Peter S. Beagle and Joe R. Lansdale: The Urban Fantasy Anthology

Urban Fantasy AnthologyI have come to a point in my development as both reader and writer where I find myself drawn to anthologies as much because of the editor as from any of the authors. In this case, Peter S. Beagle and Joe R. Lansdale, both legendary writers in their own right–and both of whom, of course, have their own tales in this collection–are the steersmen for the stories within.

It’s a damn good match. While the list of authors on the front cover form an impressive constellation–Emma Bull, Charles de Lint, Neil Gaiman, and Holly Black, to name only four of the twenty–I’ve become aware in recent months that a story or an anthology is often only as good as the editor guiding it. And every single story in this collection has been well chosen and polished brightly. (Given that these are largely reprints, the polishing may or may not be to Beagle and Lansdale’s credit, but the choices and arrangements certainly are.)

The anthology begins with an introduction by Beagle. The stories are then further separated into three carefully considered categories: Mythic Fiction, Paranormal Romance, and Noir Fantasy. Each section begins with an introduction from, respectively, Charles de Lint, Paula Guran, and Joe R. Lansdale.

The introductions are as worthwhile as the stories; each author has something very important to say about his or her chosen section. Beagle begins by noting that “my main notion of urban fantasy is fantasy that takes place in an urban.” It’s a light-hearted quip, but he grows more serious as he goes on, noting that “while I wasn’t looking, urban fantasy has become so vibrant, and has evolved so rapidly, that it has emerged as a distinct marketing category”. He goes through a light overview of the categories that have emerged, leaving plenty of room for the following introductions to dig into each topic more deeply–which they do, with gusto and dedication.

In the “Mythic Fiction” category are stories by Emma Bull, de Lint, Gaiman, Jeffrey Ford, and Beagle. “Paranormal Romance” features, again, de Lint, Kelley Armstrong, Norman Partridge, Carrie Vaughn, Patricia Briggs, Bruce McAllister, Suzy McKee Charnas, and Francesca Lia Block. “Noir Fantasy” brings in stories from Thomas M. Disch, Susan Palwick, Holly Black, Steven R. Boyett, Joe R. Lansdale, Tim Powers, and Al Sarrantonio.

Out of those twenty names, I initially recognized only seven. One of the joys, for me, of any anthology is finding new authors to follow; and it’s a mark of quality that I have several more authors to add to my list after reading this collection. That all but one (“Talking Back to the Moon”, by Steven R. Boyett) are reprints does not dilute the joy of this anthology.

Taking a quick look at the better-known list, it very nearly goes without saying that Peter Beagle and Neil Gaiman hit their respective stories out of the park. In Beagle’s story, “Julie’s Unicorn”, a young California couple accidentally free a unicorn from a tapestry and then must figure out what to do with it; along the way, they figure out rather a lot about themselves. Gaiman’s story, also a reprint, meanders contentedly through the confusion of an English writer having his work adapted for screenplay, and emerges at the end having said something profound about not only the creative process but human nature as well.

Emma Bull’s tale shows a side of the Sidhe that mortals often forget–they’re not like us, at the end of the day, and our attempts to make them fit into our world are doomed to get us hurt. But who can resist that music? Not the main character in this tale, a musician himself; and he winds up teaching at least one sidhe, in turn, a thing or two about what it means to be human.

Speaking of being human, de Lint’s tale, “Make a Joyful Noise,” approaches the topic of human grief from a not-human perspective, and pulls off a compelling, complex story along the way, bouncing the relatively innocent sister/twin “trickster” perspective against the complicated sorrow a mother carries over the death of her two children. At the end of the story, we’re reminded to celebrate “the clutter of life” rather than reach for the “happily ever after” ending. It’s a potent tale, the kind that worms into one’s head and pops up at odd moments for weeks afterward.

The rest of the stories are equally powerful. From the cynical realtor in “A Haunted House of Her Own” to the blind witch in “Seeing Eye”, from the murky, ambiguous “The White Man” to the horrifyingly clear “Gestella”, the characters and plot twists linger in one’s mind long after the book is shut. As Beagle notes in his introduction: “You will be purely delighted by some of them and profoundly disturbed by others … But you will not be bored.”

While I did not like every story in this anthology, that’s no gauge of quality, but of personal taste. Objectively, each of these stories shows a sure hand with the author’s chosen style. I can’t think of a better way to put it than to expand on Beagle’s statement: this is, most definitely, not a boring collection of stories. I highly recommend those with even a vague interest in urban fantasy add The Urban Fantasy Anthology to their collection.

(Tachyon Publications, 2011)

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