More Author Influences: Founders of Urban Fantasy

This post will be looking at the stated influences of authors deemed key to the establishment of urban fantasy as a sub-genre in the 1980s and early 90s. The seven authors chosen as a focus are Emma Bull, Charles de Lint, Terri Windling, Megan Lindholm (aka Robin Hobb), Midori Snyder, Ellen Kushner, and Laurel K. Hamilton. Other possible inclusions on this list covered earlier are Neil Gaiman and Mercedes Lackey.

If any one novel is associated with Urban Fantasy’s establishment, it’s Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks. She had to be first for this… which makes finding a complete shortage of influences out there a huge annoyance. If anyone can steer me here to written interviews with her giving this info, I’d be very grateful.

Charles de Lint made his bones in Borderlands then went on to write an absolute ton of stories in the urban and mythic fields. He’s said he doesn’t really think in terms of influences and makes it clear his influences are wider than mere fiction, but in terms of authors, he’s named William Morris, Lord Dunsany, Robert E. Howard, Tolkien, ER Eddison, James Branch Cabell. Authors he likes are Barbara Kingsolver, Pat McKillip, Parke Godwin, John Crowley, Tim Powers, Jim Blaylock, Jeter. Jane Lindskold, Dean Koontz, Stephen King, Andrew Vachss, Thoreau, Gary Snyder, Colin Wilson, and Louis L’Amour.

Terri Windling is one of the fantasy genre’s unsung heroes and is mainly known for her work as an editor, particularly on the Borderlands anthologies that helped launch Urban Fantasy. But she did also contribute too, predominantly under the Bellamy Bach name. It is hard to find listed influences from her other than fairy tales and surrealist artists in general. She does in one interview talk about being more influenced by naturalists like David Abram, Gary Snyder, Terry Tempest Williams, Linda Hogan, and Edward Abbe over fantasists. In another interview she does name the following authors as creatives who’ll stand the test of time – Angela Carter, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Sylvia Townsend Warner, John Crowley, Robert Holdstock – who could be taken as influences on some level.

Megan Lindholm might be better known for her Robin Hobb output, but her early work Wizard of the Pigeons was one of the big initial Urban Fantasy releases. Influences wise, she lists Tolkien, Blanche Fisher Wright, Kate Seredy, Robert Heinlein, Ernie Pyle, GRR Martin, Michael Moorcock, Rudyard Kipling, Ronald Holt, Robert Bloch, The Lansdales, John D. MacDonald, Jack Vance, Ray Bradbury, Louisa May Alcott, Walter Farley, T.H. White, and Fritz Leiber.

Midori Snyder is another folklorist who contributed to Borderlands and never listed her influences. Again, left up in the hope it might prompt someone to help me.

While people will think of Ellen Kushner more for her fantasy of manners (which do ake places in cities), she was also an early Borderlands contributor. Noted influences includes Jane Auen, Georgete Heyer, Dorothy Dunnett, Shakespeare, Thackeray, Damon Runyon and James Thurber

Laurel K. Hamilton is perhaps the first author to take urban fantasy heavily into the monster hunter field. Her listed inspirations include vampire movies and hard boiled detective fiction, as well as Robert B. Parker, Robert E. Howard, Andre Norton, and Louisa May Alcott.

Well this was a very frustrating round of research and yet, in its way, it’s produced the clearest results. By and large, the earliest influential writers of urban fantasy weren’t hugely influenced by fantasy. That’s not to say authors like Kushner and Windling, Snyder and Bull didn’t read and like fantasy, but it’s not something they talk about. Kushner and Windling in particular have a lot of material in which they talk with great knowledge and love of the genre, but their desire to write different things came from having different influences. For most of them it was a love of mythology and folklore, with Kushner trending more towards the city and Hamilton more towards horror and detective fiction – the foundation of the direction the urban fantasy genre would take after its initial opening.

Of course, there are fantasy influences. De Lint drew his fantasy influences from a mix of American pulp and British romance/saga recreations. Hamilton drew from S&S. Lest we forget, Gaiman and Lackey can be included here, and they are very influenced by fantasy. The most conventional SFF influences, insofar as that term holds, belongs to Lindholm though. The mix of Tolkien, SFF pulp, and historical fiction feels very familiar to anyone who’s looked closely at the influences of the epic fantasy authors, which of course is the field in which Lindholm became most well known.

This suggests a theory that has been formulating in my head for a while, that you can define fantasy both by what other genre it resembles most closely, and by what taproot texts they (or their influences) look to most. Epic Fantasy grows out of historical fiction and medieval sagas and romances. Sword and Sorcery grows out of pulp adventure and a mix horror and ancient myth. Urban Fantasy? Urban Fantasy is hard to pin down. The dominant form of the genre comes from detective fiction and horror, but a lot of the early forms, while beholden to folklore, don’t have an obvious other genre.

6 thoughts on “More Author Influences: Founders of Urban Fantasy

  1. It’s amazing when you learn that a literary genre or a subgenre has origins which dates back further than 50+ years. You would believe more readers would realize how long Urban Fantasy has been around in literature.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have to admit to never being very sure how old Urban Fantasy is tbh; how much the tagging of the genre in the 80s as a new thing was a resurgence, and how much it was a new thing where you can see scattered antecedents. There’s plenty of books using mythic creatures in the author’s here and now, but in intensely urban settings? Hmm. Throw in a dividing line between horror and fantasy and it gets messy.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I want to write an analysis essay distinguishing urban fantasy and paranormal. However, after the “literary definitions,” the overlapping and the blurring begin, which can get very confusing.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’ll be fascinated to read it if you do get it boiled down. I’ve got a friend who’s doing a Paranormal Romance isn’t Urban Fantasy essay which I really want to read because my initial reaction was “but all the examples I’ve seen clearly fall within the boundaries”.

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s