Does a “beach read” novel need an intellectual justification? Probably not, but if it actually has one, that’s always a bonus. And as it happens, literature professor and debut novelist Nicole Peeler has some rigorous and righteous background justification for her novel Tempest Rising, which follows the mystical adventures of half-selkie Jane True. Not only that, but Peeler also lays out some deep thoughts on “urban fantasy” in general, and why it speaks to us here and now. Hey, that’s a pretty big idea, so it’s good we’re all already here. Let’s get to it.
By trade, I’m a professor of English literature. And yet, when I finally wrote a book, it wasn’t the study on the pre-ideological formation of values in contemporary fiction that I’d always intended. Instead, I wrote an urban fantasy named Tempest Rising, which is about a girl who discovers she’s half-selkie.
In other words, I wrote a book that, on the surface, is the opposite of the novels I teach and read for my day job. From its inception, I envisioned Tempest Rising as a “beach read,” something fast-paced and sexy that a reader could gobble up in a day. Conversely, I teach Modernist literature, one of the most intellectually challenging genres possible, in that Modernism sought to elevate aesthetics over ethics and to eradicate the literary axioms taken for granted by writers and readers for centuries. These were texts meant to challenge, complicate, and obfuscate reality.
And yet, the Modernists weren’t merely being obstreperous. Rather, they were attempting to forge a literary style that was not only original, but also more effective at representing their lived experience than the rigid conformity to surfaces which is literary realism. As I teach in my classes, Modernist literature was fractured and difficult not because the Modernists were jerks, but because they were weathering the death throes of the philosophical assumptions Western culture had taken for granted for so many years. In many ways, then, Modernist texts are traumatized texts, testifying to their authors’ struggles to make sense of a world apparently crumbling around them.
Which leads me to my idea for Tempest Rising, specifically, and for urban fantasy, in general. There’s been much talk in the media about the “rise” of urban fantasy. Oftentimes, this coverage is attached to a particular cultural obsession with sparkly vampires. And yet, as most commentators have admitted, there is more going on with this interest in the supernatural and the paranormal than a mere teeny-bopper fad. There’s something about urban fantasy, with its very specific images and themes, that appeals to readers from diverse generations and walks of life, right at this moment.
When I started planning my own urban fantasy, it was very obvious to me what my Big Idea was going to be. I’ve always been fascinated with religion, mythology and fairy tales, and especially the idea of Jungian archetypes: the theory that, somewhere in the deepest recesses of our brains, lie the imprinted memories of our earliest ancestors. Jung’s theory explaining why diverse cultures share similar mythologies is fascinating, needless to say, but I’d always been a big fan of Sherlock Holmes, wielder of Occam’s Razor. When I imagined myself asking Holmes the same set of questions that inspired Jung, Holmes’ response was obvious: “Perhaps these creatures exist.”
And so, the world of Tempest Rising was born: I knew the sorts of supernatural creatures that would populate my world and how they would live amongst us. The idea of archetypes that first hooked me, however, has also offered me insight into the current interest in the supernatural and paranormal. According to Jung, we soothe our fears of that which goes bump in the night by weaving narratives–complete with morals, warnings, and vivid images of loss. In other words, folk and fairy tales are an attempt to make sense of a chaotic world, just as the grand aesthetic experiment that was Modernism was also an attempt to make sense of a chaotic world.
Think, now, of the times we live in, post 9/11: a world riven by various wars, natural disasters, the real plague of AIDS, the media plagues of Avian and Swine Flu, an increasing distrust of authority figures, and the nihilistic horror of terrorism. In a time of chaos and uncertainty, is it any wonder that urban fantasy, the genre of the contemporary fairy tale, is on the rise? After all, urban fantasy offers a vision of the world in which traditional evils–vampires, werewolves, zombies–are often times merely misunderstood. Meanwhile, traditional heroes–vampire hunters, government agencies, the Church–are often revealed to be sanctimonious, narrow-minded, and murderous zealots. The binaries neatly dividing good and evil are blurred in this genre, and the underlying message in many urban fantasies seems to be that the individual must make his or her own choices: that we must rely on our own experiences and intellect in a world that wants to brand outsiders as evil, to force ideological dichotomies on reality, and to make soldiers of us all.
Urban fantasy, like its folkloric and literary predecessors, offers no more and no less than a narrative restructuring of life: one which highlights cultural anxieties about our world even as it offers escape through storytelling. So move over Modernism! These “beach reads” bite back. And we like it.