Notes from underground

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Urban fantasy, mediocrity, and the male torso

I’ve become interested in literary genres recently, mainly because I’ve been reading several books that are difficult to classify. I’ve been looking for books that are similar to those of Charles Williams, and someone said that they belonged in the urban fantasy genre.

I would definitely include two of Charles Williams’s novels in the urban fantasy genre — All Hallows Eve and Descent into Hell. They are not my favourite Williams novels, but they are certainly urban fantasy, so I added them to the urban fantasy list on GoodReads, where Descent into Hell is rated 2657th along with Sign of Chaos by Roger Zelazny, and The Rakam by Karpov Kinrade.

It seems that I was the only person who voted for it, so if you think it deserves better company, please go there and vote for it too.

I’m not sure, though, that moving it further up the list would put it into better company,. because at the top of the list, with 2631 votes, is City of Bones by Cassandra Clare, the reviews of which do not inspire much confidence.

And it’s not just the reviews. It’s the cover, which features a faceless male torso.

The faceless male torso seems to be a meme, or trope, or whatever you call it, that is featured on about one in ten books nowadays. I recently entered my latest book, The Year of the Dragon, in a book cover competition, and in those competitions there is almost always at least one cover with a faceless male torso.

It seems a rather odd thing to have on a book cover, and it makes me think of the the title, though not of the content, of a book by C.S. Lewis, Till we have Faces.

I checked to see what lists Till we have Faces was on, and it was only on one — Novels for grown-ups by authors better known for their children’s books. I added it to The Best of Mythic Fiction list, and one other. Again, go there and vote for it if you think it deserves to be found by more people.

Dropping back down from the face to the torso again for a moment, C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams did once publish a book about the Arthurian torso. It might have been better known if it had been published with an illustration, like one of these.

That should keep us going till we have faces.

Now, back to literary genres, and especially urban fantasy.

Another book that I thought belonged in the urban fantasy genre, and I think it is the best urban fantasy novel I have ever read, is Elidor by Alan Garner. Yet it is 1727th in the urban fantasy list, and it seems that I was the only person who voted for it. If you’ve read it and think it deserves better, please go and vote for it here. If you haven’t read it and like urban fantasy, or think you do, please add it to your to-read list right now.


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5 thoughts on “Urban fantasy, mediocrity, and the male torso

  1. I didn’t realize you had moved Ondermynende to WordPress.

    The faceless male torso meme/trope is rather disturbing. Rather similar to the tendency of publishers to insist that female authors’ books for young adults must have a girl on the cover. At least the girl usually has a face!

    I am not sure that Charles Williams is urban fantasy, as that genre was invented well after he was writing — but I suppose it does address similar themes.

    I haven’t read Elidor since I was 12 — high time for a re-read. Have you read Garner’s Strandloper? It’s also excellent.

    • Graham Darling, who, on an Inklings mailing list, categorised Williams’s novels as urban fantasy, was asked whether he thought Williams had pioneered the genre, and replied:

      I can think of Dickens’ “The Christmas Carol”, Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde”, Chesterton’s “The Man Who Was Thursday”, Nesbit’s “Five Children” books, Hodgson’s “Carnacki” stories (featuring an electric pentacle), even Stoker’s “Dracula”– all fantastic tales in “modern”/civilized settings, for the day.

      And I certainly agree with The man who was Thursday, and probably most of the others too.

      • Well yes, they would all qualify. I suppose a book can be in a genre before it’s named. Many would argue that Frankenstein was the first science fiction novel, although the term wasn’t coined till much later.

  2. I’ve now added my votes to the urban fantasy list on GoodReads for Elidor (which weirdly matched Wade’s “Organic Chemistry” that’s definitely NOT in that sub-genre), All Hallows Eve and Descent Ito Hell.

    I suppose you think Williams’s other fantasy novels, though certainly set in the modern world, don’t qualify for not being set in big cities? But is “suburban fantasy” even a thing, or “rural fantasy”?

    Though some of Elidor is set in an otherworld, I recall enough weird stuff also happened in our own for it to qualify as Urban Fantasy, whereas say, “The Magician’s Nephew”, probably not.

    • I think the difference between The Magician’s Nephew and Elidor is that in the former events in this world serve primarily to explain what takes place in the other world, while in Elidor the events in the other world are a prelude to what happens in Manchester.

      At the risk of being elitist, I suspect that some of the smaller GoodReads lists might give a better indication of the kind of books one might like, even thought they are more fluid in genre. So I think the Imaginative fantasy and literary fiction list may be a better list to discover books that are worth reading, while the bigger Urban Fantasy one may be better for letting other people know what is worth reading.

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