Urban fantasy as a genre has a lot of features I’ve loved throughout my reading life: a modern sensibility, elements of the fantastic and surreal, hidden worlds, magicians, and vampires. The first book I remember writing, on a battered suitcase typewriter at age six, was an horror “novel” of about twenty pages that I later illustrated in colored pencil, about a detective named Charles Bulldog (yeah, I know – always me with the funny names) who discovers that his neighbor is Count Dracula. Of course, Charles discovers in the process that he is a descendant of Abraham Van Helsing. Triumphant showdowns occur.
I wrote a sequel.
Anyway, growing up, I remained in love with all the old Hammer Horror rogue’s gallery: Dracula, the Mummy, the Wolfman, Frankenstein’s Monster. They were creepy, compelling, disgusting, charismatic, tragic, evil, redeemed. At the same time, I developed an enduring respect for the signs and symbols of noir: the cigarette, the fedora, the smoking jacket, the exhausted man of morals in a world that’s forgotten them – or perhaps never cared in the first place.
There’s an often-overlooked element of the fantastic in Raymond Chandler’s world, or perhaps I should say an element of the imaginative: Philip Marlowe’s imagination is powerful enough not only to construct reality from a scattering of clues, but to construct over the top of this reality a moral vision, in which human actors present themselves to us as mortal, imperfect signs of something greater than themselves.
The image of the knight in The Big Sleep is an easy clue to this other, fantastical level of reality. If Marlowe’s the knight, then the other people around him are queens, pawns, bishops, kings, rooks. But Marlowe’s LA isn’t a chess board, not really, and its people are more, and less, than archetypes. The archetypes press against the characters, distorting them or ennobling them as they move through the plot. This provides another layer to reality, subtler but no less extant than the shadow world that overlays the mundane in UF settings.
Which is a roundabout way of saying, the symbols of good noir point to something, like the symbols of good fantasy. (I don’t mean that there’s a 1-to-1 correspondence; in fact there probably shouldn’t be, but that’s a question for another time.) The thing is, urban fantasy that embraces noir as a point of reference sometimes forgets that the symbols should point to something: the divide between rich and poor in society, sexual dynamics, subterfuge, criminality, order and the rebellion against order, whatever works. A PI should be more than just a guy in a cool hat.
Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim hit me like a breath of fresh air for this reason. The pieces are all there: the dirt, the crime, the conflicts with a ‘respectable’ society that really isn’t, the guns, the women, the magic. Stark, the book’s main character, feels like John Constantine if John Constantine were based on a scarred, battle-hardened James Dean, rather than on Sting. Magic, in this novel, stands as a referent for power, and like any other kind of power it’s fickle and demanding, possessing as often as it’s possessed. Kadrey nails the real-life absurdities, the warped class consciousness, and the ugliness that make the genre work.
This isn’t a perfect book, and it might well be too bloody or gross or weird for some. But it’s great to read a fantasy noir novel that takes both the fantasy and the noir bit seriously.