More years ago than I want to admit (okay, it was eighteen) my friend Meg thrust a trio of paperback books at me. “You have to read these,” she said. “They’re about vampires.”
The books were written by an unfamiliar author—Laurell K. Hamilton—and had the ominous names of Guilty Pleasures, The Laughing Corpse, and Circus of the Damned. Until this point, Meg had mostly cajoled me into reading cozy mysteries, and these books didn’t sound cozy.
They weren’t—not even close. And they blew me away, unlike anything I’d read to that point. Since that time, say what you will about whether or not the Anita Blake Vampire Hunter series has veered into “vampire porn,” what we’ve come to know as urban fantasy and paranormal romance owes Anita a nod of acknowledgment.
I wasn’t convinced until a couple of weeks ago, when I decided to try and determine if Laurell K. Hamilton had, indeed, “invented” the modern urban fantasy.
I’m a New Orleanian, after all, and I knew Anne Rice had created the sexy vampire more than thirty-five years ago with Louis de Pointe du Lac and Lestat de Lioncourt. She definitely laid the groundwork for modern urban fantasy, putting Lestat and Co. in a real-world setting and giving them a dangerous, world-weary sexuality. But Rice’s vampire books were more gothic horror than what we consider urban fantasy, and held only a few of the elements we now expect from the genre.
I’d also read arguments for Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks as the first urban fantasy, so I downloaded it and read it. Great book, first of all. It has the human heroine Eddi, the urban setting of Minneapolis, the creatures of Faerie and the Seelie/Unseelie Court, rock music, and a touch of romance. Great UF elements, right? And it came out in 1987, six years before Anita hit the scene. Still, Oaks felt more like contemporary fantasy to me than urban fantasy for reasons I can only pin down as a matter of voice, the nature of the lead character, and the otherness of the Sidhe.
Maybe I’m hair-splitting, though. I think the War for the Oaks crowd has a reasonable argument for that book as the first modern urban fantasy, but to be sure, I needed to dig out my yellowed, spine-cracked copy of Guilty Pleasures and start reading.
All these years later, Guilty Pleasures felt very, very familiar. Some of the story shows its age: Anita’s internal wisecracks seem clunky in this day of sophisticated snarkiness, and I was struck by the lack of cursing. Had Guilty Pleasures been written today, Anita would have been dropping F-bombs all over the place.
With good reason. The first Anita outing shares a strong horror component with the works of Anne Rice; I still consider Hamilton’s vampire Nicolaus one of the Creepiest. Vampires. Ever.
But there are key aspects of Guilty Pleasures that read like a modern urban fantasy how-to:
- The first-person narrator. It’s become ubiquitous in urban fantasy, almost to the point where we’re starting to see a backlash into third-person or multiple points of view. But Guilty Pleasures is definitely told in Anita’s voice, and it’s that voice that sets the tone for the whole story.
- The kickass heroine. Anita is a vampire hunter (later a federal marshal) who’s also a necromancer. Hamilton tries to soften her a little by having her petrified of the vampires she hunts and a collector of stuffed penguins, but she still carries knives and guns and scars and never backs down.
- The sexy critter. Jean-Claude, a master vampire more powerful than he’s letting on, is morally ambiguous, French, and sexy as sin—and that’s before we learn he’s an incubus. Even Anita, who hates vampires and is afraid of him, isn’t immune to his charms—although she resists him enough that Jean-Claude becomes infatuated with her. Is he using her, seducing her, or helping her? Yes.
- The world. The series is set primarily in St. Louis, in a world where the “others” live openly among humans, with the now-common human hate groups springing up to declare them immoral and unnatural. The vampires operate night-oriented businesses like bars and nightclubs, and humans get a charge out of frequenting the clubs to get a taste of danger—or just get tasted.
- The tone. Guilty Pleasures has the noir-ish tone common to modern urban fantasy where the hero or heroine is a member of an anti-paranormal law enforcement force. Anita works, technically, as a necromancer, raising zombies to settle legal cases. But she moonlights as a vampire hunter for the “Spook Squad,” a little-supported arm of the police department, and it is their cases that form the basis for the books.
Sound like the new UF you read last week? Remember, this book is nineteen years old. So after re-reading Guilty Pleasures, I’m prepared to declare Anne Rice as a seminal influence for urban fantasy and Emma Bull’s work as a precursor. But as the first of what we now consider urban fantasy? I’m giving the title to Laurell K. Hamilton, Anita Blake, and Guilty Pleasures.
Pretend you don’t have an opinion on where the Anita Blake series went after Obsidian Butterfly. Are there other books you could nominate for first modern urban fantasy, or do you agree that Anita holds the title?
Suzanne Johnson, who writes urban fantasy with a few pesky romantic elements, is the author of Royal Street, first in the Sentinels of New Orleans series. Book two, River Road, will be released November 13 from Tor Books. You can find Suzanne writing about speculative fiction, with and without romance, at her daily Preternatura blog, as well as hanging around on Twitter.