Summer Teaching—Urban Fantasy

The second class I teach this summer (June 28th-July 29th, Monday-Thursday, 10:30 am-12:45 pm) is Urban Fantasy.  The term always requires some explaining.  I applied it to the course before it became a marketing juggernaut.  I use the term very broadly to apply to fantasy set in a modern world as opposed to the much more common impulse to place fantasies in the past or in an idealized world that’s like the past.  This class is now listed as English 391-011.  This year we’ll be looking at some of the various borderlands of the genre with pairs of films and novels.

I start with Pan’s Labyrinth (film) and Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys, both fantasies that rely on traditional mythologies at work in a modern world.  This is probably the most common approach, favored by de Lint and others.  These two do an exceptional job of integrating the mythos into the plot so that it doesn’t seem merely tacked on, as is too often the case.

Especially recently, the genre has lurched, shambled, slithered, whatever, toward horror tropes.  To look at this territory, I’ve chosen Let the Right One In (film) and Peter Straub’s lost boy lost girl.  I’ve never been much interested in vampire stories, but one of my many excellent students last summer turned me on to this film.  Straub’s novel is a highly unusual haunted house/serial killer story.  Or is it?  I told Peter I’m teaching the novel this summer, and he gave me a question for the class.  Unfortunately, he didn’t give me the answer!  Anyway, these two, arguably could be and are called horror but both have fantasy resolutions.

The third pair Adaptation (film) and China Miéville’s The City & The City owe much to the borderline genre of noir.  Both, some might say, aren’t fantasy at all.  We’ll see.  Charlie Kaufman’s crazy screenplay is all about what genre it is, so it should provide fuel for the fire.  I ended up not being that fond of Miéville’s Perdido Street Station, so I almost didn’t read this novel.  It’s the best novel I read last year.  I just voted for it for the Nebula.  Maybe it’s not fantasy.  Maybe it’s science fiction.  Maybe it’s…  Whatever it is, it’s damn fine.

The fourth pair Stranger Than Fiction (film) and Jeffrey Ford’s short story collection, The Empire of Ice Cream, lie in the borderland of metafiction, postmodernism, et. al.  This is the only Will Farrell film I can stand to watch, but this has consistently been the most popular film students have reviewed.  Jeffrey Ford’s brilliant short stories have had a huge impact on modern fantasy.  He’s won more World Fantasy Awards than anyone.  Ever.  More importantly, this collection has always been a favorite with students.

In the word or film world, of course, you can create any damn world you want to if you’re good enough, if you know how to blend genres just so…  Donnie Darko (film) and Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore attempt such a feat, and judging by class reactions in the past, pull it off.  Even though it’s the longest novel on the reading list, students consistently rate it the best.  I’ve had students thank me for making them read this novel.  I keep waiting for him to write something shorter that works the same magic so well, but so far I haven’t found it.

So what are you waiting for?  You can register online at vcu.edu.

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