Where’s the line between horror and urban fantasy?

DEADLY CURIOSITIESby Gail Z. Martin

I read a lot of urban fantasy, and I’ll have my own urban fantasy series coming out from Solaris Books in 2014, and I’ve been wondering: Where’s the line between horror and urban fantasy?

I suspect it’s been shifting around.  (And I’d love to hear your opinions, so please comment!)  After all, Laurell K. Hamilton started out shelved in horror, then became her own brand of urban fantasy, took a detour into erotica, and seems to have come back to something in between urban fantasy and suspense.  And yet, most of the usual tropes in urban fantasy were standard horror themes not too very long ago.

Remember when vampires were the bad guys?  They’ve made such a thorough transition to becoming the sexy love interest that I suspect they hired a Madison Avenue PR firm to do some reputation management.  Ditto werewolves and demons.  We’ve even seen the softer side of zombies and the soulful side (pun intended) of ghosts.

I’m only partly kidding when I say that horror now seems to be focused on people as monsters, and urban fantasy seems to be focused on monsters as people.  I suspect there’s some deep commentary on society today hidden in there, but I don’t know what it is.

Here’s where I see the divide between horror and urban fantasy–feel free to disagree.  In horror, whether the “monster” is human or some kind of creature, the monster has the upper hand for nearly the entire story.  There’s a sense of helplessness that seems to be essential to horror, a creeping sense of inevitable death. Even though the main character in horror might find a way to survive and vanquish the big bad at the very end, he or she is less a hero than a survivor.

In urban fantasy, whether you’re human, non-human, mortal or undead, it’s the thought that counts.  In other words, do you intend to be the hero or the villain?  Urban fantasy looks beyond the stereotypes to create characters that retain their volition and morality regardless of whether they’re alive, dead or something in between.  As I’m fond of saying, being dead doesn’t automatically make you a bad person.  Urban fantasy also has a clear hero who emerges, and while things may get grim, the lack of control and helplessness that helps to create the atmosphere of a horror story is either absent or brief.  The main character is a hero, not just a survivor.

Everything’s gotten grittier, but I’d also say that while urban fantasy can certainly have its share of blood and gore, it’s less over-the-top than horror and exists to make a point instead of being its own point.  And finally, in urban fantasy, when the book ends there’s the feeling of “we won!” as opposed to “we made it out alive.”

That’s my 2-cents, and I’d love to know your thoughts.  Thanks for reading.

Reign of Ash, book two in the Ascendant Kingdoms Saga launches in April, 2014 from Orbit Books.  My new urban fantasy, Deadly Curiosities, comes out in July, 2014 from Solaris Books. I bring out two series of ebook short stories with a new story every month for just .99 on Kindle, Kobo and Nook—check out the Jonmarc Vahanian Adventures or the Deadly Curiosities Adventures.

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