Ginger Nuts of Horror
To celebrate the launch day for Angela Slatter's Vigil, Ginger Nuts of Horror have put together a personal list of their favourite urban fantasy novels and TV shows. You might be surprised as to what we think comes under the umbrella of Urbane fantasy. Please leave a comment below letting us know what you think So grab a coffee and a biscuit, and find out what urban fantasy books have floated our boat over the years, with thanks to Duncan Ralston, Joe Young, Jonathan Thornton and Charlotte Courtney Bond, for their contributions.
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"Nothing ever begins," the narrator—or perhaps Clive Barker himself—assures us in the opening paragraph of Weaveworld. "There is no first moment; no single word or place from which this or any other story begins."
Thus begins young Cal Mooney's journey from purposeless shop clerk to caretaker of the Seerkind, a race of people who possess the ability to create magic, hunted down and nearly annihilated by an evil entity called the Scourge.
Weaveworld was my introduction to Clive Barker's what might now be classified as "urban fantasy" novels. I still remember fondly spending an entire summer coming up with my own worlds to write about, based on the ideas I'd read in Weaveworld and Imajica. Those books together opened doors in my imagination I never knew existed. Creatively, I've always felt Barker had no challenger in the horror world, and it's dark urban fantasies like these two that prove it. Barker called himself, in that time, not a horror writer, or even a fantasy writer, but a fantasist, or a writer of the fantastique.
Weaveworld is nothing if not fantastic. The writing was literary, yet fluid and concise. Never stilted. The dialogue was very "British" for a young Canadian reader, particularly for a story which (I think?) took place in America. But that never bothered me. Barker was unafraid to peel back the skin of reality and expose the rotted flesh beneath. His writing has always struck a chord with me, particularly these early works of "fantasy," which often bordered if not crossed fully into horror.
Note: In researching this, I have learned that the CW will potentially be redeveloping Weaveworld for American TV. Since Disney dropped the planned Abarat series of movies, this comes as unexpected great news. Since American Gods is being developed for HBO, following the success of Game of Thrones and The Shanara Chronicles, maybe dark adult fantasy's time on television has come around at last.
It doesn’t matter what an Urban TV Fantasy show is called, none will become synonymous with fantasy the way ‘The Twilight Zone’ has. It has become part of the English language, and its influence is so entrenched in TV and movies that you could play ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ and hit a reference to ‘The Twilight Zone’ effortlessly. It has influenced the likes of Stephen Spielberg, Stephen King, Gene Rodenberry, Peter Weir and M. Night Shyamalan. In 156 episodes ‘The Twilight Zone’ chronicled every aspect of what it is like to be human, and planted the seeds for modern urban fantasy.
‘The Twilight Zone’ was the brainchild of one man: Rod Serling, who wrote most of the episodes, alongside the likes of Charles Beaumont, Earl Hamner Jr, Richard Matheson, George Clayton Johnson and Ray Bradbury whose stories helped to propel the series beyond anything which had gone before, or indeed since.
What made it different was rooted in great storytelling, but there was far more to it. Serling, the ‘Angry young man’ of TV was determined to bypass the restrictions placed on broadcasting in a time in which racism was the norm, persecution commonplace and the ‘American Dream’ could only be a dream for ‘the right people’. The TV stations and their corporate sponsors didn’t like people rocking their respective boats, and Serling found himself repeatedly at odds with them over plots in which the ‘establishment’ in the form of Government or big business was criticised. His message was clear, ‘People are alike all over’, (The name of an episode), there was no sugar-coating in the Zone, it presented the best and worst of humanity and was unapologetic in doing so. It was arguably the first Urban Fantasy TV show to make people think about what they had just seen in a wider context than just mere entertainment.
Serling realised that instead of straight drama, he could present the same theme in a ‘speculative’ or ‘fantastical’ story and avoid (most of) the censorship. There’s an unfortunate side to Serling’s masterwork in that it presented the tales in individual stories. Where other shows were largely contemporary, ‘The Twilight Zone’ could be set in the modern day, the Wild West, the future, an alternate Universe or deep space. People tend to have favourite flavours in the chocolate box, and so there will always be those episodes that won’t be as relevant to one as they are to another. Although widely known, it’s not as popular as shows such as ‘Star Trek’ with its ‘space opera’ storylines and regular cast members. I think that’s tragic that there’s no ‘ZoneCon’ on the grand scale lesser shows seem to have, as ‘The Twilight Zone’ is in my opinion the true genesis of Urban Fantasy and deserves to be celebrated as such.
My favourite episode is ‘Time Enough at Last’, in which Henry Bemis, a bookworm, works, has a wife, and very little time to read. It’s the ‘Atomic Age’, and the H-Bomb is dropped, leaving Bemis as quite possibly the last man alive. He finally has ‘Time Enough at Last’, but nothing is quite what you’d expect or even hope for. Everything has consequences and the endings aren’t always happy. Just like real life.
Ever since Rod Serling’s ‘The Twilight Zone’ broke new ground in TV fantasy there have been dozens of shows attempting to catch the same lightning in a bottle, with varying degrees of success. Even the attempts to relaunch ‘The Twilight Zone’ itself have been somewhat flaccid. There is, however, one show which in recent years has produced a similar quality of tone.
Charlie Brooker’s ‘Black Mirror’ ran for two seasons, each of three episodes, and one Christmas special. Currently in the works is a third season, with Charlie Brooker penning twelve more episodes. I look forward to these immensely in the hopes that they will be every bit as well-crafted as the previous seven episodes. There has been a tendency in recent anthology series to allow special effects and slick plot devices to eclipse good storylines, but ‘Black Mirror’ achieves a spectacular balance, with all essential aspects catered for. When I saw the first episode ‘The National Anthem’ I was impressed, not just because it was a good episode with excellent acting, but because it managed to cover a serious subject in a surreal manner which, as it turned out was closer to true events than I was at first aware of. Anyone familiar with the antics of former UK Prime Minister David Cameron will definitely see that ‘Black Mirror’ is not afraid to show the establishment in a more realistic light.
Other episodes deal with our reliance on entertainment and technology, not exactly from a Luddite’s perspective, but more as a timely warning of what our imminent future can be if we do not take a serious look at what we are doing and put ourselves in check before it is too late.
If you have never seen it I can heartily recommend that you do so, as it is one of those series with a little of everything. Visually interesting, beautifully scripted with just the right balance of humour to offset some of the nastier content, and ably acted by all concerned, it is a gem which requires no further polishing. Particularly outstanding is the episode ‘White Bear’, with Lenora Crichlow fighting for her life in a ‘The Running Man’ scenario with a difference that you really have to watch as an example of how good Urban Fantasy can be. The last episode in season two is incredibly funny; ‘The Waldo Moment’ stars Daniel Rigby as a failed comedian working as the performance capture model for a cartoon character. When the character gets used to lampoon politics, things take a turn for the bizarre with the character ‘Waldo’ achieving the sort of notoriety his creator finds hard to handle. Very rarely do we get treated to urban fantasy which can make us laugh out-loud at things we really should be horrified by, without it being intentional parody. This is one instance.
‘Black Mirror’, in spite of being full colour and high-tech is not an overblown attempt at being bright, shiny and clever, it actually IS all of those things effortlessly.
What makes M. John Harrison's Viriconium such a superlative urban fantasy is his understanding of the city as a palimpsest, a living mass of overlapping perspectives constantly being rewritten. Each time we visit the magical, crumbling city of Viriconium during the last days of the Earth, we experience it from a different perspective, through different eyes. What was familiar is now strange. The city is not a static environment, it is alive.
Harrison's stories are populated by outsiders and grotesques, reluctant heroes who find themselves compelled to take part in a narrative greater than themselves. The Pastel City finds itself attacked by brain-stealing golems, psychic wasps from outer space, plagues and malicious gods. Characters like tegeus-Cromis and Ashlyme see themselves as sensitive artists, yet must resort to violence in order to save their cities from ancient cosmic threats. The heroes in these stories are world weary, cynical, nursing old wounds and grudges, and frequently angry at their lack of agency.
Across three novels – 'The Pastel City', 'A Storm Of Wings' and 'In Viriconium' – and a handful of short stories, Harrison paints a picture of a city constantly in flux. The atmosphere, the feel of Viriconium remains constant, its crumbling, faded grandeur, its lords and knights gone to seed, its magic blending in with its squalor, all under the massive accretion of geological time. However the different glimpses of the Pastel City defiantly refuse to coalesce into a coherent, graspable whole. What is presented as fact in one book has become twisted and distorted into half-remembered legends by the next book. Vivid images rich with symbolism recur like motifs. The benevolent and beautiful young Queen Methvet Nian is replaced by the shrivelled dictator Mammy Vooley. Characters are shuffled and recombined, lose their identities and become archetypes.
All this serves to make Viriconium somehow seem more real, a living, breathing place that, like our cities, is shaped by the consensus reality generated by the hopes, dreams and fears of its inhabitants, its myths and heroes selected for what they symbolise to the people rather than their own agendas. As the stories progress and Viriconium itself atrophies, eventually fading into a dream world in 'A Young Man's Journey Towards Viriconium', the final short story, the sense that the city is irreducible, its streets unmappable, make it loom all the larger in the reader's imagination.
When the Don of Horror called for the top five urban fantasy books, I knew that I just had to put forward “Neverwhere”. I read this at university and it just captured my imagination so much that it has remained a firm favourite ever since.
A brief summary for those who haven’t read it: Richard Mayhew, a Scotsman recently moved to London, stops to help a mysterious young girl named Door whom he passes on the street. Through this one act of kindness, he gets drawn into the world of “London Below”. Richard soon discovers not only that there is a whole other city and culture existing both below and alongside the capital city, but also that once he has trodden its streets and spoken to its inhabitants, he starts to lose his own presence in the real London. Invisible to his family and friends, Richard has no choice but to accompany Door and her fantastical array of friends and allays as she tries to find out who murdered her family, and why.
The novel is actually “the book of the series” which was first shown on the BBC in 1996. I never saw the series and, even though I’m sure it’s readily available, I hesitate to track it down because I love the book so much. What I did enjoy though, was the radio dramatisation that was broadcast in 2014. Not only were the actors’ voices perfectly matched to their parts, but since it was a radio production, I could listen to it while still imagining my own version of the Floating Market and with the same image of Door in my mind, but now with Natalie Dormer’s voice. And let’s face it, the Night’s Bridge of my mind is always going to be scarier than anything they can show on television.
The most inspired element of this book and the reason for its lasting appeal is the fact that so many famous places and London landmarks are replicated in London Below. There is Earl’s Court, the end carriage of an underground train that holds the court of an earl. There is the community of the Black Friars. The Angel Islington is a real person. Knightsbridge is re-imagined as Night’s Bridge, an actual bridge that is surrounded by darkness. Within this darkness hide terrifying and hungry creatures that will swoop down and snatch unwary travellers.
By using real names and places but with often sinister reinterpretations, Gaiman really brings his novel to life. Now I can never go on the underground without looking at the tube stations and smiling at what might be lurking below them, and I cannot walk past Harrods without wondering if the Floating Market was there only the night before…
VIGIL BY ANGELA SLATTER
Verity Fassbinder has her feet in two worlds.
The daughter of one human and one Weyrd parent, she has very little power herself, but does claim unusual strength - and the ability to walk between us and the other - as a couple of her talents. As such a rarity, she is charged with keeping the peace between both races, and ensuring the Weyrd remain hidden from us.
But now Sirens are dying, illegal wine made from the tears of human children is for sale - and in the hands of those Weyrd who hold with the old ways - and someone has released an unknown and terrifyingly destructive force on the streets of Brisbane.
And Verity must investigate - or risk ancient forces carving our world apart.
Read our review of Vigil here