Creating Genrenauts: An Interview with Michael R. Underwood

Michael R. Underwood is the author of a number of urban fantasy novels, including Genrenauts and the Ree Reyes series. He was kind enough to answer some of our burning questions and give us a few hints about his future work.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: Genrenauts is the first in a series. Can you share your plans for future books?

MICHAEL R. UNDERWOOD: Oh, what plans I have. I had so many plans that Lee Harris, my editor, had to get me to dial it back a bit (I was ready to sell 30 novellas all at once off a full series proposal. I admit that was a bit ambitious).

Genrenauts is structured to evoke a television series – it’s organized into six-episode ‘seasons,’ with five seasons planned for the complete arc. The first two episodes are in the can for Tor.com Publishing, and I have four more episodes written and in various stages of revision. My plan is to publish all of season one, preferably by the end of next year if all goes according to plan. Once the whole first season is out, I’ll see how folks are liking it and decide how to continue.

Episode 1 – “The Shootout Solution” takes our heroes to the Western genre to confront a bandit posse, and Episode 2 – “The Absconded Ambassador,” shows them visiting a region of the Science Fiction world inspired by works such as Babylon 5 and Deep Space 9, to track down and return a kidnapped ambassador in order to salvage a nascent galactic alliance.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: What is it about the novella format that drew you to write one?

MICHAEL R. UNDERWOOD: I really enjoyed writing a shorter story in the Ree Reyes series with Attack the Geek, so when Tor.com announced their novella project, I jumped at the opportunity to play in that space again, to focus on shorter, but still rich stories, with enough words to flesh out a world but without the need to fill it with sub-plots. I thought a lot about the format of TV and TV miniseries when designing Genrenauts, as well as the serial storytelling in comics. I’ve written a whole season for the series so far, and I’m really enjoying the novella as a form, which means I’ll probably be writing more, even outside Genrenauts.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: It’s been called a fresh take on the portal fantasy, although you’re billing it as comedic SF. Can it be tied down to any one genre?

MICHAEL R. UNDERWOOD: Part of what I love about Genrenauts is that it’s very intentionally playing with genres – it’s a story about stories, how and why we tell them. Each episode will have some of the feel of the genre world the heroes are visiting, and the sense of humor and play with genres will always be present, but I can definitely see why people would interpret it as portal fantasy – it has some of that sense of enchanted estrangement, where people from our world visit strange and exciting realms.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: If you could travel to any of the worlds in the Genrenauts multiverse which one would you travel to and why?

MICHAEL R. UNDERWOOD: If I were single, it would definitely be the Romantic Comedy region of the Romance world, since I’m a big fan of Rom-Coms, even with the big heaps of cultural baggage that most of them carry. But since I’m very happily involved, I’d say that my #1 wish would be to travel to the Traditional Fantasy region of the Fantasy world. To get the chance to walk among dwarves and elves, to see magic in a marketplace, to lift a glass of ale in an inn, to put on a cloak and sit in a corner and give a group of adventurers a task to go clean out a nearby cave, would be about the coolest thing for me as a life-long fantasy geek.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: What drew you to stand-up comedy as a job for Leah?

MICHAEL R. UNDERWOOD: Genrenauts, being all about stories, is also about storytellers. Each member of the team has a different perspective and set of skills as a storyteller, so when designing Leah as the main POV character (she’s the new recruit, and therefore serves as the reader’s self-insert character in being introduced to the Genrenauts), I wanted a style of storytelling that required analysis and humor, but also improvisational skills, the ability to work on your feet. I’ve been impressed by stand-up over the years, especially comedians like Eddie Izzard, and stand-up is also a form of storytelling that is explicitly comedy-focused (at least for many performers), and I wanted to bring a comedian’s perspective to the story, being a comedy-minded writer myself.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: She’s a very interesting character. Did you draw upon any real people to create her?

MICHAEL R. UNDERWOOD: Thanks! I didn’t so much draw on any one specific person so much as bits and bobs from a lot of women that I know and have known over the years. Leah has my curiosity about and love for narrative genres and how they’re put together, but she also has really high-end emotional intelligence/empathy skills. She’s great at reading people, in a way drawn from a few wonderful people in my life (wonderful for many reasons, including the fact that they use their empathy to try to help people). That ability to read people made sense as a non-supernatural super-power for a stand-up comic with an improv background, and her skill lets me unpack a lot in the stories as well as making it easier for me to lean into characterization and interpersonal dynamics, which is a part of craft and storytelling I’ve always been fascinated by and have been working into my fiction more and more.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: Is this a departure from your usual oeuvre?

MICHAEL R. UNDERWOOD: I actually think of Genrenauts as being a big return to form for me. It’s my first straight-up science fiction book series, but in tone and topic, Genrenauts shares a lot with the Ree Reyes books, my first (and longest) published series. It’s a fun action-adventure with sharp, sarcastic characters while the structure of the world (magic in Ree Reyes, the multiverse in Genrenauts) lets me do a lot of work in examining stories and why people are passionate about them – what stories do personally and socially.

The format is a departure, as I’d only written one novella before starting Genrenauts. I thought a lot about other novella series I’d seen (fellow Tor.com Publishing novella writer Matt Wallace’s SLINGERS, for one), as well as ‘fiction in TV seasons’ series like Yesterday’s Gone by Sean Platt & David Wright, online serialization like Catherynne M. Valente’s first Fairyland book, as well as the more recent round of digital serials from Tor and Amazon. Of course, now there are even more serial fiction setups like SerialBox in the world, so it seems like I’m in good company, which helps me from feeling adrift in terms of format and structure.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: Which genre world are you most looking forward to writing about and why?

MICHAEL R. UNDERWOOD: This is a tie for me right now between Wuxia and Horror. I want to write a Wuxia story because I like the genre, and because I have plans to explore non-Western/European storytelling genres as the series goes on, to talk about different cultural context, how stepping into and engaging with stories from an unfamiliar genre can tell you about the culture that created it. I’ve got plans to do this kind of story in Genrenauts a few times throughout the series as the team heads to other bases around the world (which cover those non-Western genres). The team in Genrenauts is intentionally multicultural and multi-national, which gives me a bigger range of character subject positions to investigate those differences from.

I want to tackle horror because it’s a genre I didn’t grow up loving, but am coming to appreciate more as an adult, largely through my fiancée introducing me to the milestone texts (mostly films) for her as a big horror buff. Horror has a lot of deconstructions and meta-narratives, but I have an idea for a Genrenauts Horror story with a deconstruction/metafictional angle that I don’t think has been done before, nor do my expert sources.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: What’s one question you think would be really fun to answer, but that will probably never come up in an interview?

MICHAEL R. UNDERWOOD: Let’s go with ‘if you could have beers/drinks with any deceased author, who would it be?’

There are an almost infinite number of answers for this, especially if I got to apply the Star Trek Universal Translator rule and chat with people whose language I don’t speak.

Some strong options: Chuang Tzu, author of book of the same name – an important Yin/Yang school writer who would later be rolled into the Taoist tradition. Chuang Tzu was a very compelling storyteller, more literal and narrative than the Lao Tzu (the better-known book associated with the Taoist tradition). I’d ask where the stories came from, what he meant by cutting through the empty space in the tale of Cook Ding, and more.

William Shakespeare – because seriously, Shakespeare. I’d ask about re-contextualizing new stories, about story-crafting for multiple social classes all at once, about reading a crowd and about refining work through performance. And I’d see if I could break the time stream by having him write an allusion to one of my stories into a play which people can then gripe at me for ripping off. But I’ll know better.

But ultimately, I think the one I’d have to pick is someone I might have only missed by a few years, if fate had gone just a bit of a different way – Octavia Butler, who died suddenly in 2005, just as I was getting into the world of SF/F prose publishing. I’ve read and been incredibly moved by Butler’s fiction, but also her essays, especially those in her collection Bloodchild and Other Stories. Her work tackles power and oppression and worldview head-on in a way that totally kicks my ass, and I would have loved the chance to speak with her about writing and social justice. If by ‘speak with’ one means ‘mostly listen and occasionally ask follow-ups,’ which I do.

Creating Giant Thief: An Interview with David Tallerman

David Tallerman’s short fiction has appeared in dozens of professional magazines, and his story, “Bad Times to be in the Wrong Place”, is featured in this month’s issue of Urban Fantasy Magazine. But he is also a talented novelist. The Easie Damasco trilogy, which consists of Giant Thief, Crown Thief, and Prince Thief, was published by Angry Robot books in 2012/2013. We’re excited to hear his thoughts on the world and characters that he’s created.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: What is it about the fantasy thief trope that attracted you to write the Easie Damasco trilogy?

DAVID TALLERMAN: Partly distrust, I think. Thief and rogue are almost synonymous in fantasy, and we’ve seen an awful lot of thieving rogues and roguish thieves. But thieves aren’t quite so entertaining in real life, and the ones I’ve had personal experience with weren’t charming at all, so I thought it would be interesting to write about a fantasy thief who just plain wasn’t a nice person – as Easie Damasco most definitely isn’t, especially at the point when we first encounter him.

On the other hand, it was really appealing to have a character who could say or do the things that no one else would; as some reviewers have pointed out, Damasco really isn’t the protagonist of the books so much as a hanger-on who sometimes manages to nudge the plot one way or another and generally gets to comment on it from an outsider’s perspective. Having someone who’s a thief and a genuinely dishonest human being who has no place in the company of more traditional fantasy heroes, but who still basically thinks he knows better than they do, that was a lot of fun to write.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: Is the door closed to any further Easie Damasco books?

DAVID TALLERMAN: The short answer is, yes. The slightly longer answer is that I did have the bare bones of a fourth Damasco novel in my head, and the keen-eyed will find the odd clue as to what it would have been about in Prince Thief. It’s a fun story, and one I’d have liked to have shared. But the truth is that I don’t own the universe or characters – the publisher, Angry Robot, does – and the response to the initial trilogy wasn’t strong enough for them to express interest in more books.

Truthfully, though, there are so many other things I want to do, and as far as Easie Damasco goes, I feel like I told the story I really wanted to tell. I was hugely lucky to get to do that. So while my thoughts sometimes drift back to Damasco and what the future might hold for him, it’s not an itch I’m desperate to scratch.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: The transition from amusing fantasy rogue to someone with a burgeoning conscience feels very natural. How hard was that to get right?

It was definitely tricky. I wanted any developments in Damasco’s character to feel genuinely hard-won. Here was a character with a clear philosophy of why it was basically okay for him to do the things he did, who was immensely good at justifying his own wrongdoing, and someone like that doesn’t just change overnight. So, yeah, a lot of work went into trying to make the character development convincing, to have Damasco sometimes backslide, to make it a conscious process rather than just him waking up one day with a fully-formed conscience. After all, even when you want to do the right thing, it’s not as though it’s easy to see what that is.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: Was this always the planned character arc?

DAVID TALLERMAN: I always intended that Damasco would be a somewhat better person by the end of Giant Thief than he was at the start, even if that wasn’t entirely the same as him ending up as a “good” person. But until I sold the first book, I only had vague ideas of what a sequel or sequels would involve. Once I knew I had two more books to play with, it seemed sensible to continue with what I’d begun. On the other hand, like I said above, I was adamant that any kind of continuing moral development couldn’t be smooth sailing. So if Damasco’s conscience grows more involved as the story goes on, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he makes better decisions on the back of it!

Urban Fantasy Magazine: Although the Tales of Easie Damasco are pretty light hearted there are some complex moral issues explored. Do you feel that fantasy is a good medium for exploring complex moral issues?

DAVID TALLERMAN: Absolutely. Fantasy lets you talk about huge issues in the abstract, without getting bogged down in the specifics that tend to derail real-life debates. A fantasy world can serve as a great Petri dish in which to fling ideas about and to set ideologies up against one another; in the real world we tend to moralise after the event, whereas in a fantasy novel you can present these difficult situations and face them head on, as they’re happening.

One of my goals with the Tales was that there would be no easy answers and no clear right and wrong: all the characters have good reasons for the things they do, and the ones with what may seem like the best intentions don’t necessarily achieve the most good. You know, it’s easy to pick on the fantasy warlord, to present that kind of character as being flat-out evil, but in real life they would have their motives, their people they’re trying to do right by. So I wanted to write characters, both good and bad, who genuinely believed that they were doing the right thing, even when it was obvious to the reader what the negative consequences of that were.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: Your stories have appeared in a great many markets – is there a binding theme to them?

DAVID TALLERMAN: I hope there isn’t. I always try to fit the themes, and everything else, to the particularly story rather than the other way round. I find preaching boring, in or outside of fiction, so I try never to push a standpoint or an agenda. For me, the debate is more interesting than the conclusions, so often I’ll let characters voice opinions that run directly contrary to what I think, or use stories to challenge my own ideas; which means, I suppose, that any themes that do get through are ones that have escaped my self-vetting!

Urban Fantasy Magazine: What would you say your voice in short stories says about you as a writer?

Again, I write in so many different genres and sub-genres and styles that I hope there isn’t a characteristic voice; if there was then I suspect I’d be doing something badly wrong, because you can’t approach fantasy, science fiction, horror and crime all in the same way. The main thing I’d want a reader to take away from my short fiction is that they enjoy a given story and consider it well-written, and if that should make them seek out something else by me then that’s great.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: If you could travel inside the world of any fantasy novel, which world would you want to visit and why? Which one would you never want to visit?

DAVID TALLERMAN: I wouldn’t mind hanging out in Jack Vance’s Lyonesse books; they seem like a fun place, and it might even be possible to survive the experience. As for ones I’d avoid, I’d have to say absolutely everywhere else. Fantasy worlds tend to be pretty hideous places, especially for those of us who just want a quiet corner, a glass of wine and a good book. I mean, I can’t imagine that attitude going down too well in Westeros!

Urban Fantasy Magazine: What’s one question you think would be really fun to answer, but that will probably never come up in an interview?

DAVID TALLERMAN: That’s a tough one. I guess for me, since as many of my influences come from things like comics, video games, films and anime as they do from genre literature, I’d find it interesting to get to talk about how those other media have fed into my work. If only because I don’t get to geek about comics, video games, films and anime as much as I’d like to!

Creating Shadow Police: An Interview with Paul Cornell

Paul Cornell is probably most well-known in the fandom for his work on Doctor Who, particularly the creation of the Seventh Doctor’s companion, Bernice Summerfield. We sat down to talk about some of his original works, starting with his urban fantasy novel series, SHADOW POLICE.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: What is it about police procedurals that attracted you to write the Shadow Police series?

PAUL CORNELL: I always enjoy it when a group of professionals in one field is blindsided by something completely outside their experience. It’s that feeling in Jaws of our hero being out of his depth. I also explore it in This Damned Band, where it’s a famous rock band who encounter the supernatural. I especially loved the idea of using real police methods and training against the ineffable.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: There is, so far, a book one and book two, can you share your plans for the future?

PAUL CORNELL: Book three is finished and will be out next June. I can’t as yet share the title. There’ll hopefully be five books in the series.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: The books have been described as The Sweeney, with ghosts – is that a fair description?

PAUL CORNELL: Ish, in that I like that grim copper humour, but The Sweeney also says 70s to me, and these are modern police officers. Also, there’s more to my London than ghosts. The city remembers the horrors that happened in it, real or fictional, and various people, groups and monstrosities make use of that.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: The books have been optioned for TV, how involved will you be, anything you can reveal?

PAUL CORNELL: I have a licence to meddle, but right now I’m stepping back and letting a talented showrunner with a good track record pitch it to various broadcasters. We’re about to start that process, so no news as yet.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: Football is integral to the first book, are you a big football fan?

PAUL CORNELL: Not really, more of a cricket fan. I did learn a lot about West Ham lore for the first book, though. I’ve done interviews with their fanzines.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: You made the unusual decision to have a real person (Neil Gaiman) as a character in the series, how did this come about? Was it difficult to get right?

PAUL CORNELL: I had some specific reasons for including a real person (spoilers) and he was very keen on those reasons. I started watching his body language and speech patterns when we met, which must have been really weird for him. I had someone else in mind initially, but then talked to him about it, and was delighted by how into it he got. I still get outraged tweets from fans of his, as if I’d do that without his permission.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: How do you go about doing research, London is a massive place with a long and complex history, how do you go about bringing it alive & choose what will make it in the books?

PAUL CORNELL: I have a big reference collection about weird and supernatural London, and I know the place really well. It’s largely about choosing stuff nobody else has done, which is getting harder all the time.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: You had a novella published on the 9th of September. What can you tell us about that?

PAUL CORNELL: It’s called Witches of Lychford, it’s the second in Tor.com’s new ongoing novella line, and it’s about three diverse women in a modern Cotswolds town who have to band together to fight supernatural evil in the form of an arriving supermarket chain. Lots of comedy, but real horror too, and I hope it talks about the real world.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: What are the challenges specific to the novella format?

PAUL CORNELL: It’s about being concise, but using the space given by this not being╩a short story. You need to bring the big idea for a novel, then do it crisply. A writer should really be better than that at describing the process.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: You work across many formats; do you have a favourite? Why not or why is it your favourite?

PAUL CORNELL: Prose is my favourite medium. You get to use all the dimensions, and everything else is about not having as much of something. I hope to end my career (not soon) being remembered as a novelist.

Creating Rot & Ruin: An Interview with Jonathan Maberry

Jonathan Maberry is a New York Times bestselling writer and the author of this month’s pro story, “Ink”. One of his most popular series is ROT & RUIN, which follows a group of teenagers struggling to survive in a zombie-infested wasteland. The latest book in this series, BITS & PIECES, is out in stores September 22nd.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: You’ve written successful series for both adults and teens. Do you feel like there’s some crossover between the two audiences?

JONATHAN MABERRY: There’s always been a crossover between the adults and teens that read fiction. That goes back a long, long way and it’s only now that we’re deliberately marketing to teens and adults as separate demographics that it’s being viewed as a phenomenon. When I was eight or nine I was reading Conan stories, Ed McBain mysteries, and Edgar Rice Burroughs along with the Hardy Boys and that sort of thing. In my teens I devoured John D. MacDonald, Roger Zelazney, Richard Matheson, and countless others, while reading To Kill a Mockingbird in school. Most of the adults I know read some YA books, and virtually all of the teens I know ‘read up’.

This is one of the reasons I brought characters from my adult-oriented fiction into my teen novels. Joe Ledger, who stars in his own ongoing series of weird science thrillers, appears as a much older man in the final three books of my post-apocalypse zombie teen novels, Rot & Ruin. So does Iron Mike Sweeney. And there is a crossover character, Sam Imura, older brother to the Imura brothers who star in Rot & Ruin. I did this partly for fun (because I always want to have fun while writing), partly for business (because crossover audiences are good for sales), but mostly so that adults and teens will have a common ground and a book they can share.

Urban Fantasy Magazine:: Rot & Ruin has been featured as an ideal book for reluctant readers. What do you think makes a book appeal to a teen who’s struggling to stay engaged? Any suggestions for adults who feel like they have a hard time “getting into” fiction?

JONATHAN MABERRY: I write the books I would read. Rot & Ruin was written for the fifteen-year-old who is still very much alive inside my head. I’ve loved zombies, swords, martial arts, rough-and-tumble action, girls, adventure, and the end of the world ever since I was a kid. I read about it, I made up games for my friends and I to play, I day-dreamed a lot about surviving a zombie apocalypse. Even though I was an avid reader as a kid, many of my friends were not. I used to find books they’d dig. The reprints of the Doc Savage novels, the Conan and King Kull adventures, anything with space ships, exotic princesses from other worlds, swords and ray guns. I did a bit of Tom Sawyer by playing up the adventure elements to draw my friends in, and then we’d hang out and talk about how we’d fare if we wound up in Pellucidar or at the end of time or whatever.

When I sat down to write Rot & Ruin I didn’t plan the book as a campaign for reading, but I knew what kinds of things would have appealed to me –and to my friends– when I was a kid. I wrote that book. The fact that it went on to appeal to reluctant readers is great, it validates the con-man approach I’ve used all my life to get my friends to read the kinds of books I want to talk about with them.

The same goes for adult readers. Write books that you’d want to read, have a hell of a lot of fun with them, make them fun for anyone to read, and you’re doing it right.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: Tom Imura is the closest thing Benny has to a parental figure in Rot & Ruin. Yet unlike many parents in the genre, he takes an active role in the story and advances the plot along with Benny. What made you decide on this approach?

JONATHAN MABERRY: Although I had no reliable parental influences (my father was a career criminal and a very, very bad guy), I had solid and very positive role models in some of the older students and instructors at the dojo where I studied jujutsu. Tom Imura is a blend of some of the best qualities in those role models. Kind and strong, and someone who accepts that compassion is a strength rather than a weakness. Humor and patience. Those are qualities I genuinely admire. So, since I had these ‘older brother’ role models in my life, I wanted to explore than dynamic in Rot & Ruin. As a result, Tom became one of my most fully realized characters, and he is a runaway fan favorite.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: Zombies are never just shambling monsters in your books. Each series places some emphasis on the idea that “zombies were people, too.” How is this concept important in your work?

JONATHAN MABERRY: First, let me say that I’ve been a fan of the zombie genre since I saw Night of the Living Dead on its world premier in 1968. I was ten. Having grown up with the genre and watched it evolve over the years, I saw an alarming trend toward a dehumanization of the living dead. Granted the zombie is scary and dangerous and lethal, but in virtually all of the books, movies, and comics the zombie is a mindless shell. It has no malice, no evil intent because it’s incapable of emotion. That’s one point. The second is that too many of the genre’s entries tend to make killing a zombie in funny ways a trope. It totally disregards the fact that every zombie was once a person, and each of those people died in fear and pain. Their lives, their world, their futures were stolen from them by the disease that killed them. So, while it is necessary to defend against the zombies, it is a definite step away from our own humanity to forget those facts. It’s typical of a certain kind of war mentality that we demonize and dehumanize our enemies. We see it also in video games and movies where the ‘enemy’ is just another thing to be killed. It becomes about body count rather than a connection to our shared humanity. When I wrote Rot & Ruin that was a core element of the entire story.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: Some characters inevitably get more time on the page than others. How do you go about planning a character who isn’t going to get much space?

JONATHAN MABERRY: ‘Stage time’, as I call it, depends on a character’s importance to the story. Even in character-driven novels, in the end every scene and every character has to serve the plot. I always start a story by thinking about the experiences and reactions of an individual character, and I work outward to create a cast of supporting characters. Those characters whose dynamic will either help deepen the overall understanding of the story or drive the narrative forward get bigger roles.

That said, sometimes characters grow in the telling. In the first draft of Rot & Ruin the character of Nix was very minor, originally intended for one or possibly two small scenes. She was there to help Benny, the main character, come to grips with what he wants in life, at least in terms of friends and possible romance. I had every intention of having Benny fall in love with Lilah, the Lost Girl. But in the writing of those early scenes Nix became much more interesting than I’d anticipated. I based her, to a great degree, on a girl I went out with in ninth grade, and in the writing the personality traits of that girl blossomed in Nix. She became much more complex, more opinionated, more dynamic, more nuanced, and therefore she clearly needed a bigger part in the story. Eventually she became the costar of Rot & Ruin. Like my own girlfriend of ninth grade, Nix Riley refused to be only ‘someone’s girlfriend’ and had no intention of being relegated to a minor supporting role. Benny grew in his understanding of girls in pretty much the same way I did. Good lessons for both of us.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: In a genre that’s historically featured a lot of damsels in distress, you’ve written some complex and capable female characters. I believe Dead of Night was your first book to feature a female protagonist. How was that experience, and are there plans for more leading ladies in future books?

JONATHAN MABERRY: Dead of Night was the first of my adult novels to feature a female lead character. There were very strong female co-leads and secondary characters –Val Guthrie in my Pine Deep Trilogy; Grace Courtland, Junie Flynn, Aunt Sallie, and Lydia Ruiz in the Joe Ledger novels; and Nix Riley, Riot, and Lilah in the Rot & Ruin novels. But Dead of Night started with the character of Dez Fox. She IS the book. It was all about her and how her childhood damage made her at once very strong and very vulnerable. She is a hard-assed redneck police officer in a tiny Pennsylvania town. Her damage is the core of her strength, and that’s a delicate balance for a character. So much fun to write. And she was such a huge hit with the fans that I brought her back in Fall of Night, which takes place one minute after the end of Dead of Night. She makes a brief cameo in the 8th Joe Ledger novel, Kill Switch.

I am about to start writing Glimpse, which is one of my rare solo-point of view novels. I generally like a shared POV told via an ensemble cast. However Glimpse is a horror novel about a young woman –a recovering junkie– searching for the child she gave up for adoption six years earlier. It’s also one of only three standalone novels I’ve written. And the lead character is in no way a typical action hero. She isn’t a cop or soldier, she isn’t tough in any action-movie kind of way. She’s a mother who knows that her child is in danger, partly because of the mistakes she made earlier in her life. That will make her fierce and relentless in ways I haven’t previously explored. I’ll start writing that book in a couple of months and I cannot wait.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: You’ve also done quite a bit of writing for Marvel. Could you describe your first experience writing a comic book?

JONATHAN MABERRY: I grew up as a Marvel Comics kid. My first comic was Fantastic Four #66. I had been planning how to approach Marvel with a pitch when I got a call out of the blue from Axel Alonso, the editor-in-chief. He’d read my novel, Patient Zero, and thought my skills in action, character and dialog would be a good fit for comics. I jumped at the chance, and my first two projects were a Wolverine short (“Ghosts”) used as a back-up piece for that year’s annual; and a 32-page Punisher Max (“Naked Kills”) for their adult line. I went on from there to do a slew of projects for Marvel, including a short stint on Black Panther, and lots of limited series, DoomWar, Captain America: Hail Hydra, Marvel Zombies Return, Marvel Universe vs The Avengers, and others.

I’ve also explored some creator-owned projects because I love horror comics and Marvel doesn’t do a lot of horror books these days. So I did Bad Blood for Dark Horse, with amazing art by Eisner Award winner Tyler Crook, and it won the Bram Stoker Award for best graphic novel. And I’ve two projects so far with IDW. A limited-series Rot & Ruin adventure and V-Wars, which is my franchise with IDW. It’s a series of prose shared-world anthologies, it’ll be a board game this Christmas, and we have a TV series in development. So far I’ve done two V-Wars graphic novels.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: If Marvel suddenly asked you to create an original superhero series (not based on any of your existing work), what do you think that would look like?

JONATHAN MABERRY: I’d love to do a story with the daughter of Doctor Doom who becomes a hero. International celebutante by day, armored crime-fighter by night, and working to save her own country from its dictator who happens to be her father.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: Okay, last question. You’ve already shared some of the fun parts about writing for Marvel, but what about the challenges? Is it a struggle to write about characters that are already known and loved by the audience?

JONATHAN MABERRY: Well, a lot of the heavy lifting is already done in terms of establishing who and what the character is. However a writer’s job is to find something new, something interesting to say about that character. When I did Black Panther: Power and its spin-off DoomWar, I went old-school. Doctor Doom was the central villain and I’ve always loved Doom when he was written as a nuanced, sophisticated, and introspective head of state who also happens to be a super villain. I don’t like versions of Doom where he’s raving mad or merely there to be the villain du jour as opposed to having a reason to appear. My Doom was very political, as was my take on the two Black Panthers in the story, T’Challa and his sister, Shuri. So my approach to the whole book was to focus on a national crisis, an economic crisis, and the ways those things impact political brinksmanship. When I did Captain America: Hail Hydra, I set each of the five issues in different eras of Cap’s life, starting with the 1940s. There are elements of the character that have remained essentially the same –the personal honor and integrity, his problem solving, and his courage– but at the same time he’s changed with the times. So I did five different personal interpretations of Captain America at five key points of his evolution. Those kinds of challenges are what a writer lives for.

Creating The Magicians: An Interview with Lev Grossman

The Magicians first hit shelves in 2009 and has soared in popularity since then. The story follows Quentin Coldwater, who gets accepted into a magic college, only to become disenchanted when it’s far from the perfect life he imagined. Lev Grossman has written two sequels, The Magician King and The Magician’s Land. He has also written a thriller novel, Codex, as well as articles for Time and The Wall Street Journal.

Q: You wrote outside the fantasy genre for quite a while before you wrote The Magicians. Are there other genres you’ve thought about giving a try?

A: Science fiction. I’ve read at least as much SF as I have fantasy if not more. But I can’t figure out where my place would be in that genre. When I think about fantasy, my mind is full of ideas for new books that haven’t been written yet, that I want to read. But when I think about SF, all I can think about is how great Iain Banks was. I’m worried I would just end up writing bad Iain Banks fan fiction.

Q: A lot of modern high fantasy has a dark edge to it, but the world of Fillory leans more on the whimsical side. What were your thoughts while you were creating Fillory? Do you feel like there’s still a place for whimsical high fantasy in the current market?

A: That was one of the questions on my mind when I started writing. I’ve always been pulled more strongly towards the non-epic side of the genre, the Lewis/Pullman/Rowling side, which is more whimsical. Plus anything I could ever want to say in epic fantasy, George R. R. Martin had already said. But Pullman and Rowling are doing pretty well for themselves, I figured the marketplace could support one more.

Q: Quentin experiences some pretty traumatizing stuff in The Magicians. Were those scenes especially difficult to write?

And Quentin doesn’t even get the worst of it. I don’t think of myself as a horror writer, or for that matter a horror reader, but there’s always a scene or two in my books that tips over into horror. I write those scenes in a state of icy detachment, almost automatically, and with very little effort. But I find it almost impossible to reread them once they’re done.

Q: If you could travel inside the world of any fantasy novel, which world would you want to visit and why? Which one would you never want to visit?

A: It’s a good question. I was going to say Narnia, but I wonder if after a while it might start to seem a bit chaste and nurserylike there. Westeros, Nehwon… far too rough. Earthsea, perhaps a little too rural. Xanth would probably be good fun, but embarrassingly I would really have to say it’s probably Fillory; I guess I tailored it to my own needs. But Fillory after The Magician King and before Magician’s Land. You wouldn’t want to catch it on a bad day.

I would never want to visit Westeros. I wouldn’t last 5 minutes.

Q: How did it feel when you first sold the rights for The Magicians TV adaptation? Have your feelings changed as the show’s production has progressed?

A: It was a strange experience. It felt great, in that I needed the money, and like a lot of writers I sort of embarrassingly craved the approval of Hollywood. But it was scary too. It was hard to give up control. I panicked a few times along the way.

But now that the series has been picked up, and I’m seeing the various season and episode outlines, I’m just looking forward to it. It’s not my show, I’m really just cheerleading from the sidelines, but it’s definitely a show I want to watch.

Q: Any advice for us fantasy fans who are still trying to explain to our “normal” family and friends just what makes the genre so appealing?

A: I just stress to people that if you look at the history of literature, fantasy just isn’t that weird, in the long view. Since the 18th century the West has been kind of obsessed with realism, but if you go back before that everything was fantasy. That’s just what literature was. Shakespeare wrote about magic and fairies and witches and monsters. So did Milton, Spenser, Dante, Homer … if anything fantasy is a return to the norm.

Q: What’s one question you think would be really fun to answer, but that will probably never come up in an interview?

A: I often get asked about my influences, but people rarely ask about non-book influences. But there are a lot of them. Dungeons and Dragons, obviously, but also video games like Quake and Myth and Halo, and recently the iPhone game Monument Valley. The Bourne movies. The painter Caspar David Friedrich. A band called Metric, to whose music I wrote most of the Magicians trilogy. They all feed into my writing, the same way books do.

Diversity in Speculative Fiction

Human beings have a huge range of perspectives and experiences. It can be easy, as readers, to gravitate towards the familiar, to read about same types of characters again and again. But if we do, we miss seeing the full spectrum of beauty and art that our favorite genre can offer.

Djibril al-Ayad, general editor of The Future Fire, discusses the topic with us further.

Q: Congratulations on ten years of The Future Fire. For those unfamiliar with the magazine, could you fill us in on the basics?

A: Thank you. Basically, The Future Fire is an online speculative fiction magazine that specializes in social-political themes—which is to say we’re more interested in the way cultures differ in future/past/alternative worlds, and what that says about our own society, than we are in all the jazzy tech, magic, war or royalty. That also means we’re interested in diversity—stories by and about under-represented groups, and stories that explore issues like gender, sexuality, race, disability, class and other axes of privilege. And we are devotees of the traditions of Franz Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges, so we love stories that are slightly surreal or magical realist, ekphrasis, hoaxes, and the absurd.

Q: You’ve published several anthologies featuring under-represented voices in speculative fiction. Could you give us some more details about them?

A: Oh yes, we’ve now published three anthologies, and there are a couple more in the pipeline. The first was Outlaw Bodies, proposed and co-edited by Lori Selke, which features nine stories of worlds in which bodies that are different, modified, imperfect or transformed are prohibited, required, disadvantaged or otherwise constrained. There’s a lot of variety in there, and I’m pretty proud of the strong reactions we’ve received, from love to the occasionally reviewer who was offended by some of the content. And then we published We See a Different Frontier, co-edited by Fabio Fernandes, a postcolonial-themed anthology, which was the first time we paid professional rates for fiction. We See a Different Frontier featured stories from all over the world, earned a huge array of nominations, reprints, and honorable mentions, and is also being taught in a couple of college literature courses. And finally, out this month is Accessing the Future, co-edited by Kathryn Allan, full of stories and artwork that tell stories about futures in which disability is handled differently—sometimes better, sometimes not, but always recognized as the social and political phenomenon that it is. (Disability is not a medical issue; it’s a political one.) I think I’m being fair when I say that not a single story in any of these anthologies is a single-issue story, nor is any piece a dull, earnest tract or screed; they’re all great stories in their own right.

And right now we’re reading for a new anthology, Fae Visions of the Mediterranean, co-edited by Valeria Vitale, for which we’re looking for stories of ghosts, sea-monsters, pirates, hallucinations, dreams, legends, horrors and wonders from and about the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea (including and especially the under-represented North Africa and Near East).

Q: How has the fantasy genre changed in recent years? Do you feel it’s including more diverse voices than it used to? What are your thoughts on the urban fantasy genre, specifically?

A: I don’t know how it has evolved as a genre, necessarily, although there are no doubt trends and patterns that we could pick out in publishing. What I have noticed is that there is a certain kind of diversity that has probably always existed—there has always been fantasy by and about women, people of color, queer issues, class and disability—but that the mainstream is more aware of these days. This is obviously a good thing (or at least, obviously I think so), but it has also let to various push-backs and regressions: we’re seeing a lot of appropriation of non-European cultures by neo-colonialist authors, which is sometimes, but not always, deeply problematic. And we’re seeing the more sinister harassment and abuse campaigns against authors of color from groups who feel threatened by this new acceptance of diversity. Maybe this really ugly reactionary behavior is a sign that we’re winning, in the long term, but that doesn’t help people whose lives are destroyed by it.

Urban fantasy has long included diversity of characters in its menu of features, I think, and the inclusion of diverse authors is improving, too. There are common issues of cultural appropriation and stereotypes, of course, and gotchas like the “unique kick-ass heroine” with no female friends or relatives, but there are plenty of great women and authors of color writing UF, so we certainly don’t need to read any of the boring stuff if we don’t want to!

Q: What would be your advice to writers who want to write from an under-represented POV that they are not familiar with?

A: My first comment would be a warning against cultural appropriation—for me, it’s much more important to hear the voices of under-represented writers than it is to give the same cishetwhiteabledanglo privileged authors more variety and color to write about. Ask yourself why you want to write from an under-represented POV. Read works by people from that POV (nonfiction as well as fiction in the genre you write). Talk to people. Most importantly, ask someone from the group you’re writing as to read and critique your work. But then, don’t try too hard—remember that whoever’s voice you’re trying to write is human, too. 99% of the time they’ll have the same fears and motivations and reactions as your other protagonists who look like you. I’ve never understood (e.g.) male writers who are afraid to write female protagonists because they don’t know how. C’mon, guys, women are human! Have you never met a woman? They’ll react to meeting a ravening werewolf pretty much exactly the same way you will. Mutatis mutandis.

Q: What would be your advice to readers who are seeking books about diverse characters?

A: Firstly, I’d congratulate them on an excellent idea! I’ve hardly read any books by cis/het white anglo men for the past several years, and I’ve discovered some wonderful new work as a result of it. (Nothing against straight white men, of course, but they get 75% of the attention at the expense of the other 99% of the world, so they can afford to lose my custom for a bit!) But the main thing I’d say is look for books by diverse authors—that will give you the diverse perspectives you’re looking for far better than looking only at characters’ backgrounds. And if you don’t know where to start looking for and , then ask around: there will be a good deal more out there than you thought. I started asking around about diverse/minority SF/F anthology themes a few years ago (I was looking specifically for short stories), and received more recommendations than I’ve been able to make much of a dent in.

Q: Any closing thoughts?

A: Since you’ve been so kind as to let me talk a bit about TFF and our tenth birthday this year, I might mention that as a celebration we’re planning an anthology to reprint a few stories from the last decade plus a bunch of new material, which is tentatively titles Ten Years of The Future Fire or “TFFX” for short. Since we’ve never made any profit from this online magazine and small publishing venture (we’ve never aimed to), we’ll also be running a Kickstarter to raise the funds to pay authors properly for reprint rights and new stories. As stretch goals we will also try to: (1) raise the pay-rate for the Fae Visions anthology; (2) raise the pay-rate for authors and especially artists in the magazine itself for next year or so. You will find details of the fundraiser and other celebratory activities at our Editors’ Blog: Press.FutureFire.net

Thank you so much for giving us this space to chat with you and your readers!

The Witch and the Magician by Beth Noland

The presence of witches in literature is a long and winding road.  Going back to the dawn of time, witchcraft and sorcery is found in some form in almost every culture across the globe. Nestled among the other literary characters found in urban fantasy, witches offer a different experience than our other favourites such as the vampire or werewolf.  Honing a gift that is controlled by themselves, the power of witches and the ability to wield their craft harnesses an intensity that captivates and pulls us in.  Sure we know that potions and spells are part of the mystery, but indeed, the magic goes much deeper.

Witches in literature have undergone many face lifts, evolving with time and audience.  When we look at the witches we know so well from our childhood, specifically those that were embedded in fairy tales, we see some interesting differences that divided them.  Some witches, such as the one in Hansel and Gretel, are very one dimensional characters.  In this case, she is very much a part of the early literary archetype of the witch—old, ugly and mean. There isn’t much explored around the character, other than what is given. But that isn’t true for all of the witches that we see in fairy tales.  Others were more complex characters, using their powers of sorcery to attain something that we would think to be unattainable.  Take, for example, Dame Gothel from Rapunzel.  Catching her neighbour in her garden, she exchanges her silence about the theft for the thief’s firstborn child.  Although a ridiculous and preposterous bargain, the neighbour agrees.  It is the same in The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Anderson.  The Little Mermaid comes to the Sea Witch and asks what can be done regarding her desire to become human.  The Sea Witch offers what seems like an unbelievable solution (the Little Mermaid losing her tongue and gaining legs that give her searing pain), and the Little Mermaid agrees to the exchange. Not only do Dame Gothel and the Sea Witch give the neighbour and the Little Mermaid a choice to do what is right, they both choose the road less travelled: the more painful option with very high consequences.

Fast forward to the witches in modern day literature, and we see something even more interesting.  We see magicians — strong women that are no longer the villain but powerful leads that push through boundaries. Hermione Granger, although perhaps a bit annoying sometimes, uses her knowledge and wit to get her friends out of dangerous situations on more than one occasion.  Not to mention Alice Quinn (The Magicians, by Lev Grossman), a reserved and intricate character that has an amazing natural ability to understand and manipulate the world around her.  Furthermore, we see men enter the profession in a seamless and endearing way.   From Harry Potter to Quintin Coldwater, the witch, or more notably now, the magician, is making a comeback.

They are the masters of their own destiny, controlling and unleashing their powers for good (and sometimes bad), but always managing to maintain a level of dignity among the other characters and their readership.  We like them and can identify with them.  No longer are they the old women that hide in the forest, waiting for little children to stumble upon their house. Instead they walk in the light, hoping to do what is right and just. They have become people with thoughts and feelings, desires and yearnings to grow and expand their knowledge, offering us, the very ordinary reader, a little chance for some hocus pocus.

Happily Ever After: Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy by Beth Noland

From vampires to werewolves, extraterrestrials and ghosts, the possibilities are seemingly endless in the sea of Paranormal Romance.  A sub-genre that has gained momentum in the last few years, mostly due impart to the latest success of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series to the newly awakening of the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon brought to TV, Paranormal Romance is making its way into contemporary literature with a howl so strong that it is reverberating off the book covers of Urban Fantasy.  But what is this genre that is causing such a stir, propelling people to veraciously devour these books with such a speed that leaves us wanting more?

Paranormal Romance, nestled tightly between Urban Fantasy and Romance, is a genre that allows for endless possibilities due mostly to the fact that there aren’t really any boundaries defining the genre other than…you guessed it, the main feature in the story is a romantic involvement and something of the ‘paranormal’. The ‘paranormal’ can be something as simple as a vampire, to the ability to travel through time, but make no mistake, anything is possible. Many of these novels have a little bit of everything, from action, to telepathy, horror to perhaps the best historical novel you will ever read, there is something to draw almost every type of reader. There is something for everyone, and just because it has Romance in its title, like any genre, it draws a varied readership.  But perhaps, one of the most important aspects of the Paranormal Romance genre is the happily ever after.  Unlike Urban Fantasy, where the happily ever after isn’t really guaranteed, it is different with a Paranormal Romance.  Readers can bank on the fact that eventually, the lovers will find their way back to each other, though it may take a few books, whereas, for Urban Fantasy there are a few ‘rules’ that must be maintained in order for the genre to remain true.

With Urban Fantasy, the first and most important aspect of the genre is that is must be urban in setting.  Timeline isn’t of upmost importance, though having aspects of the paranormal, magic, and whatever else of the ‘other’ is important to the genre along with the urban setting.  In Paranormal Romance, the plot is pushed forward by the same formula that every romance is pushed by:  some sort of attraction, but that attraction is fought, only to have the lovers brought together, then they are pushed apart, but in the end they live happily ever after.  Throw in some paranormal elements, and you have a Paranormal Romance. But that is at the core the simplest definition, and many of us who have read the genre know there are many other intricacies and complex problems laced throughout these stories. Vibrant and gifted authors create worlds, characters and events that are so complex and well thought out that it is no wonder why these books are flying off the shelves. Often written in the third person and from multiple points of view, we are given a larger scope of the plotline, but less of an idea of what is really going on due to the complexities of hearing so many different perspectives. In comparison, an Urban Fantasy plotline may have romantic aspects and strife between lovers, but the plot is not pushed by the romantic attraction.

But what makes it so popular?  I myself enjoy numerous genres, but I have always found myself drawn to Paranormal Romance. In the early ’90s I remember devouring numerous books that were Paranormal Romance. Reading as many as two a day, it was all I could do to come out to eat.  And even now, as an adult, I find that this genre has the ability to pull me in so deep that I can look up and it is 2 o’clock in the morning. How is it that they are able to do this? I have to admit, that for me personally, the worlds that these books create are so intriguing and filled with adventure, that the idea of living vicariously through the characters is exciting and exhilarating. I will never know what it is like to be five thousand years old, to possess the strength of ten men, or to discover cities at the deepest part of the ocean all because I can’t. But these characters can.  And the fact that the characters are so different makes it all the more thrilling.  That these characters  can be the only one, the other, the incredible, undefeatable is rousing and electrifying  Their world is ours but so different, like mine but not, and it is perhaps this idea, that maybe, just maybe, I can one day travel through time or meet a werewolf is what makes this genre that much more appealing.

The Vampires Among Us by Beth Noland

From femme fatales to the suave seducers, vampires have come to play on our sympathies, invade our everyday lives, and to a certain extent, play some very prominent roles in some pretty risqué fantasies.

Vampires have become prevalent characters in the 21st century, and lately, we can’t seem to get enough of them. They have always haunted the recesses of literature, and although many may think that Stephanie Meyer “brought the vampire,” vampires reigned supreme long before she put pen to paper.

Anne Rice with The Vampire Chronicles, Linda Lael Miller’s The Black Rose Chronicles, and even some young adult authors from the mid-90s such as Christopher Pike (The Last Vampire series) have all written about vampires successfully. But perhaps the most interesting and common thread between these authors is the humanization of the monster. Of course, we have changed as a society and as a people, so it is no wonder that the vampire has changed too, but the vampire has always been a reflection of the fears and values of the times.

Hundreds of years ago, the vampire was a character that permeated folklore. Although significantly more corpse-like in appearance (and let’s face it, far less attractive with those bloated and decaying looks), it was substantially less choosey with its meal, and more monster than human-shrouded-in-darkness. However, it wasn’t until the 19th century when this dark character was given its modern reputation. John William Polidori’s The Vampyre (written in 1819) was the first piece of prose that gave birth to our current (romantic) idea of the vampire. His main character, Lord Ruthven, came away from the graveyard, donned the attire of an aristocrat, and selected his victims from the upper class. This was the first time that the vampire acquired more human characteristics, making him that much more appealing/appalling to the reader, most likely due in part to the fact that he could so easily hide amongst us.

But there were others, and probably the most notable was Bram Stoker’s Dracula. If you were to ask anyone about the earliest vampire work, more often than not, this would be the answer. Bram Stoker created a world that maintained the monster, but was also romantic and seductive. Dracula preyed on the innocent, but despite that, he was still a poignant character that was more than just his blood lust. He was mysterious, lonely, alluring, yet dark, and most importantly human. Human, not in the sense that he was alive (because, as we all know, he was not), but human in our ability to identify with him on a personal level. Sadness, loneliness–we’ve experienced those things.

Subsequently, it is interesting to delve into the gender stereotypes and the limitations these stereotypes placed on women during Victorian era when the book was written. In a time where even piano legs wore coverings, and chasteness was a highly valued female attribute, it isn’t surprising that Dracula would be written to be both titillating and horrifying.

As societal and cultural values evolved, and we became more interested in sexuality and gender roles, evolutionary science and medical advances, the literary vampire began to take on a different tone. Epic stories such as Marilyn Ross’s Barnabas Collins series (1966-71) Ann Rice’s Vampire Chronicles (1976-2014), Linda Lael Miller’s The Black Rose Chronicles (1993-96), or young adult sensation The Last Vampire by Christopher Pike (1994-2013) spanned an enormous swath of time. The vampire became less of a monster. Instead of just “undead,” now we see words like alabaster, smooth, alluring, chiseled, and beautiful describing appearance. Instead of some horrific being that lurks in the dark, they are now able to come out in the day, or even, like Stephanie Meyer’s vampires, sparkle in the sunlight.

The fact that now they are not only beautiful, but carry the wisdom and experience from hundreds of years, it is no wonder why us mere mortals tend to swoon in their presence. But, perhaps the most interesting thing is, we now see vampires that hate what they are. Thrust into being by dire need or force, and with it so many emotional facets that we identify with, there is no way we cannot sympathize or embrace this new kind of vampire.

In a time where face-to-face interactions are no longer the norm, where information is available at our fingertips, it is not surprising that we have turned our foe into a friend. As a society, we have been exposed to so much–things that once scared people, haunted their nightmares, and shook their beliefs are no longer as shocking as they once were. It now takes more to scare us. We see beheadings on TV, unspeakable atrocities on the internet for all to view, and perhaps even scarier is how many seek these things out as mere entertainment. When we are more inclined to watch those who suffer through the lens of a camera phone, than to offer aid or assistance, it begs the question: are we the monsters?

What About Ghouls? by A R Neal

One of the most misunderstood and least recognized urban fantasy characters has to be the humble ghūl, known more popularly as the ghoul. Ghouls conjures thoughts of things that go bump in the night, of salivating, night-and-graveyard-loving things you would not want to meet at the bus stop. However, there are variations on the theme when it comes to ghoul characteristics, and in recent times, those more ancient traits have become cause for confusion. Some say that ghouls are only female, that they sometimes hunt in packs, that light hurts them, that they eat the living and the dead, and that their bite can turn the victim into a ghoul, or some other creature. Others say that ghouls are some sort of monster or evil spirit that hang out in graveyards, consume human flesh, and are identified as undead, but if so, how are they different from zombies? What makes a ghoul?

The word ghūl (which is the male-specific term, while ghoulah is the female-specific, and ghilan is the plural) is of Arabic origin, and it more often referred to a demon, or similar creature of lore, than it referred to the thing folks say lives in cemeteries. ghūl is first mentioned in One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of Arabic, Persian, and Mesopotamian folklore from the first century, A.D. Consider “The History of Gherib and His Brother Agib”: Gherib was a prince who fights off a family of ghilan, makes them his slaves, and converts them to Islam. In other Arabic stories, a ghūl referred to a shape-shifting, desert-dwelling creature that nabs people–especially children–and takes them to abandoned places to eat them.

Hans Christian Andersen, Lord Byron, Edgar Allen Poe, and H.G. Wells have all touched on ghouls. However, we can’t consider ghoul-ness and its place in popular culture without looking to Lovecraft, who, by my account, certainly offers the clearest identification in his 1926 story, “Pickman’s Model”:

 These figures were seldom completely human, but often approached humanity to varying degrees. Most of the bodies, while roughly bipedal, had a forward slumping, and a vaguely canine cast. The texture of the majority was a kind of unpleasant rubberiness … But damn it all, it wasn’t even the fiendish subject that made it such an immortal fountain-head of all panic—not that, nor the dog face with its pointed ears, bloodshot eyes, flat nose, and drooling lips. It wasn’t the scaly claws nor the mould-caked body nor the half-hooved feet—none of these, though any one of them might well have driven an excitable man to madness.

Lovecraft offers other views of ghouls in earlier works: “The Lurking Fear,” “The Rats in the Walls,” and later, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. But those ghouls are different: not always horrific, not always underground-dwelling. And if you need a bit of kinky doings, consider Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Nameless Offspring,” where the ghoul does more than just make a meal of the corpses it finds.

Despite all that . . . wait for it . . . ghoulishness, I admit that I have a soft spot in my heart for them. It started with that campy flick, The Monster Club from 1981. If you haven’t had the, um, pleasure(?) of seeing it, you must, if for no other reason than for the joy of watching Vincent Price and John Carradine together. But I digress. Monster Club is a collection of three stories with musical interludes between (spoiler: yes, there are monsters in a secret-ish English nightclub). The first is about a lonely creature that kills with a whistle, the second is about a vampire and his family, and the third … well, the third is ghoulish. It is about a movie director, a hidden village that he thinks is perfect for his next location, and his dismay at finding a strange but lovely young woman there who seems to have no notion of the bustling metropolis just down the road. Did I mention that the poor woman and her family members have been eating corpses and taking clothes from the village cemetery? Ultimately, Mr. Director discovers that the cupboard is bare, the village members are a might peckish, and they are looking at him as if he were some sort of tasty exotic treat.

Ah! So it seems that to properly classify a creature as a ghoul, it must consume human flesh of some sort. Such a one is not necessarily dead, but enjoys a cemetery snack and–after spending inordinate amounts of time among the deceased–may begin to take on the appearance of the dead.

And since we go through spats where there is an overabundance of standard creatures like vampires (note the popularity of films like the Blade series, and of books and movies like the Twilight series) in urban fantasy, I advocate that we take up the ghoul banner. If you write urban fantasy, how about making that weird guy in the condo complex a ghoul instead of a vampire? What about it?