I’ve always liked a touch of the fantastic in my fiction. When I was a kid, I read everything that I could get my hands on, but it was the stories that were a little bit out of this world that most grabbed my attention. Never was there a greater way to betray the reader, in my young mind, than to reveal with a twist at the end that the supernatural happenings were just something mundane after all. Outrage! No Scooby Doo unmaskings to explain away the mysteries for me – I wanted the real thing.
Fantasy, science-fiction, stories of the supernatural... they all reach towards the same thing, the idea of something different and astounding that’s not found anywhere in our own lives. Fiction that could only ever exist as fiction. All stories draw you into someone else’s secret world, but there’s something special about visiting the ones built purely out of shared imagination.
I love all stories of the impossible, the unbelievable, the never-true. Tales of worlds unlike our own, of things that don’t exist, of people not like us – and yet, in all the most important ways, exactly like us. If fiction is a mirror, then fantasy fiction is a funhouse mirror, distorting the image into something alien and strange, but still reflecting the essential truth of what it captures. You can see things about everyday life that you might never have seen if it wasn’t stretched into new shapes that forced you to look at it with fresh eyes, as if it was something never seen before.
And that’s why I love urban fantasy. A whole genre that doesn’t just mirror the everyday in the fantastic, but tangles them together and sets them side by side: magic in the places we thought we already knew, secrets in the things we thought familiar. Shops selling magic spells between the restaurant and post office; wizards and werewolves rubbing shoulders with mechanics and accountants. Maybe the wizards and werewolves are the mechanics and accountants.
Sometimes it’s a hidden world, discovered by a wrong turn – or perhaps a right one – down a street that looks like any other. A chance meeting, a whimsical purchase... passports into somewhere that’s been there all along, but concealed from those who don’t know where to look. We get to stumble into that secret world with the protagonist, see its wonders and its terrors through astonished eyes. But often I find myself thinking of the other stories that there might be to be told: the lives of those who’ve spent their whole existence with one foot in the everyday and one in the fantastic.
Who owns that strange little back alley magic shop? What do they do outside of business hours? Maybe they have adventures of their own, seeking new goods for sale in dangerous locations, or staying up late in the night to hone the secrets of their craft. Maybe they just go home and curl up to watch Eastenders, catching up with friends and relatives who don’t have any clue what they do all day. Maybe they get on the internet, and update their Tumblr of wacky magic shop customer stories.
...And just how do you come to acquire a magic shop, anyway?
I always wonder about the people on the edge of supernatural crime scenes. Who cleans up after the magical murder when everything’s all over? How much do they know? How much do they want to? And just what do the neighbours think about that necromancer who lives next door? How often have the animal control officers been sent out after werewolves?
And if perhaps more of that world should bleed through into our own, no longer so separate, not so secret... well, what then? Who knows what inheritance law might look like in a world where the dead sometimes get up and walk; what the health and safety regulations are when it comes to magic portals. Maybe there are lending libraries of magical books, or support groups for people who’ve lost years of their lives when they were carried off by fairies. Maybe supermarkets have a line of werewolf snacks. (And I’ll just bet there was a major public relations minefield when someone went and stocked them in the pet aisle.)
Anywhere the two worlds meet, the mundane becomes fantastic. The humdrum details of everyday lives become something strange and new to go exploring with new eyes.
And that’s what keeps me coming back to the worlds of urban fantasy. No matter how thoroughly things might have been explored, there’s always someone out there who can open the secret door and reveal a brand new world inside.
Worlds within worlds...