Jul 23 2010 11:14am

Down This Gravel Road: A Look at Contemporary Rural Fantasy

I'd like to invite you to take a brief side trip from contemporary urban fantasy into contemporary rural fantasy, which often has a lot in common with urban fantasy, including a solid real-world setting and strong shout-outs to the horror and mystery genres, but isn't set in anything remotely resembling a city. Sometimes it's simply lumped in with urban fantasy, which—since I often do that sort of lumping myself—I don't consider necessarily a bad thing.

Currently, in the U.S., seventy-five percent of us live in an urban environment (1), though, as urban dwellers, we're using maybe ten to fifteen (some sources say as little as two) percent of the total land (2).  The rest is where other people live. Or no one lives. Which is a lot of land. And a lot of different sorts of land—mountains and desert, arable and not. When I talk about rural, in my head I'm picturing grain elevators and fresh-cut hay, gravel roads and that guy in the pickup truck who gives a two-fingered wave to everyone he meets. Someone else else might picture a small town in Mississippi or hills in West Virginia or the woods of northern New Hampshire.  Those are rural, too.

For me, rural is inextricably bound up in the people who live and work there (not just farm work; although 90% of farms are still single operator/sole proprietorships (3), very few farmers make a living without off-farm income). Rural fantasy, by my definition, is about those people and what they do and how introducing the supernatural  impacts that world and their lives.

Laura Anne Gilman (author of Staying Dead and Hard Magic) described in a post earlier this month, something of the appeal of urban fantasy:

“Not that the heroes and heroines are part of a magical world, but that they are also part of our world. That the supernatural is lurking on the street corner, in the supermarket, on the subway or in the pizza place down the street. While we may not be able to accomplish what the characters in UF do—and most of us, honestly, would not want their lives—that unpredictable combination of supernatural and commonplace tells us that even the dullest, most ordinary moment has magic.”

That's what rural fantasy should do, too. As much as, or perhaps even more than, urban fantasy, contemporary rural fantasy should be set solidly in a specific place and in the real, often mundane, everyday world of rural life. Not necessarily on a farm or ranch, but certainly in what the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines as that great vast “non-metro” portion of the country—in a small town in Louisiana (Charlaine Harris' Sookie Stackhouse novels) or Tennessee (Daryl Gregory's The Devil's Alphabet or Cherie Priest's Eden Moore trilogy).

You might ask—is contemporary rural fantasy otherwise pretty much like urban fantasy? Sometimes. To me, though, rural, whether non-metro small town or countryside implies both distance and intimacy. People aren’t geographically close and neither are most resources. There’s no quick trip to the grocery or hardware store, the all-volunteer firefighters are miles away and the sheriff or state trooper or whoever provides law enforcement may be one guy for the whole county. On the other hand, neighbors know your business even if they never talk about it. All your business. Especially the things you wish they didn’t. Lots of story potential, like urban environments, but different.

Small towns are a literary staple, part of our American ideal and often held up as the perfect place to live and raise a family (though many books and lots of personal histories have shown a different, less ideal, reality). It's fertile ground for contemporary fantasy. But there's more to rural America than small towns. For a few years now, I've written contemporary rural fantasy with settings more like those in Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres and Catherine Gilbert Murdock's contemporary YA novel, Dairy Queen, stories set on or around farms and ranches in flyover country. I write about it because I want to show it to people the way I see it—vast and beautiful. Like the best urban fantasies, set in cities full of hidden and secret places, the High Plains, the rolling hills of Iowa and the granite peaks of New Hampshire have their own secrets to explore.

Anything can happen there. No. Really. Anything. It might be happening right now.

I'd love to know if there are more contemporary rural fantasy novels out there that I've missed. In middle grade, I'd call Ingrid Law's terrific Savvy and soon-to-be-released Scumble contemporary rural fantasy. I'm sure there must be more. And though I've talked mainly about American rural fantasies, I'd also love to know what's been set in other countries too. Comments?

(1), (3) US Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service State Fact Sheets

(2) Rural Development: Profile of Rural Areas (page 26)

Photo by DJO Photo

Deborah Coates grew up on a farm in western New York. She has degrees in Animal Science and Agronomy and once helped plant a field of sugar beets in northern Ohio in the rain. She currently lives in central Iowa with a Rottweiler and a German Pinscher. Deb has published stories in Asimov's, Strange Horizons, and SCIFICTION.  Her stories have been reprinted in Best American Fantasy 2008, Year's Best Fantasy 6, and Best Paranormal Romance. She has recently sold her first novels, the beginnings of a new contemporary rural fantasy series, to Tor. Find her on Twitter and Livejournal.

This article is part of Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy Month: ‹ previous | index | next ›
1. DontDriveAngry
Hmmm... I can think of a few Stephen King books that come close- he loves his small-towns and communities in Maine, but are they "rural"?

And I've certainly seen plenty of movies and films that are set in the rural areas, but those usually lean more into the horror-genre, but I'd say that they come close as well...

Oh, and just wondering- where in WNY did you grow up? I was born in the Falls and raised on Grand Island...
2. tarbis
Rural seems to be a setting that more attracts horror and dark fantasy elements than anything else. The might partily be because of the isolation that you touched on and also because some many people are unfamilar with rural settings and that makes them more menacing. (Classism and media conditioning might have something to do with this too.)

The only novels that I'd call rural fantasy at that come to mind immediately are Huff's "Blood Trails" (Canadian rural counts) and, maybe, Gaiman's "American Gods" (although the time it spends in Chicago might rule it out).
Tara Mitchell
3. Jaxicat
I love the Soul Smith series by Tom Deitz. Its centered around a family in rural Georgia who have magical powers passed on from generation to generation. I'm not sure if its still being published but I highly recommend it if you can find the books.

Another good one is Raymond E Feist's "Faerie Tale."
Its about a family moving into a house situated in rural upstate New York in an area that borders another world.
4. Steph Burgis
Have you read Patricia McKillip's SOLSTICE WOOD? That's a really lovely one. I also know that Charles De Lint has a couple fantasies in his backlist that have rural settings, although I'm blanking on titles at the moment. And my favorite book when I was a kid was QUEEN OF SPELLS by Dahlov Ipcar, a retelling of Tam Lin set in a rural farming community.
Deborah Coates
5. dcoates
@DontDriveAngry and @tarbis I think you're right that there are more rural settings in horror, which is interesting in and of itself.

There's lots of flex in the definitions of rural. Lots of small towns funnel right into urban areas, but others are pretty far out in the middle of nowhere.

@tarbis I think American Gods is definitely really *American* in any case. And I haven't read 'Blood Trails' but I think there should be a whole sub-genre of Canadian rural stories because it's big and empty and has loads of potential.

@DontDriveAngry I grew up somewhat east of you, just at the western edge of the Finger Lakes.
Deborah Coates
6. dcoates
@Jaxicat: I haven't read either of those. I'll definitely look for them!
Phoenix Falls
7. PhoenixFalls
Second the Patricia McKillip rec!

For de Lint the title that comes to mind most is Someplace to be Flying, though it's set in Newford too.

John Crowley's Little, Big is sort of rural fantasy. . . it has an urban component, but half the novel takes place in a very unique country house somewhere vaguely upstate-New York-ish (I think). Though that part of the novel is really more about the house than about the countryside. . . but the house's isolation and the difficulty of getting supplies and the fact that all the neighbors know your business definitely plays a role.

And Jo Walton just had a post on this website a few days ago about Terry Bisson's Talking Man, which sounds exactly like this. ;) It's here:
Deborah Coates
8. dcoates
Steph: I thought about Charles deLint. I think of him as more urban, but am not surprised he's got some rural settings as well.

The Queen of Spells sounds very cool!
9. OtterB
Not out yet, but Sharon Lee has a book called Carousel Tides coming out in the fall, set in coastal Maine, that sounds like the thing.
Deborah Coates
10. dcoates
@PhoenixFalls: I saw Jo's post about 'Talking Man' and I thought the same thing :) I always think of 'Bears Discover Fire' as a very rural fantasy story.

@OtterB: That sounds like it would be a great setting!
Azara microphylla
11. Azara
The Thread That Binds the Bones by Nina Kiriki Hoffman has a rural setting.
Cathy Mullican
12. nolly
Hmm...the first one I thought of was Gil;s All Fright Diner, by A. Lee Martinez. It has some horror -type elements, but it's really not a horror book at all. It's not trying to scare, shock, or disgust you; there just happen to be Very Bad Things happening...
Madeline Ferwerda
13. MadelineF
I'm from the west, so all these descriptions of rural seem odd to me. For me, rural is hours of dry land. Hours and hours.

It would be interesting to see fantasy set there.
Phoenix Falls
14. PhoenixFalls
MadelineF @ 13:
It looks like maybe The Wood Wife, by Terri Windling might qualify as rural southwest fantasy. . . based on Jo Walton's newest post on this site. :)

And The Mystery of Grace, one of Charles de Lint's most recent novels, is definitely set in the southwest but I can't tell from the jacket (haven't read it yet) whether it's urban or rural or somewhere in between.

I can't think of any other western (as in actually in the western half of the country, not just west of the Mississippi) fantasy. SF yes, but not much fantasy. (If we *were* to include SF, though, I'd list Santa Oliva, by Jacqueline Carey, which is set in a Texas bordertown, and Sky Coyote & Mendoza in Hollywood by Kage Baker, which are in coastal California pre-Gold Rush. Those three books are all quite rural in feel, though not exactly contemporary as they're set in the near-future or the recent-past as reached by time travel. *g*)
david jams
15. davidjas
I know that Charles De Lint has a couple fantasies in his backlist that have rural settings, although I'm blanking on titles at the moment.
16. Hapalochlaena
There's On The Edge by Ilona Andrews and its forthcoming sequel Bayou Moon (Sept 2010).

The Edge is the crossover point between The Broken (the world as we know it) and The Weird (a parallel world of magic). Rose Drayton, effectively orphaned, acts as the sole parent to her younger brothers.

As an Edge dweller Rose and her brothers can move freely into the Broken and the Weird. As a wielder of strong magic, she is a target for unscrupulous Edgers and Weirders who either want to own or sell her.

Drastic changes come into her life on the day she nearly runs over a stranger on the way to Walmart...

Funny quote:
"Go brush your teeth, comb your hair, put on dry clothes, and get the guns. We’re going to Wal-Mart."
17. Ramenth
I'm not all that convinced that Rural Fantasy is meaningfully different from most Urban Fantasy any more than most rural life is really, when you get down to it, different from city life.

For all that rural America is tiny spread out towns and farms, most of it is small but still pretty dense towns. I suppose it comes down to where you draw the line between 'rural' and 'small town' though. Most people I know who claim to be from rural America are just live in smaller towns farther away from Big Cities. They're not any farther from their local grocery store than I am. Heck, if anything, they're closer.
18. Rubashov
Rameth, I'd respectfully disagree. Having gone from small town Minnesota to Tokyo and back to rural Appalachia I see lots of differences, many of which Ms. Coates pointed out.

1) Night is different here. It's darker and its more isolated--no people walking the streets and few cars. Houses are farther away, and like she says, help is even farther (which is why horror works better, I suppose).

2) Fewer eyes and greater distance from centers of power mean that weird stuff can happen without needing the cliched explanations of why magic happens in our world without people noticing and the state/media/etc reacting.

3) Speaking of cliches, nature matters more here. Characters can be expected to know about the other living creatures they share their environment with, and how it changes across the seasons--not just what clothes they should wear each month.

4) There is genuinely a different attitude about people and relationships in small town America. Take Garrison Keiller's Lake Wobegon, that summarizes the attitudes that I grew up in. His characters wouldn't fit in urban fantasy, and vice versa.

Is this true for urban suburbs or small cities like Peoria? Like you say, not as much. There's a continuum from isolated farmhouses to urban hives like Tokyo. But that doesn't change Ms. Coates' point that the far end of that continuum offers a meaningful alternative to urban fantasy.

And why hasn't anyone mentioned Lovecraft and his small town settings?
19. mbg
Does pre-industrial revolution alternate America count? Because if so, I can't recommend Lois McMaster Bujold's "The Sharing Knife" fantasy series highly enough.

It may be that Christopher Moore's "The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove" and "The Stupidest Angel" might count. The setting of a small coastal town in Northern California rings true to me.

This series is not a favorite of mine, (I much preferred Ender), but Orson Scott Card's 'Alvin Maker' series is definitely rural American.
20. S.F.Murphy
I can't stand urban fantasy so I won't claim to understand the appeal of it. Further, as someone who lives in a city (reluctantly) I find that I am far more interested in rural settings than I am in urban ones.

I will say this about what little rural material I have encountered in science fiction though. It almost always tends to rely on stereotypes of the people who live in what is often derisively referred to as "Flyover Country." I dropped a subscription to Asimov's over such a story (among many reasons but that story was the deal breaker).

I would like to see more stories with a rural setting. Hell, I'd definitely prefer to write that sort of thing since my first story was set in rural Missouri. That said, every read I get of the general SF marketplace seems to indicate, over and over again, that the only way you can sell such a piece is to engage in cliches and stereotypes.

S. F. Murphy
On the Outer Marches
21. Leslea
Great post. I've been working on a "rural fantasy" for a couple of years. So happy to see its differences/similarities to urban fantasy explored, because I feel silly everytime I tell someone it's an urban fantasy set in rural Indiana.

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