural and the already fixed presence of fear in the city. If the city evoked less ambiguity in the minds of society, then the incursion of the non-rational would fail to upset and disturb. Thus, to enrich their narratives, UFs employ the already present struggle with tensions, threats and fears common to a modern city. This suggests that the thematic concerns of UF are intimately linked to their urban settings.

This article explores the thematic concerns of fear, anxiety and dread that permeate UF literature. The opening epigraphs were selected as examples of elucidating fear, anxiety and dread in UF narratives. For example, the use of the terminal space of the graveyard is a staple of any horror story, as demonstrated by Laurell K. Hamilton. A place that reminds us of our mortality, tainted by superstition and fear, the graveyard is a landscape already connotative of dread. In addition, UF authors go beyond such stock locales and delve into the city itself to reveal the myriad liminal spaces and confined places of the gothic city edifice. As Mercedes Lackey indicated, a city is full of hunting grounds suitable for the supernatural. In turn, Suzanne McLeod reminds the reader that the creatures that stalk the cities are the platform an author uses to evoke the thematic concerns of fear, anxiety and dread – for what is more terrifying than the threat of death?

Considering Thematic Concerns
When considering thematic concerns, there is always conjecture over the use of terminology, and the words ‘fear’, ‘anxiety’ and ‘dread’ share a number of similar connotations. Even in their definitions, they encroach on each other, with dread being an intense fear or anxiety about future events,ii and anxiety an uneasiness or uncertainty.iii This definition is also shared by fear, which is an uneasiness of impending danger.iv Although subtle, the differences in terminology are important. However, the difficulty arises from the connotative interpretation of key terms used in each definition, which opens up each to a degree of uncertainty. The terminology of dark fiction resolves this issue by encouraging flexibility to suit the particular context. When considering such terms, Cavallaro (2002, p. vii) made a very relevant distinction that the concepts of terror and horror were not in fact antithetical, but complementary. Terror is often conventionally linked to fear through the influence of the unknown, while horror is often associated with the fear induced by gore. However, these do not constitute either fixed or self-contained categories (Cavallaro, 2002, p. vii). Rather it has become clear that these categories incessantly collude and metamorphose in an interdependent manner. This fluidity and interdependence of terminology is important to understand when explaining dark fiction. As already noted, UF differs from horror fiction and weird tales in that the presence of the thematised horror and terror are not the dominant narrative focus. Both occur as ‘indeterminable agents’ and gore is present in UF narratives; however, UF follows a plot structure more similar to gothic or detective fiction, where the agents become known before the final confrontation, and the gore, though present, is not imperative to the development of the atmosphere. Instead, a primary characteristic is fear created by an awareness of impending threats and danger. The protagonists are hunters who actively seek out the danger, which does not alleviate the reality of that threat, but instead heightens the feelings. The fear in UF can range from facing the supernatural to incremental fears of not knowing, which Patricia Briggs (2009, p. 123) identified in Moon Called as ‘[n]ot the kind of fear you feel when unexpectedly confronted by a monster in the dark, but the slower, stronger fear of something terrible that was going to happen’. Fear of the unknown occurs throughout the UF narrative; however, it is alleviated by revealing the antagonist early in the plot. Fear is used to provoke the reader into considering the outcomes of the threads facing the protagonist. It is an element used to sharpen the consciousness – it heightens awareness of the multitude of reality; an understanding of the layers of the unknown present in reality (Cavallaro, 2002, p. 6).

Also present in UF is a more primal threat – of dying. After all, to be mortal is to be concerned by death. UF evokes a range of primal emotions along a spectrum of violence, murder, death and terminal landscapes. Dread is not simply fear, but is touched by an awe or reverence for that which evokes fear. The deliberate use of terminal landscapes, at times death-scapes, provokes this sense of dread. In particular, vampires are creatures designed to conjure a mix of reverence and fear. They represent a form of immortality, as well as being disturbingly unnatural. UF authors exploit the landscapes of the city environment – both natural and unnatural – to produce a sense of dread, which works to awaken other emotional experiences. Cavallaro (2002, p. 7) suggested that, in experiencing dread, a reader turns to curiosity and anger. In the anticipation of dread lies ‘a consuming desire to know who or what is unsettling us’ (Cavallaro, 2002, p. 7), thus evoking curiosity, while anger comes from ‘a sense of irritation produced by the impossibility of final knowledge’ (Cavallaro, 2002, p. 7). Dread becomes a gateway to a range of other sensory emotions by the reader. The author encourages the reader to engage more fully with the actions or environment of the narrative by developing a sense of dread.

The concern with unnaturalness and disorder is at the heart of humankind’s monumental triumph over nature – the city. The urban environment is meant to protect, yet, within its walls, people are aware of the threat of that order descending into chaos. This understanding underpins the sense of anxiety that runs throughout UFs. The liminal spaces, city edifice and tensions between past and present all emphasise the anxiety that is already a part of city life. The violation of cultural boundaries within the city – aided by images of disorder, alienation and monstrosity (Cavallaro, 2002, p. 8) – is unsettling. Yet it is recognisable in a real-world city as the source of anxiety. UF adds a non-rational element to the narrative, but is drawing on anxieties already present in Western cities. At their core, UFs are primarily urban dramas that build on already-present thematic concerns with the incursion of the supernatural. The threads of fear, anxiety and dread tie UF cityscapes together more completely than any other thematic concern.

The Influence of the Literary Nineteenth Century Gothic
The city in literature has a rich tradition and history that can be traced back beyond even the earliest recordings of written literature. Although urban cities are but one new step in this lineage, there is one particular period that considerably affected UF. In the nineteenth century, literary city novels and short stories (or periodicals) came into vogue to reflect the post-industrial and post-revolution spaces of London and Paris, respectively. Also in this time, a distinct shift occurred from pastoral to urban in the popular gothic novels. In Jamieson Ridenhour’s (2013) critique of Victorian gothic In Darkest London, he discussed the development of the gothic cityscape in Victorian London. Ridenhour (2013, p. ix) showed that a shift occurred to the urban, beginning in the late 1830s, which ‘had a profound effect on fiction throughout the rest of the century’. Today, UF still draws on a number of themes and concerns that are similar to gothic literature. A number of theorists have drawn parallels and attributed UF to a literary heritage that diverged from fantasy via gothic and horror. This is understandable, as the tones of anxiety and the presence of violence, enclosure and fear are all notably similar. However, it is the gothic texts of the nineteenth (rather than the eighteenth) century that best speak to UF because of this shift in setting.

The gothic novel is ‘[s]uperficially, a tale of terror or horror with the action restricted or enclosed by a haunted and partially ruined building’ (Frank, 1987, p. 435). It is a fiction of nightmares – a world that gives form ‘to amorphous fears and impulses common to all mankind, using an amalgam of materials, some torn from the authors’ own subconscious mind and the stuff of myth’ (MacAndrew, 1979, p. 3). The genre’s birth occurred with the publication of Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto in 1764, but the source of gothic’s rise is diverse. It is suggested that the gothic exists as an opposition to the Augustan ideals of rationality, order and decorum (Howell, 1978, p. 5). Further, it is argued that its popularity is tied to both the increased effect of the industrial revolution and the romantic revival. Gothic literature attempts to symbolise and even explain ‘the anxiety felt by those who witnessed radical changes in the world they knew’ (Moorcock, 1988, p. 43). At a less analytical level, its popularity for authors and readers is attributed to its role as escapist literature. Although, as Elizabeth MacAndrew (1979, p. 4) pointed out, this concept ‘does not adequately explain why [gothic fictions] appeared when they did or why their general appeal was so immediate and so strong’ – the desire for escapism in literature does not address the rise in popularity of particular texts (or genres). I suggest a middle ground – that, like UF, gothic literature arose both in response to changing ideas of society and in response to literary restlessness; that, in fact, the styles and forms of the realist novel were no longer able to reflect the period’s deeper, darker emotions.

The latter argument is found in Frederick Frank’s (1987, p. xix) The First Gothics, which states that there was a strong craving for ‘darker emotions, an imaginative attraction to decay, ruin, disorder, and death’. Frank (1987, p. xix) continued that there was also ‘a fear of the false order imposed upon the mind and society by the fixed value system’, which contributed to the outbreak of gothic impulses. There are many distinct aspects of gothic literature beyond this desire for the darker side of humanity. There appears a nearly automatic repetition of motifs of ‘flight and pursuit, unabated darkness, supernatural encroachment, gruesome metamorphosis, claustrophobic confinement, and displacement of identity’ (Frank, 1987, p. xxix). However, Frank (and many other critics) argued that one inseparable condition of the gothic novel is the presence of the gothic edifice – usually in the form of a castle or abbey. Frank (1987, p. xxiii) stated that ‘the Gothic building possesses the human characters, surrounds them with filial secrets, identity crisis, and lethal predicaments within its walls, and finally determines their salvation or destruction by spectacular means’. This edifice commonly existed as a self-contained environment with distinct and limited boundaries used to confine the characters.

This traditional singular edifice changed in the mid-nineteenth century to instead feature ‘settings more immediately recognisable to the increasingly urban-dwelling’ (Ridenhour, 2013, p. 3) readership. It was important that the gothic novel underwent this change so that its mutability allowed it to continue beyond its initial creators. Ridenhour (2013, p. 10) presented the idea that the ‘cityscape replaces the classic Gothic edifice, or rather multiplies it’. That, instead of the singular space of castle or abbey, the city becomes a setting of innumerable edifices – ‘each capable of evoking the atmosphere of isolation and decay required for a true haunted castle’ (Ridenhour, 2013, p. 10). In this manner it can be understood that the Dickensian city is the same one explored by Bram Stoker and Robert Louis Stevenson. The presence of such creatures as Count Dracula and Edward Hyde are more terrifying because of their presence in the city, as a result of their contrast to the modernity a city represents. The introduction of the gothic to the city was reflective of the period. The crux of Ridenhour’s (2013, pp. 9-10) study is the idea that the Victorian reader ‘had learnt through experience and training to find elements of fear’ in the city, and that fear informed their representations of the urban. It is easy to see how the presence of the gothic, with its atmosphere or anxiety and darkness, can be viewed as relevant heritage for twentieth- (and twenty-first-) century UF.

The City Edifice
The city as a confining edifice in UF owes its roots to the gothic edifice. Frank (1987, p. xxiii) identified that the blueprint of eighteenth-century gothic literature was to ‘find a set of frantic characters restrained and enclosed by some version of a mighty and mysterious building beneath which there is a sort of hell or “long, labyrinth of darkness”’. The gothic edifice was at the heart of what defined gothic imagery. It was more than a setting, but rather a representational landscape that reflected the psychological and emotional turmoil of the villain. As Ridenhour (2013, p. 8) stated, the gothic edifice was the ‘physical metaphor of both the rotten inner self of the villain and a decayed and imposing history’. It acted as a symbol for the fear and dread incited by the threats facing the stability of the modern world. The nineteenth-century gothic authors adapted and transported this space from crumbling isolated castles to industrial urban cities. UF continues to draw on this stock setting because it offers the same imperative motifs as it did gothic authors: claustrophobic confinement, subterranean pursuit and supernatural encroachment. In his definition of UF, John Clute (1997, p. 976) also suggested that it is reasonable to argue that UFs derive from the notion of edifice, which came into existence in The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole. UF cities are constructed as a type of edifice because they conform to the primary role of an edifice, which is as follows: ‘[f]rom without, an edifice may seem self-contained and finite; from within, it may well extend beyond lines of vision, both spatially and temporally’ (Clute, 2012, p. 1). The city edifice allows UF authors space to extend their narrative beyond the believable parameters of a real city, while still maintaining a sense of confinement.

A feeling of being trapped – of a physical, emotional or psychological confinement – is understood in contemporary cities. Jorge Arango’s (1970, p. 92) metaphor of humans living a caged existence – that city dwellers have adapted to their routine of captivity – is easy to see in the rise in crime, suicides, depression and anxiety disorders in contemporary time (Hall, 2008).

The city, which was once a site of security, has become a locale of unease. UF plays with these fears by emphasising elements of confinement, pursuit and encroachment. Frank (1987, p. 435) outlined claustrophobic confinement as follows: ‘[a]ll of the characters must feel enclosed by buildings, by compartments within those buildings, and by compartments within compartments such as coffins and cells’. The sense of being trapped evokes a primal response of fear and dread. In Hamilton’s novels, Anita is positioned a number of times to experience confinement, including being trapped underground in cells by supernatural enemies, captured and taken to a deep natural cave, enclosed in a coffin and locked in rooms. In such a long-running series, Hamilton has drawn on any number of confining situations. By nature, Anita is a character who prefers space, which helps emphasise her vulnerability and fear when placed in these situations. Hamilton is not alone – the use of claustrophobic confinement occurs throughout UF. While it was isolation in early gothic literature that worked to emphasise the terror of this situation, UF instead reveals that, even in a city teeming with people, it is possible to be cut off from help – that places exist in a city that are ignored, forgotten or unknown. The city edifice offers any number of ‘compartments’ that can entrap and hide a person. As such, the city is not an orderly, safe place and ‘images which depict the city as an unruly, unsettling and disorderly place are increasingly dominant’ (Bannister & Fyfe, 2001, p. 807).

The use of subterranean pursuits adds to the sense of the city as a chaotic and unsettling place. The fact that the city holds in its ‘basement’ a network of tunnels, sewers, subways and underground rooms adds to the impression of an inescapable edifice. However, the pursuit does not need to be completely underground – it can also be through the night laden streets of a silent city. This can be seen in Emma Bull’s (a seminal author of UF) depiction of her protagonist being chased by a giant black dog, unable to reach the lights and safety of other people who appear always just out of reach. It is present in China Mieville’s King Rat (2011), when Saul races through the sewers and is pursued through the dark, confusing topography of London’s rooftops. Both protagonists and victims are pursued in this manner – through the dark night streets of a city already perceived as dangerous. Although UF has departed from the traditions of gothic character roles of the ‘stalking of an angelic heroine by a satanic villain by night’ (Frank, 1987, p. 436), the pursuit of protagonist by villain has remained. The age-old response to a predator pursuing his prey remains in UF, and no end of characters in the dark streets feel ‘a shiver along my spine … that creepy sensation of someone lurking behind me’ (Gay, 2009, p. 112). Yet, throughout their adventures, UF characters do not break free of the confines of the city edifice. Instead, as Diane Wolfe Levy (1978, p. 66) pointed out, they must realise their own damnation or salvation within the city.

Urban Fantasy’s Horror Heritage
Horror fiction itself descends from gothic literature. The division between gothic and horror is not seamless or unproblematic; rather, it is a question of interpreting the inspiration of texts and styles that have moved from one to the other. Brian Stableford (1990b, p. 65) argued that the ‘beginning of the next period in the history of horror fiction is marked by Stoker’s Dracula’, which is also considered a quintessentially gothic text. As gothic fiction became further internally focused, the indispensable elements of the gothic noted by Frank were replaced with ‘preoccupations with extraordinary extrapolations of guilt and with medically defined madness’ (Stableford, 1990b, p. 61). Stableford (1990a) labelled the early modern horror period as existing from 1897 to 1949. He suggested that writers of this period ‘benefited not only from the gathering insights of psychological science (and psychological pseudoscience) but also from the literary evolution of clever methods of characterisation’ (Stableford, 1990a, p. 96). Modern horror can easily be traced to this period, and its aesthetics remain similar, given that modern horror is ‘mainly based in this fascinated elaboration of symptom, often coupled with a marked reluctance to reduce and demystify supramundane phenomena by too specific an account of causality’ (Stableford, 1990a, p. 96). The fascination with explained supernatural or supramundane phenomena still present in the horror fiction of contemporary authors can be traced to its gothic roots.

Joseph Grixti (1989, p. xii) suggested that horror fiction is ‘a type of narrative which deals in messages about fear and experiences associated with fear’. These are thematic concerns that UF uses as generic signifiers, although, for UF, they are connected to the urban landscape. Regardless of the type of horror fiction, even when it is UF, it is noteworthy that there ‘is a recurring pattern of functional meanings underlying these tales’, even though ‘popular images of horror take on different associations according to the period of their propagation’ (Grixti, 1989, p. 15). Popular images of horror – from the supernatural vampire, werewolf and ghost, to mundane murder, violence, gore and death – are present in all UF in various forms. Although UF employs older mythologies, it tends to still permeate the presence of these elements with the generic tones of horror fiction. For both UF and horror fiction, the source of these thematic tones distinguishes their genres from the gothic. Stableford (1990b, p. 62) stated that the ‘true project of horror fiction’ is the discovery of evil – ‘to bring it out of hiding and to make it show its face’. UF and horror seek out and expose evil. In UF, this is often embodied by the supernatural, which needs to be resolved by the hero (in line with the heroic tropes expected of a fantasy subgenre). In contrast, horror sometimes exposes evil not to resolve it, but to evoke ‘the expression of fear, shock, and revulsion at the operation of an evil force in the world’ (Levack, 2014, p. 921).

The appeal to the reader derives from a place similar to the gothic. However, both horror and UF extrapolate on the ‘grotesqueness of the image and the credibility of what it represents’ (Levack, 2014, p. 925). Levack (2014) proposed that ‘horror exists in the eye of the beholder’ (p. 926). Involving the reader in the thematic concerns is an important element, as both horror and UF are evocative genres that aim to evoke the thematic emotions of fear, anxiety, dread, terror and horror in their audiences. As Stableford (1990b) indicated, a ‘horror story is defined by the anxiety which is suffered by its characters, and communicated by imaginative identification to the reader’ (p. 62). Grixti (1989, p. xv) elaborated on this:

Fictional horror and ‘mass-media violence’ perform the social (‘cathartic’) function of appealing to, exercising, and hence ‘discharging’ a set of sadistic or cowardly dispositions which allegedly form an essential component of our genetic make-up. This claim is here argued to be based on historically complex but essentially compromised conceptions of human nature.

UF is often accused of engaging in gratuitous violence, which it does to an extent. However, this is not for the sake of gore and deviancy alone, but an attempt to explore the most barbaric and brutal elements of human nature – nothing that occurs in UF has not already been documented in human history. What perhaps is more disturbing is the presence (and success) of UF in contemporary society because if UF texts are ‘commentaries – representations which explore and evaluate (and in a sense influence) a set of cultural and cognitive experiences’ (Grixti, 1989, p. 6) – then they are commenting on disturbing elements present in today’s society. UF may have become a subgenre of horror if the insertion of supernatural had become more pronounced. However, it was actually the shift in prototypical settings in the late 1980s that moved horror away from UF. Keith Neilson (1990, p. 166) indicated that, contrary to early urban horror fiction, it was ‘the more traditional demonic stamping ground, the rural small town [that] has become an even more popular landscape for contemporary dark fantasy’. In this period, UF emerged from fantasy as a unique subgenre, and I suggest that it helped fill the breach left by horror’s move to the rural and suburban. The late twentieth century saw a number of new subgenres emerge from beneath the monstrous bloated forms of fantasy and horror. It is this presence in the urban landscape that UF has built on its thematic concerns of fear, anxiety and dread.

Urban Terminal Landscapes and Liminal Spaces
In UF, the liminal spaces are often explored in what can be perceived as a terminal landscape – by which I mean a landscape involving, associated with, symbolic of or populated by death, dying or the undead. Such spaces can include, but are not limited to, morgues, cemeteries, hospitals, the underground, ancient ruins, burial grounds, crypts, or any space populated by dead bodies, bones or decaying bodies, vampires, ghouls, zombies or other forms of the undead. The inclusion of terminal landscapes is part of the underlying mythologies present in UF. Our association between urban and death has been present since the development of the earliest cities. Richard Lehan (1986, p. 105) suggested that, as the first cities ‘were founded as a place where wandering tribes could return to worship the dead … the idea of the city has never been separated from the reality of death’. We attempt to deny our mortality, and equally yearn for and are appalled by immortality. From there rises the myths of the immortal vampire – a creature that may live forever, but is always a monster. Cities house the lives of people, yet also contain the dying and dead. UFs often centre on the transitionary stage of life into death and, through magic and myth, this can include the undead. Existence then becomes truly liminal because, with the option of being undead, the final resolution has been moved out of reach.

More so than other undead, the vampire represents a prototypical liminal character. As Clemens Ruthner (2012, p. 41) stated, liminality is a temporary state hovering ‘on the demarcation line between the two fields separated by the boundary’. Thus, the vampire ‘removes the biological and cultural border between death and life’ (Ruthner, 2012, p. 42). It is a living corpse that symbolically violates the moral border of existence. For a vampire to feed, it must take the life force and blood of a living human – a fundamental violation of our belief in the sanctity of life. Hamilton (2007, p. 249) delineated the difference between humans and vampires by identifying the ‘otherness’ of the vampire – the contrast to our warm mammalian selves:

There was a neck-ruffling smell to the room, stale. It caught at the back of my throat and was almost a taste, faintly metallic. It was like the smell of snakes kept in cages. You knew there was nothing warm and furry in this room just by the smell.

Although they serve as love interests, Hamilton’s vampires are depicted as monsters and unnatural. They sleep in coffins and live in underground spaces. The presence of the vampires becomes synonymous with blood and danger, regardless of the intimacy of a scene. Hamilton further related her vampires to sexual deviancies that stand against mainstream American culture. Linked to death, sex and violence, they are portrayed as unnatural and immoral. As Dean Lockwood (2010) stated, their role is to be read as ‘an expression of transgressive cultural impulses’ (p. 1). The vampire is a monster ‘associated with a wide range of boundary-crossing, deviations, abnormalities and alterities’ (Lockwood, 2010, p. 2). This alternative nature was once associated with isolated ‘dark lands’, yet has now come to be connected with the urban. As humankind expands its borders, it is believable that vampires have slipped within the city boundaries to hunt.

Associated with elements of countercultural norms, the vampire has a tangible effect on the landscapes it inhabits. When feeding, killing, taking blood or hunting, the vampire becomes a siren of imminent death. Its hunting zones then become terminal landscapes because the vampire’s presence comes to represent the potential for death. More disturbingly are the realistic locales that UF authors select for their vampires to emerge from:

Crowded terraced houses blurred into unkempt semis with junk-filled gardens and peeling paintwork. Light spilled around half-closed curtains to pool on the pitted, uneven pavements. Graffiti-scarred tower blocks thrust into the night sky like giant tombstones and here and there houses squatted like waiting nightmares, their windows shuttered with blank steel plates. Sucker town in all its midnight glory. (McLeod, 2009, p. 132)

These places in a state of decay are already tainted by the terminal. It is believable that the edges of a city that experience crime and social problems are the perfect hunting grounds for all types of monsters. These terminal landscapes are atmospherically emphasised by the use of dark imagery – the vampires emerge from shadows and out of darkness. They belong to the night – a time considered dichotomous to life and light. UF authors depict their creatures in caverns, sleeping underground (Hamilton, 2010) or in abandoned houses surrounded by the ghosts of those they have killed (Briggs, 2009). For UF, the terminal landscape and undead are irreducibly linked because each functions to further the imagery of the other.

The terminal landscapes developed in a living city aid in the atmosphere of fear and dread. Many of the liminal spaces are situated in terminal landscapes, which are places in a state of decay or abandoned/forgotten locales. However, unlike the below of a city, a terminal space is implied as any place touched by the dead. This opens up all the traditional safe zones of a city (such as homes, sacred spaces and places of authority) to the threat of the dead, thereby creating invasive terminal landscapes – for who can escape death? The emotional weight of a terminal landscape contributes to the development of UF’s thematic concerns. The physical locales associated with the transition of dying are tinged already with fear and dread. For although people may come to accept death, they have not accepted the process or its presence in modern life. The locales of the dead are touched by a mix of emotional worship, loss and grief. However, the deep pain of loss is often negated by a final acceptance of the permanency of the state. By introducing the undead to such static places, UF authors are subverting and somewhat perverting these places. This creates a terminal landscape of liminality where the end point has become unclear because, even though zombies may be laid to rest and vampires ‘die’ in the day, the mythology of UF allows these creatures to rise again in the same space. This notion evokes an unsettling sense of dread.

The mythos connected to raising the dead already occupies a place of deep unease in Western Christian society. Connected from a Christian view to the story of Jesus and the saints, it appears in UF as a strong perversion of divinity. The other legends of the dead rising commonly used in fiction today derive from Vaudun or voodoo traditions.v Every culture, religion and time has a set of beliefs regarding the ability to raise the dead. It is a fundamental desire of humankind to be able to find a way to restore our departed. UF appears to primarily maintain that the ability to raise the dead comes either from the process of vampirismvi or a personal ability of necromancy.vii Regardless of a particular UF’s mythology, the result is the presence of the undead, whose very unnaturalness upsets the balance of the world. With a focus on the undead or death in various forms, UF requires the presence of terminal landscapes where characters face horrors dichotomous to natural life. The dread evoked by these places in the reader is furthered by the accompaniment of blood and violence. Hamilton’s protagonist, Anita, is a necromancer by birth and an animator, homicide consultant and vampire hunter by trade. Thus, her most common locales are terminal spaces populated by death. She is situated in bloody back alleys, ghoul-infested cemeteries, hospitals and morgues filled with ‘killer zombies’, murder scenes and burial grounds. Predominantly set at night, these spaces already belong to death. The further descriptions of violence and gore heighten the natural dread to become fear – a fear that is increased by the understanding that these terminal landscapes remain confined to the city.

In many ways, Bull set the tone for later UF narratives. The underlying threat of danger, anxiety of facing constant unknowns and influence of primal fears are as much a characteristic of UF as the magic and expected supernatural. These senses of fear, anxiety and danger are evoked by the presence of antagonistic supernatural forces, yet also by the unfriendly and fear-inspiring locales. It is noticeable that the latter authors, Hamilton in particular, have drawn on Bull’s foundations. Thus, the liminal spaces of Hamilton’s novels often include the presence of a threshold that alludes back to Bull, and further to the work of Joseph Campbell (1973). She requires her protagonist, Anita Blake, to descend stairs to an underground to face the unknown. The stairs are a liminal space because they are the midpoint between two ends; they serve no other purpose than to transition the character between zones of known and unknown. In The Laughing Corpse (Hamilton, 2009), Anita is driven to a deal with a voodoo priestess, and descends into her sanctuary, pausing midway aware of the danger below:

The basement stairs were steep, wooden slats. You could feel the vibration in the stairs as we tromped down them. It was not comforting. The bright sunlight from the door spilled into absolute darkness. The sunlight faltered, seemed to fade as if it had no power in this cave-like place. I stopped on the grey edge of daylight, staring down into the night-dark of the room. (Hamilton, 2009, p. 56)

The stairway offers neither danger nor safety – only access to either. The descent below draws on the trope of the underworld and death through the imagery of the dark divided from the light. Anita is later chased from the depths, pursued by a monster. Here, the stairs again only represent the opportunity to reach safety as, during the pursuit, ‘[t]he darkness was snapping at our heels’ (Hamilton, 2009, p. 72) and only continuing onwards can save her. Only when Anita reaches the top and exits the stairs does the light return fully, and suddenly ‘the darkness, the zombies, all of it seemed wrong for the sunlight’ (Hamilton, 2009, p. 73). Hamilton used the liminal space of the stairs to heighten the reader’s anxiety about the danger the protagonist faces and to reinforce the expected dichotomies of light being good and safe, while evil haunts the dark. The monsters and unknown terrors remain below in the dark, and only by crossing the threshold back into the sunlight is safety ensured: ‘Something screamed behind us, caught in the edge of daylight’ (Hamilton, 2009, p. 73).

The dens of the supernatural draw on expected concepts of subversion and confinement. They are caverns, dungeons and basements that appear to entrap the protagonist, while the creatures are able to move easily in and out. In Guilty Pleasures, Hamilton (2007) situated her villains in an underground cavern: ‘The room was huge, like a warehouse, but the walls were solid, massive stone. I kept waiting for Bela Lugosi to sweep around the corner in his cape’ (p. 57). It is an expected landscape – the proper backdrop for a vampire to appear. To escape that room, Anita must first successfully ascend the stairs to safety – while danger lies below, above represents safety. However, the stairs are a liminal space and act as a place that offers both and neither. As Anita flees, she is still forced to fight for her escape: ‘An explosion ripped up the stairs. The wind smashed us down like toys … I scrambled on all fours trying to get away’ (Hamilton, 2007, p. 70). The protagonist realises: ‘I had to get away, had to, or I would die in this place, tonight’ (Hamilton, 2007, p. 71). Only when Anita reaches the top of the stairs is she safe: ‘we were leaving the underground chamber of horrors behind and approaching the real world. I was ready to go home’ (Hamilton, 2007, p. 75). The stairway did not represent a place of safety – only a point of transition. The fear of the horrors in the cavern is replaced by the anxiety of the hero’s escape. A reader is aware that, at any moment, the creatures below could ascend after the hero and drag her back underground. This causes the anxiety and dread of the situation to become tied equally to the liminality of the situation and the presence of the supernatural.

UF owes a debt to its antecedent genres, in particular horror and gothic; however, from this foundation the sub-genre has developed into a unique form. Although the mode of UF can differ significantly based on authors and particular plot devices, two core elements are always present – the city and its thematic concerns. The concerns of fear, anxiety and dread permeate all UF and furthermore, play an important role in the construction of the narrative. These themes are drawn from its gothic and horror heritage, but as UF has embedded these concerns in an urbanscape it has created a milieu of literature that resonates strongly with a highly urbanised audience. Where once the city stood as an icon of safety, we instead now find that darkness and terror stalk our streets. We feel vulnerable, isolated and frightened in the labyrinthine topography that has arisen around us. It is no wonder then that urban fantasy speaks directly to our most persistent fears.

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Endnotes
i) Clute’s (2012) definition of UF includes the following connection between UF and
gothic literature: ‘The headings under which Frederick S. Frank anatomizes the form
in The First Gothics (1987) also work to describe the early forms of UF:
claustrophobic containment; subterranean pursuit; supernatural encroachment;
“extraordinary positions” and lethal predicaments; abeyance of rationality; possible
victory of Evil; supernatural gadgetry, contraptions, machinery, and demonic
appliances; and “a constant vicissitude of interesting passions”’ (p. 1).

ii) Dread is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary Online as: ‘Extreme fear; deep
awe or reverence; apprehension or anxiety as to future events’ (“Dread,” 2015).

iii) Anxiety is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary Online as: ‘uneasiness or
trouble of mind about some uncertain event’ (“Anxiety,” 2015).

iv) Fear is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary Online as: ‘The emotion of pain
or uneasiness caused by the sense of impending danger, or by the prospect of some
possible evil’ (“Fear,” 2015).

v) Voodoo traditions arise from the Caribbean and represent a particular belief
system. Their relevance to UF is in the association of ceremonial ‘magic’ and the
myths of raising the dead. Many of the traditions and myths have been translated into
Louisiana or New Orleans traditions, which have inspired the particular ‘flavour’ of
raising the dead in American UFs.

vi) Technical choices to support the mythos of the vampire differ in many UFs. The
variation in constructing the ‘type’ of vampire in UF is a distinction particular to the
author and is often selected to fit the particular mythos or parameters of the narrative.
However, the common element in UF is the vampire’s ability to be integrated and
hunt within the scope of an urban landscape. UF vampires commonly have the ability
to become smoke, blend with shadows, fly, fascinate with a gaze and influence the
weak minded. In addition, the vampires are strongly human in appearance to better
blend in with other city dwellers.

vii) Necromancy has a rich history arising from the Ancient Greeks, when Odysseus
visits the realm of the dead. It is a term used to refer to the raising of either the
physical dead or an apparition of the deceased to allow communication with the dead.
As a form of death magic similar to voodoo, it is considered ‘evil’ and associated with
satanic worship, black magic and witchcraft.







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