Seventeen years ago a high school cheerleader in Southern California learned that she was the one girl of her generation chosen to stop the spread of evil — namely, by slaying vampires. The cinematic incarnation of Buffy Summers wasn’t a notable success, but when she returned five years later, this time to the small screen, a cult classic was born.
Whedon’s original idea, to take “the little blonde girl who goes into a dark alley and gets killed in every horror movie” and make her the hero of the story, mutated into a remarkably flexible and inventive way to portray the terrors of adolescence. The supernatural elements of the stories provided Buffy and her friends with more than just monsters to kill; they served as metaphors for everyday identity crises and social anxieties, most famously when Buffy and her boyfriend, the redeemed vampire Angel, consummate their love, whereupon a gypsy curse renders him suddenly cruel and hateful.
This hybrid of teen angst and pulp adventure may not have made for the kind of mass-market success demanded by network television, but it was too yummy to simply subside into a cultural footnote. The spirit of Buffy Summers is perpetuated not just in official “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” media, but also in a thriving genre of popular fiction, usually labeled “urban fantasy,” in which young female protagonists get to battle monsters and demons while working through the conundrums of early adulthood — which often amount to the same thing. If you don’t feel like schlepping to the comics store for the latest sliver of Buffy (or you don’t like negotiating the ick factor in Whedon’s current series, “Dollhouse”) you can satisfy those cravings by getting to know Rachel Morgan, Mercy Thompson or Anita Blake.
Or, for that matter, Sookie Stackhouse. HBO’s “True Blood,” based on the Southern Vampire books by Charlaine Harris, may have underwhelmed critics initially, but it’s proven itself to be highly addictive, like many urban fantasy series. The first episode of the show’s second season was HBO’s highest-rated single episode since the finale of “The Sopranos.” At a time when, except for a handful of shows like “Lost,” TV has begun to back away from imaginative serialized dramas, urban fantasy novels make for a tasty substitute. More and more often, on nights when my brain is just too weary for Ian McEwan but not soft enough to settle for “The Mentalist,” I find myself switching off the set and nestling into the sofa with a page turner about a girl who reminds me of nothing so much as the savior of Sunnydale High.
“Urban fantasy” may seem a peculiar label for the Sookie Stackhouse novels, which are set in the small town of Bon Temps, La. In fact, the label is contested, since the term “urban fantasy” (meaning fantasies set in the contemporary world) was first applied to the work of such writers as Neil Gaiman and John Crowley, whose aspirations are more literary. Sometimes these Buffyesque novels are called “paranormal romances” after a subset of the romance genre that specializes in human heroines finding true love in the arms of supernatural beings, usually vampires, à la the hugely popular Twilight Saga.
But the genre breaks several of the core tenets of romance fiction, most notably by eschewing the conventional “happily ever after” ending and depicting romantic relationships as uncertain and ambiguous. Bookstores manifest this genre confusion by shelving the books haphazardly, in their romance, science fiction or horror sections, none of which is a perfect fit. With that caveat, since a better label has yet to present itself, we’ll stick with “urban fantasy.”
Most fans would agree that one of the genre’s pioneers was Laurell K. Hamilton, whose Anita Blake series began even before Buffy’s television incarnation, with the novel “Guilty Pleasures,” published in 1993. Anita is an animator-for-hire, licensed to temporarily raise the dead so that they can be questioned by the living on matters both legal and personal. In essence, she’s a private detective of the hard-boiled school, but operating in a version of the contemporary world in which creatures from folklore — vampires, werewolves and more — have been uneasily integrated into human society. The early Anita Blake novels are dark and grisly, shadowed by Anita’s ambivalent relationship to her own capacity for violence and her fear of becoming “one of the monsters.” She’s isolated and angry, like many a noir protagonist, with no real love life to speak of. She lavishes far more attention on the finer points of concealed weaponry (at any given moment she’s packing a couple of guns and four or five blades) than on the charms of any of the men around her.
If, like me, you approached Hamilton’s series haphazardly, reading the first book and then inadvertently skipping ahead to, say, Book 14, “Danse Macabre,” you’ll be in for a shock. The Anita who hunkered down every night with a collection of stuffed penguins in a poignant effort to cling to the last shred of her innocence in “Guilty Pleasures” had been transformed into an erotic ringmaster. She’s sleeping with seven different men, often several at a go, with the occasional one-shot tryst on the side. Hamilton offers an elaborate rationale for this erotic explosion; it involves a communicable “metaphysical” infection Anita contracted from her main vampire squeeze, Jean-Claude, but I confess that I’ve never been able to make much sense of it.
This change led to consternation among some of Hamilton’s longtime fans, who insistently voice their dismay on the Amazon reader reviews for each book. “Orgy after orgy,” complains one reviewer of “Danse Macabre,” “[Anita] is naked for nearly the whole book. For someone who started out so shy and modest in the first book, she has certainly gone hog wild.” The outcry occasionally provokes a grumpy response from Hamilton, who accuses her critics of resisting “uncomfortable” material. In truth, there’s far less sex in the later Anita Blake books than there is talking about sex and about Hamilton’s byzantine and unfathomable explanations for why Anita has to have it with so many men when she supposedly doesn’t really want to. Still, I sympathize with the fans’ exasperation. Despite their objections, the most recent Anita Blake novel, the 17th, “Skin Trade,” zoomed instantly to the No. 1 spot on Publishers Weekly’s bestseller list.
Even if the Anita Blake refuseniks are, as Hamilton maintains, merely a “minority,” the fuss over Anita’s personal life exemplifies a perennial argument in urban fantasy: the ratio of crime to sex, or more broadly, of mystery to relationships. In a posting in the Publishers Weekly blog Genreville, novelist John Levitt explained that he regards his own books as urban fantasy, as opposed to Hamilton’s and Harris’, which he considers paranormal romances. Grouping himself with Jim Butcher, whose Harry Dresden novels about a P.I.-wizard in Chicago were inspired by the Anita Blake series, he claims a shared “lineage” with Butcher that includes Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. The urban fantasy hero, Levitt writes, is a “troubled loner,” who “has romantic hopes, but they’re never the focus of the books.” Harris and Hamilton, he claims, come from “the romance tradition,” where “an essential element always remains about whether or not it’s a good idea to do the vampire, werewolf, or both.”
This grievous misrepresentation of both the Sookie Stackhouse and the Anita Blake books makes sense when you realize that all the other writers with whom Levitt claims kinship are male authors of detective fiction, a far less despised genre than romance. In his haste to dissociate himself from girly books, Levitt overlooks the fact that neither Sookie nor Anita enjoys a love life anything like those customarily depicted in romance novels, and Harris’ Southern Vampire novels always revolve around the need to solve a crime. (Harris started out as a writer of conventional mysteries.)
Furthermore, while nothing about Anita’s personal life bears much resemblance to the experiences of the average woman, Sookie is another matter. She misses her dead grandmother, worries about her feckless brother, baby-sits her friend’s kids, commiserates with her co-workers, goes shopping with her best friend, quarrels with her neighbors and so on, in addition to wondering whether it’s a good idea to do the vampire or the werewolf. Like Buffy, she exists in a complex web of relationships, which Harris has the temerity to consider as important as anything else in her imagined world. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” was in part a critique of the self-pity and emotional poverty of noir heroism, in which the loner hero’s efforts to save innocent people leaves him too damaged to connect with them. Buffy, by contrast, steadfastly refused to give up on having a life. Or, as she once put it while fighting off a demonic attack on her high school prom, “I’m gonna give you all a nice, fun, normal evening if I have to kill every person on the face of the Earth to do it.”
The best urban fantasy doesn’t just set a detective story in an alternate world where vampires, werewolves, demons and fairies are real. Like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” it also uses the supernatural material to reimagine the challenges of young adulthood — the quest for love among them — on a heroic scale. Kim Harrison’s Rachel Morgan series (another bestseller-list staple), about a witch trying to make a place for herself in a world where she doesn’t really fit, is one of the most inventive and popular. After getting squeezed out of a job in law enforcement, Rachel hangs out a shingle with two other oddball refugees. Her close friendship with her roommate and business partner, a vampire named Ivy, is complicated by Ivy’s history of abuse at the hands of her vampiric mentor and her attraction to Rachel, who considers herself straight, and can’t sort out her genuine love for Ivy from the hypnotic attraction that vampires exert over their human companions. Let’s just say that — bloodsucking aside — it’s a situation not unfamiliar to many women during those muddled post-collegiate years.
In your 20s (the age of most urban fantasy heroines), love and sex can seem like a powerful magnetic field, distorting your perceptions of yourself and other people. If you succumb, will you be surrendering control over your own destiny, which is still coming into focus? It’s a question with particular relevance to young women, and the mesmeric power of vampires and other supernatural lovers in urban fantasies speaks to the fear of losing your bearings should you fall under the spell of an especially irresistible suitor. Mercy Thompson, the heroine of a series by Patricia Briggs, is a part-Native American shape-shifter with the ability to transform herself into a coyote. Independently minded, she’s nevertheless strongly attracted to her neighbor, Adam, the alpha of a pack of werewolves and therefore the absolute head of their hierarchical society. If she agrees to be his mate, she’ll become just another subordinate figure in the pack, in thrall to his sheltering, but ultimately controlling personality.
Whether vampire, werewolf or even djinn (as in Rachel Caine’s Weather Warden series), the urban fantasy heroine’s lovers usually possess superhuman powers, while her own special abilities (Sookie Stackhouse’s telepathy, the shrouded heritage of Ilona Andrews‘ Kate Daniels, the hybrid potential of Jeaniene Frost’s Cat Crawfield) have yet to be fully explored. He’s unlikely to feel threatened or unmanned by her emerging strength, which is nice (this is fantasy, after all), since many of the heroines are formidable, physically as well as preternaturally. Candy, a blogger at the delightful Web site Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, has suggested that the genre is really “about women, and putting women in control, and how we’re still not comfortable enough to put it in real-life/realistic fiction terms yet” — which is why the typical, kick-ass urban fantasy heroine cuts her swath through a fantastical version of our world.
True, but part of the pleasure of genre fiction is the license it offers to explore the desires we have in spite of ourselves, and urban fantasy seems equally concerned with the erotic allure of masculine power and how women come to terms with it. The teenage narrator of Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” may swoon in the arms of her masterful vampire boyfriend without a second thought, but the adult heroines created by Hamilton, Briggs, Harris and dozens of other authors oscillate between resistance and consent, worrying away at insolvable romantic algorithms. Is it possible to bed an alpha male without submitting to his will? Does his protection come at too high a cost? And can a man who sometimes needs your protection ever be quite as exciting?
A surprising number of urban fantasy heroines get into romantic triangles with a vampire and a werewolf, a rivalry redolent of more than a B-movie monster feud. If vampires are upper-class — rich, well-dressed, owners of nightclubs and vast yet shadowy business interests — werewolves tend to be blue-collar types, working in construction and driving pickup trucks. Vampires engage in labyrinthine political intrigues, while werewolves prize loyalty to their pack mates over everything else, potentially at the expense of their commitment to the heroine, who can feel excluded from the intense, nonverbal connection they share and their obsession with pecking orders.
Class as much as sex is an urban fantasy preoccupation. Mercy Thompson works as an auto mechanic and owns her own garage, so the self-sufficiency she fiercely cherishes is won by the sweat of her brow. Among the stream of thoughts Sookie Stackhouse unwillingly picks up from the human beings around her is contempt from middle-class people who foolishly regard her — a barmaid who never went to college — as negligible. Anita Blake and Rachel Morgan take jobs as bodyguards. Damali, the heroine of L.A. Banks’ Vampire Huntress series, is an African-American spoken-word performer. Most of these women (in classic private-eye fashion) worry about paying the rent, which can make the blandishments of those wealthy vampires even more tempting. The werewolf, a creature of the day, feels closer to home, but the nocturnal vampire promises a whole new life.
Where working-class characters in literary fiction are often depicted as tragic and helpless, the urban fantasy heroine gets to surprise everyone by using her talents to save the world (“a lot,” as Buffy’s famous — and premature — epitaph added). Sookie, who turns out to have a good head for strategy as well as detection, consults for the vampire bigwigs, and Rachel bravely rescues a local tycoon from a netherworld known as the ever-after. Which is not to say that our heroines are always virtuous. Like the male protagonists of detective fiction, they tend to be hotheaded, smart-mouthed, petulant and even selfish, flaws that distinguish them from the typical romance heroine, who (to my mind) is a bland goody-two-shoes. Perhaps the trait that most distinguishes urban fantasy from its genre ancestors and bedfellows is its cheeky humor — sharp-edged, slangy and wised-up, ever ready to stick a pin in the portentous and self-important — a direct inheritance from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”
Urban fantasy has its own conventions — it is a genre, after all — and like any convention they can be employed mechanically or lose their luster with overuse. You won’t find much in the way of deathless prose on these pages. (Harris’ and Briggs’ books are probably the best written of the bunch while Harrison’s are the most original.) Nevertheless, urban fantasy — a cross of fairy tale, noir and classic coming-of-age narrative — is peculiarly suited to wrestling with the quandaries of early 21st-century womanhood, which is itself a hybrid of age-old preconceptions and fledgling, undreamed-of promise. Buffy, I think, would be proud.