Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy Month

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.


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