Ellen Datlow (editor): Naked City: Tales of Urban Fantasy

Urban fantasy as we have come to know it today combines the often dark edge of city living with enticing worlds of magic. Its subgenres include noir crime and paranormal romance. But the urban landscape is what’s crucial….You can lose yourself in a big city or you can find yourself. — Ellen Datlow

In these twenty stories of urban fantasy, cities as diverse as New Orleans, Butte, Montana, and Haifa, Israel, become the settings for fantastic beings and occurrences. As editor Ellen Datlow explains in the introduction to the anthology,

In their diversity, eccentricity, and ability to attract both the nonconformist and the madman, cities can seem like a 24/7 party of potential new friends or a surreal freak show, complete with monsters. The somewhat odd pass for normal, and the truly strange can blend in completely.

In “Curses” by Jim Butcher, which is one of the handful of really light-hearted pieces in the anthology, warlock and PI Harry Dresden investigates the rumored curse which has prevented the Chicago Cubs from ever making it to the World Series, while the next story, “How the Pooka Came To New York City” by Delia Sherman, explores the hardships undergone by immigrants, even those with supernatural abilities. While many of the stories in this anthology lean closer to horror or noir, Sherman’s story stays within the genre of fantasy, as does “The Duke of Riverside” by Ellen Kushner, which tells the story of how two of her most well-known characters, the mysterious Alec and the swordsman Richard St. Vier, met in the slum of Riverside.

“On the Slide” by Richard Bowes follows an aging Hollywood actor playing the role of a tough cop in a retro crime show titled “The Naked City” who finds that life and art are not always easy to keep separate. This is one of many stories which underscores the sense of alienation and emotional isolation which is the dark side of city life, as is Christopher Fowler’s “Oblivion by Calvin Klein,” which has one of the best opening lines in the collection: “On the dankest, most miserable Saturday afternoon in September, Helen Abbott went shopping in London with a Derringer .25 sub-compact pistol in her handbag.”

“Fairy Gifts” by Patricia Briggs is set in Butte, Montana, and shows in more ways than one the buried violence of this former frontier town.

Pat Cadigan’s “Picking up the Pieces” is the story of a woman who travels to Berlin in 1989 to rescue her younger sister, who has become caught up in the Dionysian party which was the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“Underbridge” by Peter S. Beagle records the mental and moral deterioration of A burned-out literature professor in Seattle who becomes obsessed with an uncanny statue of a troll.

“Priced To Sell” by Naomi Novik is a humorous snapshot of A real estate company in Manhattan which specializes in fulfilling the unusual requirements of its supernatural clientele. In the poetic and haunting “The Bricks of Gelecek” by Matthew Kressel, a mysterious supernatural being becomes fascinated by a young woman in a medieval desert city. As in many of these stories, meetings between magical or mysterious beings and mortal humans tend to be hard on the humans, as is also the case in “Weston Walks” by Kit Reed, another story set in New York City in which an eccentric recluse becomes intrigued by a mysterious woman.

One of the most notable stories in the collection is “The Projected Girl” by Lavie Tidhar. Somewhat reminiscent of Steven millhauser’s short story “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” this story set in Haifa, Israel, follows a young boy as he becomes caught up in the journal of a World War II-era magician. This story, the one which follows it, “The Way Station” by Nathan Ballingrud,and the Lucius Shepard story which occurs later in the anthology are, in my mind, themselves worth the price of the book. In “The Way Station,” an old man living in a homeless shelter is haunted by his memories of pre-Katrina New Orleans.

“Guns for the Dead” by Melissa Marr is another humorous story, this one with elements of paranormal romance, which features a meeting between a woman who runs a general store in the land of the dead and the new stranger in town.

John Crowley’s “And Go Like This” is an elliptical story in which people travel to New York City to be counted in a mysterious reckoning, and in Holly Black’s “Noble Rot” a young runaway and a reclusive musician attempt to forge a tentative–and unusual– friendship.

“Daddy Long Legs of the Evening” by Jeffrey Ford provides one of the creepiest horror stories in an anthology which possesses no shortage of creepy characters. “The Skinny Girl” by Lucius Shepard is another memorable story from this collection which features a photojournalist whose forte is pictures of the dead and who becomes caught up in an urban legend about a mysterious and possibly supernatural young woman called Santa Muerte, or “Saint Death.” Shepard’s prose manages to be both stark and beautiful in the same way that photographs of city scenes often are:

Death, to Hugo Lis, was simply a way of life.

As dean of the photographers whose pictures illustrated the notas rojas (“red news”), Hugo was occasionally approached by foreign journalists interested in doing a story on his life and profession. His hair and mustache colored to hide the gray; dressed in a black suit tailored to disguise his paunch; wearing lifts that added two inches to his diminutive stature, he would pose for pictures and, after negotiating a fee (necessary, he claimed, to guarantee their safety from the gangs), he would guide them to one or another of the innumerable shrines devoted to Santa Muerte (Saint Death) in Barrio Tepito where, behind glass or within a confine of plastic panels, a human skeleton (often a real one) dressed in robes or a lace gown stood holding a scythe and a globe representing the earth, surrounded by offerings of flowers and fruit and cigars left by thugs, kidnappers, drug dealers, murderers and the disenfranchised, whose patron saint she was.

“Death has become so prominent a character in our lives, we’ve transformed her into a movie star,” he would typically say, leading his interviewer among the stalls that transformed many of Tepito’s streets into crowded pedestrian aisles, pointing out the various representations of Santa Muerte available among fraudulent Swiss watches and knock-offs of designer clothing–statuettes and paintings of robed skeletal figures juxtaposed with T-shirts that depicted her as an emaciated yet beautiful young girl.

“The Colliers’ Venus” by Caitlín R. Kiernan is a Lovecraftian tale concerning an eccentric museum curator whose fascination with oddities of natural history not only endangers his own life, but may ultimately alter history. The final story in the anthology is “King Pole, Gallows Pole, Bottle Tree” by Elizabeth Bear, and it features another pair of characters from a pre-existing novel: the One-Eyed Jack and the Suicide King. The One-Eyed Jack is the genius loci of Las Vegas, and the characterization–or rather, personification–of the city is fascinating, even if it’s not a city which I find personally appealing.

Naked City definitely contains some of the best urban fantasy stories which I have had the pleasure of reading in a long while, and I fully expect that this anthology will be showing up in the nomination lists for next year’s round of awards.

(St. Martin’s Press, 2011)

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