The Fascinating History of Urban Fantasy

Depending on how long you’ve been reading fantasy fiction, you might consider urban fantasy a hot new trend or a genre that’s been around forever.

Neither is precisely true. The origins of urban fantasy stretch back over a century, but the genre as we know it was only defined recently. This article should give you a good understanding of how urban fantasy evolved into the genre we know and love.

Gothic Origins

I would call Dracula an urban fantasy. First off, it’s about a vampire—one of the most popular creatures in the genre. Second, much of the action takes place in London, the biggest city in the world at the time.

Dracula First Edition

Seriously, you could find a sinister vampire stalking the streets of London in any urban fantasy novel you pick up today. Bram Stoker was doing it back in the 1800s.

You could argue that urban fantasy traces its roots to early mythology, but if the “urban” component is necessary, then it really can’t exist until the rise of big cities. That means nothing before the Industrial Revolution, and you know what was popular during that same time in the West? Gothic fiction.

Think The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or Frankenstein. Characterized by an environment of fear and supernatural threats, Gothic fiction like Dracula has had an enormous influence on not only contemporary horror but also urban fantasy.

The Influence of Pulp Magazines

The age of pulp magazines lasted from 1896 to 1955 according to “The Golden Age of Pulp Fiction.” These magazines were cheaply made from wood-pulp paper, and like genre fiction of today, they had a reputation for poor quality when they actually produced stories ranging from bad to excellent.

Pulp magazines came in a wide variety of genres from detective to western, but for its influence on urban fantasy, we need to look at horror and occult fiction.

These stories are full of demons, ghosts, witches, and other urban fantasy staples. They also featured some of the first occult detectives, such as Jules de Grandin, whose fictional adventures were published in the magazine Weird Tales from the 1920s through the early 1950s. Since occult/paranormal detectives are such an essential part of urban fantasy today (and one of my favorite tropes), it’s easy to see the influence these stories had on the genre.

In her article “The Long and Diverse History of Urban Fantasy,” author Carrie Vaughn mentions the werewolf novel Darker Than You Think by Jack Williamson, stating “how at home this novel, originally published in 1940, would be in the current marketplace.” And the novel was based on a short story published in the pulp magazine Unknown years earlier, which goes to show how those early pulp stories are the predecessors of today’s urban fantasy.

Evolution from Supernatural Horror

The horror boom of the 1970s saw the release of novels and movies full of supernatural threats that influenced later urban fantasy. You’ve got ‘Salem’s Lot by Steven King, which is about a man returning to his hometown and finding it’s been infested by vampires. Then there’s The Exorcist, which you don’t need me to summarize because it’s permeated pop culture so much that you probably know the gist of it even if you’ve never read the book or seen the movie.

Salem's Lot Cover

And no article about the history of urban fantasy would be complete without mentioning Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice. Part horror, part fantasy, part romance, it had a huge effect on later vampire fiction. And since vampires are such a cornerstone of urban fantasy, you can feel its influence there too.

Founding Works of Urban Fantasy

But while supernatural horror and gothic fiction laid the groundwork for urban fantasy, they’re separate genres with their own unique tropes and aesthetics (though there’s certainly some overlap). When did urban fantasy become a genre in its own right?

Search for the first urban fantasy book, and you’ll find Terri Windling’s Borderland series, War for the Oaks by Emma Bull, and Moonheart by Charles de Lint, all of which were published in the 1980s. While they’re about different magical beings (elves, fairies, etc.), they all bring magic that was previously entrenched in medieval-esque epic fantasy books into contemporary (or vaguely post-apocalyptic) settings. And that’s pretty much the definition of urban fantasy.

War for the Oaks cover

Fast forward to 1993, and you’ve got the publication of Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K. Hamilton, book 1 in her Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series.

While Guilty Pleasures was first categorized as horror (and some of the later books could be considered erotica), it’s now considered urban fantasy. And it cemented a lot of the elements that are common in the genre today: first-person POV from a strong female protagonist, a noir-like mystery plotline with horror-tinged action, a steamy slow-burn romantic subplot, and of course supernatural creatures living in a modern-day city.

The Genre Grows

You know what else came out in the 90s? Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Yes, it’s a TV show not a book, but it did a lot to spread urban fantasy’s popularity. The show ended in 2003, and it wouldn’t surprise me if viewers moved to books to get their urban fantasy fix, because a lot of well-known urban fantasy series got their start at around the same time.

Dead Witch Walking by Kim Harrison, first in The Hollows series, came out in 2004. The Dresden Files began when Storm Front hit shelves in 2000. The Vampire Huntress Legend series by L.A. Banks, The Women of the Otherworld series by Kelley Armstrong, the Nightside series by Simon R. Green—all these and more started in the early 2000s.

Rise in Popularity

As these popular series continued and drew in new readers, publishers released a lot more urban fantasy books. If you visited a bookstore during this time, you would have no problem finding urban fantasy novels on the shelves. Just look for the lady in leather on the cover holding a weapon.

Urban fantasy books from around 2010

Why were so many urban fantasy books suddenly coming out? They were just that popular. New books in The Dresden Files and the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series both hit number one on the New York Times Bestseller List in 2009. The next Dresden Files book topped the charts again in 2010 along with another urban fantasy novel, Silver Borne by Patricia Briggs. And that’s just the number one spot. Look further down the list at the time, and you’ll find even more urban fantasy titles.

While few people may have known the term a decade earlier, at this point in time “urban fantasy” was a buzzword and hot publishing trend.

Urban Fantasy Today

Some of those founding urban fantasy series are still putting out new books and seeing success today. Others have faded into obscurity, and your only hope of finding them is at a used bookstore.

But is urban fantasy dead? Not even close.

Classic series like The Hollows and the October Daye books are still going strong, and we’re getting exciting new novels like The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin.

The City We Became cover

And those are just books from the big publishing companies. I haven’t even mentioned the indie urban fantasy scene yet.

With the rise of self-publishing, we’re seeing more urban fantasy books than ever. And these books are incredibly varied, shooting off into smaller subgenres.

Not a fan of supernatural horror? Try a cozy urban fantasy. Love those steamy romantic subplots? Urban fantasy romance is a thing. There are genre mashups like post-apocalyptic urban fantasy and of course good old-fashioned urban fantasy mystery. Whatever type of urban fantasy you want to read, chances are you can find it.

Even better, the accessibility of self-publishing means we’re getting more urban fantasy by authors from marginalized groups who weren’t offered the same publishing opportunities in the earlier days of the genre.

Conclusion

Timeline infographic of urban fantasy's history

Urban fantasy has a complicated history and roots that stretch far back in time. But more exciting than its past is its future, and I can’t wait to see where the genre goes next.


Want to know what urban fantasy books are coming out this year? Click here for a list.

What’s your favorite old-school urban fantasy novel? Shout it out in the comments below!

2 thoughts on “The Fascinating History of Urban Fantasy

  1. Enjoyed this post very much. Ironically, I was reading it while a Buffy episode was playing on tv. I only became aware of the genre classification of urban fantasy a few years back, and I really enjoyed learning more information here about its origins and timeline.

    Liked by 1 person

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