Is Urban Fantasy Really ALL About Sex?

I remember the moment when the truth dawned on me…I was  just a nipper and I was watching a Hammer House of Horror movie featuring Christopher Lee as Dracula – and it struck me that what vampires do is JUST LIKE SEX.

Except, in fact, it’s not; when vampires feed, they take fluid out; but when you have sex,  you…okay okay I’m moving on.  But the basic insight – which came to me when I was 12 or 13 - is this: vampirism is a compelling and unmistakable metaphor for sexual intercourse.

And, of course, I’m  not exactly the only person who’s noticed this fact…

The American TV vampire series True Blood takes the implicit metaphor and really bangs it out there. It’s sex, sex, sex all the way…the high point for me came when Sookie’s brother takes vampire blood in a pill and gets a hard on so enormous he’s in agony and has to have all the blood surgically removed from – no, no, that’s another sentence I’m not going to finish.

The old Hammer vampire films were relatively tame ; it’s not until you get to classics like The Vampire Lovers (1970) that it all starts getting steamy.  (Okay, film nerds out there, correct me if you wish!)  But the icky-sticky sexy stuff was there all along; for The Vampire Lovers was based on Sheridan Le Fanu’s lesbian vampire short story Carmilla, arguably the first ever vampire story (okay book nerds, shoot me down there too!) Here’s a flavour of Le Fanu:

Sometimes after an hour of apathy, my strange and beautiful companion would take my hand and hold it with a fond pressure, renewed again and again; blushing softly, gazing in my face with languid and burning eyes, and breathing so fast that her dress rose and fell with the tumultuous respiration. It was like the ardour of a lover; it embarrassed me; it was hateful and yet overpowering; and with gloating eyes she drew me to her, and her hot lips travelled along my cheek in kisses; and she would whisper, almost in sobs, ‘You are mine, you shall be mine, and you and I are one for ever’. (Carmilla, Chapter 4).

Of course vampire stories and urban fantasy stories aren’t necessarily the same thing; though to be honest, the distinctions seem elusive to me.  Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot is a definitive reinvention of the vampire myth; but it’s not urban fantasy, it’s small town America fantasy/horror.  And Kim Newman’s great Victorian vampire novels Anno Dracula and The Bloody Red Baron are awash with sex (like the vampire stripper scene in which  – no, I’m really not going to speak that one out loud) but they’re aren’t contemporary.  And as I understand, urban fantasy has to be urban, cool, & now. 

But the general point is this: urban fantasy is a booming genre, as publisher Tim Holman has conclusively demonstrated. And urban fantasy seems to me to be awash with sex.

And are those two things connected?

Of course urban fantasy is often (always?) horror, and horror is by definition a sensationalist genre.  But the thesis I’m reaching towards here is this: urban fantasy readers like sex – more than that they like stories about CHARACTERS having sex – and the whole genre is dominated by an assumption that stories have to be about people, relationships, and feelings. And – sorry, a four letter word is about to be used here – LOVE.

And this is why there’s such a huge gulf between the hardcore SF reader and the died-in-the-wool urban fantasy writer. SF thrives on gadgets, gizmos, and huge space battles; urban fantasy is about characters and their emotions.

Wild generalisation? You bet!

I’m not, I stress, arguing that science fiction is prudish; far from it. Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land tapped into the 60s free love ethos and its advocacy of polyamory still exerts a strong pull over the core SF readership.  Anyone who’s on the mailing list for this year’s Odyssey will know there has been a huge debate about the connections between science fiction/fantasy and bondage, polyamory, and other sexual life choices.

And modern SF writers are far from shy about writing explicit sex scenes.  Charles Stross’ superb Saturn’s Children, for instance, is written as a homage to Heinlein but is FAR filthier. It’s set in a world where humans have died out, and robots are left behind; and these robots are horny and love sex.  It’s an adorable tongue-in-cheek novel that’s as amusing as it is graphic.

Or take Peter F. Hamilton’s The Dreaming Void, in which  the character of Araminta has sex with a ‘multiple human’ – one personality shared between multiple bodies – called Mr Bovey. Araminta wakes from a dream to find the Mr Boveys are pleasuring her:

The gossamer breath of nebula dust firmed up into strong fingers sliding along her legs; more hands began to stroke her belly, the another pair squeezed her breasts. Sweet oil was massaged into her skin with wicked insistence. Tongues licked with intimate familiarity.

‘Time to wake up,’ a voice murmured.

On the other side of her, another voice encouraged, ”Time to indulge yourself again.’

(And after that, it gets REALLY steamy…)

So there’s no way that the modern SF writer is shy about writing ‘down and dirty’ sex scenes in the far future; and all too often these may involve differently evolved human beings, or even acts of exophilia, ie sex with aliens.  (As in Eric Brown’s masterly short story ‘Star Crystals and Karmel’ in the collection The Time Lapsed Man and Other Stories.)

But my point here is that in science fiction and traditional fantasy, sex is an element of the storytelling – it’s something characters do in the course of the story.  But in certain subgenres of urban fantasy, sex IS the story. 

In other words, the very premise of a vampire story is a sexual metaphor; the deflowering of a virgin, the loss of innocence, the ravishing of a nubile woman or a virile man, often in bed, by a monster. 

And by the same token, the very premise of a werewolf story is also a sexual metaphor; the beast unleashed, the shapeshifting, the feet that grow (!!! that’s called ‘metonymy’, think not ‘foot’ but some other body part) and the surrender to wild bestial passion.

Urban fantasy IS sex in other words.  

Of course sometimes the sexual metaphor is underplayed, and is drowned out by other metaphors.  Charlie Huston for instance is writing a terrific series about a vampire in a version of New York (I’ve just read the first, Already Dead) in which vampires run the gangs; here vampires are the Mafia, rather than being sexual monsters. There are some racy scenes, admittedly, but the dominant metaphor isn’t sexual. 

But all too often, these two subgenres – vampire and werewolf stories – offer the writer a way to explore the human condition ESPECIALLY WITH REGARD TO HAVING SEX, and falling in love.  Buffy The Vampire Slayer, for instance, is many things; but the dominant strand (for me) is the story of a young woman’s sexual awakening (the whole Angel romance) and her discovery of herself as a independently minded sexual being.  I love the fights in Buffy; but the moments and images I remember most vividly are when Buffy is haunted by sorrow because she has a broken heart. 

Nicole Peeler’s heroine Jane True (in her series which begins with Tempest Rising) offers an intriguing variation on this ‘urban fantasy is all about sex’ approach. For Jane is not a vampire, she’s a selkie – half-seal, half-woman – and let’s be frank about this: that’s REALLY sexy.  If you don’t believe me, listen to THIS SONG (chosen by Nicole) about a murderous selkie, and then read Nicole’s hot prose.  In fact here’s an excerpt (note: Old Sow is the local name in this New England town for a dangerous whirlpool):

I used the riptide caused by one of the Sow’s piglets to help me shoot up into the air so I could dive back down like a porpose.  I landed more heavily than I’d anticipated, the piglet forcing me into a strong current that wanted to carry me to her mother. I fought hard to free myself but the current had me in its vicelike grip. The Old Sow was nowhere near the most powerful of the Earth’s whirlpools, but she was far too strong even for my freakish swimming abilities.

You see what I mean! If being caught up in a whirlpool as a half-woman, half-seal isn’t a metaphor for sex, then I don’t know what it is.  And okay, that’s pretty extreme and kinky and, er, damp sex; but the sensuality of the language and the intensity of the ‘surrendering to passion’ subtext are, in my view, undeniable. (Unless, ahem, I’m just really odd?)

There are, I should add, some very graphic sex scenes between Jane and her vampire lover later on in the book; but my point is that it’s the very premise that’s sexy.  The whole concept of the book is about what it is to be a sensual beast; rather than being a sensible, cerebral geek in nerdy clothing (as I, for instance, am for most of the time.)  

I’m also, as readers of this blogsite will know, a huge fan of Dante Valentine, Lilith Saintcrow’s ass-kicking private necromance character in the series of books which begins with Working fot the Devil. These books have a fabulously well worked out future history, and the action scenes are intense and exciting. But the whole point of the book, really, is Dante’s love life; her passions, her confusions, her love/hate relationship with her various lovers. And, more than anything, it’s about the intense and toxic love between a human being (who becomes part-demon) and an actual demon.  That’s Japhrimel of course;  powerful, arrogant, wearing a black cape, patronising  to Dante yet adoring her, and terrifyingly protective of ‘his’ woman.  He’s a demonic Heathcliff; a man so sexy he sizzles. 

And again there are exceptions to this rule; there are plenty of urban fantasy books (especially YA books) which AREN’T all about sex.  (Although even then, if you  think of Stephanie Meyer’s tales about a celibate vampire – isn’t the absence of sex another way of being ABOUT sex?)

My simple point though is that there’s a strong subgenre of urban fantasies which are love stories as much as they are kick-ass supernatural thrillers; and that fact intrigues me.  You couldn’t write a crime novel that was more about the sexual and emotional desires of the main characters than about the who-dun-it unfolding of the plot; but in SFF, all things are possible. 

And this is where the subgenre of ‘paranormal romance’ comes into the argument.  This is a subgenre that buds off from ‘romance’ rather than from SFF; there’s nothing wrong with that in my view, though I’ve seen comments on the blogosphere that are deeply hostile to this whole literary trend.  Most people who love SFF are attracted to great stories, wonderful concepts, and compelling characters; we’re not looking for ‘romance’ as such.

And yet – a good romance is possibly the greatest story which any writer can tell.  So I’m happy to read SF or fantasy or urban fantasy with sex and love and romance as vital story strands.

But I have to reluctantly concede that it’s only the urban fantasy writers who get to write ALL about sex…

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