It's always great to discover an author who is remarkably talented at what they do. It's an added bonus when you find out they're Canadian, too. We're a humble country, yes, but we do love rooting for the hometown. With Ian Rogers' Felix Renn character, I figured it was an easy choice in getting him to opine on the urban fantasy genre. Enjoy.
Strange Love or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the “Urban Fantasy” Label
by Ian Rogers
Genre labels mean different things to different people (if they mean anything at all). To some they’re a useful way to categorize various types of stories. To others they’re nothing more than a marketing tool.
My feelings fall somewhere in the middle. I think genre labels can be useful, but in the grand scheme of things I don’t think they’re terribly important.
Normally this isn’t a subject that would interest me much, but last year I read a review of one of my Felix Renn stories, and one part in particular got me thinking. Here it is:
Temporary Monsters dwells in the gray area between horror and fantasy. It is essentially an urban fantasy, or what urban fantasy was for a short time before it became synonymous with tattooed female slayers and their supernatural bad-boy boyfriends. (To read the rest of the review, visit Nick Kaufmann’s blog.)
The review touched on something I’d been noticing for a while now, that the term “urban fantasy” is becoming synonymous with “paranormal romance.”
Let’s start by taking a look at the label “urban fantasy.” What does it mean exactly? Well, simply put, it’s a story that takes fantasy elements and puts them in an urban setting. More or less. “Urban” doesn’t necessarily mean the story has to take place in a city. Same goes for the “fantasy” part. It means different things to different people. “Fantasy” is often used as an umbrella term to describe any type of story with fantastical elements, be it horror, science fiction, etc. Having said that, outside of my author friends, most of the people I know who hear the word “fantasy” tend to think of The Lord of the Rings or A Game of Thrones. These types of stories are typically referred to as “high fantasy.” Confused yet?
You can’t delve too deeply into this subject without coming to a chicken-or-the-egg scenario. Are publishers marketing paranormal romance novels as urban fantasy because that’s what readers want (or expect), or are readers merely associating urban fantasy with paranormal romance because that’s what they truly feel urban fantasy has become?
I suspect that Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series has gone a long way toward blurring the lines between urban fantasy and paranormal romance. Maybe I’m showing my age, but when I think of urban fantasy, I think of books like Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks and Clive Barker’s The Great and Secret Show. Both books feature fantasy elements in a real world setting, and yet they don’t quite fit into either the horror or fantasy genres. Both books even contain some romantic elements, but I wouldn’t call either of them paranormal romances, either.
Of course, my feelings are completely subjective. Maybe this whole discussion is simply a matter of one person’s urban fantasy being another person’s paranormal romance. Having said that, I think most readers would agree that there is a fundamental difference between Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files and Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series. One might classify Ms. Hamilton’s books as urban fantasy, but I think it would be stretching things a bit too far to call the Dresden Files paranormal romance.
Genre labels are truly in the eye of the beholder. The one used to describe stories featuring private detectives pitted against supernatural forces is “occult detective.” I’ve never really liked it myself. I find it a little clunky. But that’s just me. I suspect the term came into use because “supernatural detective” implies that the detective possesses some sort of paranormal abilities, which he usually doesn’t. In regards to my Felix Renn stories, I tend to call them “supernoirturals.” It’s kind of a cutesy term, but I find it rolls off the tongue a lot easier than “occult detective.”
I think of my Felix Renn series as a kind of anti-paranormal romance. Not that I have anything against PR, because I don’t, but I wanted to make it clear to readers that I’m doing something very different with these stories.
In your typical paranormal romance, you’ve usually got some sort of sexual action taking place, be it man-on-girl, girl-on-girl, man-on-man, girl-on-vampire, man-on-demon, girl-on-werewolf… you get the idea. Throw in a third character and you’ve got yourself a lover’s triangle that you can usually milk for at least a trilogy of books if not more.
Felix Renn is a Toronto-based private investigator in a world where the supernatural exists. Back in the 1940s, a dimension called The Black Lands was discovered, and since then portals to this dark world have been popping up all over the planet.
Felix doesn’t have a love interest. He has an ex-wife named Sandra. When we first meet her in Temporary Monsters, Sandra is undergoing a premature mid-life crisis as the result of a flagging acting career. Even though she’s only in her early thirties, all of the choice roles are going to younger girls. She ends up working for Felix part-time as his assistant.
There’s definitely a tension between Felix and Sandra, but it’s not sexual in nature. It’s a tension of old feelings, hurt feelings, and a history that binds them together in ways they don’t quite understand.
When I created Felix Renn, I knew I had to make him stand out among the other private detective characters out there. I decided to go back to the roots of the archetype. What comes to mind when we think of the early PIs? For the most part, we picture heavy drinking, fedora-wearing loners with sharp-tongued, backtalking secretaries.
So I wondered, What would happen if all the flirting actually led to a relationship? I took it a step further and asked, What if the PI actually married his secretary? That was good, but I decided to go further still: What if the PI and his secretary got divorced, but still managed to be… well, maybe not friends, but at least civil to one another? What if they decided that they couldn’t be married but they still needed each other in their lives?
I thought this was the basis for a interesting set of characters, and to this day I feel that the relationship between Felix and Sandra is one of the best things about these stories. I suspect they still love each other on some level, but it’s a strange sort of love, one that even I as the author don’t completely understand.
Ultimately, when it comes to genre labels, I adhere to the Groucho Marx way of thinking, in that you can call me whatever you want, just as long as you don’t call me late for dinner. So if you want to call the Felix Renn series “urban fantasy,” I say go right ahead. Call them “occult detective fiction” if you want. Or “horror-boiled.” Or “supernoirturals.” In the end I don’t really care, just as long as people are reading them.
Ian Rogers is a writer, artist, and photographer. He is the author of the Felix Renn series of supernatural-noirs ("supernoirturals"), including "Temporary Monsters," "The Ash Angels," and "Black-Eyed Kids" from Burning Effigy Press. Ian's first book, a collection of dark fiction called Every House is Haunted, is due Fall 2012 from ChiZine Publications. For more information, visit ianrogers.ca. To find out more about Felix Renn and the Black Lands, visit theblacklands.com.