New York Comic Con’s panel “Demonic Hotspots, Infernal Pit Stops, and the Badlands: The Great American Road Trip to Hell” featured an impressive panel of today’s urban fantasy authors: Kim Harrison (The Hollows series), Rachel Caine (the Outcast Season series), Patricia Briggs (the Mercy Thompson series), Anton Strout (the Simon Canderous series), Christina Henry (Chicagoland), and Edward Lazellari (Awakenings).
Because their books place vampires, witches, and demons in actual U.S. towns, they face a two-pronged challenge: Not only to create believable creature mythologies, but also to depict these recognizable cities—Cincinnati, Boston, New York City—accurately.
Many of the authors live close to or in the cities they depict, though they chose them for a variety of reasons. For Lazellari and Strout, New York is just intimately familiar: Lazellari is a native, while Strout moved here 15 years ago (inspired, actually, by a Marvel RPG set in the city). Henry had the same experience with Chicago, having lived there. Briggs, by contrast, comes from a largely nomadic childhood, so choosing a town in which to reimagine werewolf mythology didn’t come to her as naturally.
In many ways, specific details about each town’s makeup are what make it the perfect setting. Harrison explained that her needs for the story were what led her to Cincinnati: Because the magic was ended with salt, the city couldn’t be near the sea, and her stories took place over all four seasons. Cincinnati’s population worked well, because she wanted someplace big enough to be a city, but not as far-reaching as a metropolis like Manhattan, where she’d be more likely to slip up.
What made the Tri Cities region of Washington state so alluring for Briggs was that it considers itself an “anti-haunted town.” As she explored, she was struck that the town seems to be filled with WASPs but actually had people speaking multiple languages at the mall. She said, “I figured any town that ignores its own multiculturalism can ignore vampires and werewolves, too.”
All of the authors advocate physically researching your city. Caine shared her experience doing research into Texas, where she actually found a local physician named Dr. Slaughter. Although Strout joked that you can find a lot of New York’s history over Wikipedia, he often goes walking through Central Park. It was on one of those walks that he came across Cleopatra’s Needle, an impressive Egyptian-style obelisk in the middle of the park. You won’t necessarily find that unless you’re not looking for it.
Henry best summed up the process: “You find the mundane and destroy it.”
Of course, authors can’t always be saints. The panelists admitted that often they’re tempted to alter or even demolish these well-known cities. Harrison said that in Pale Demon (which involves a road trip), she went after San Francisco and toppled the famous arch in St. Louis, Missouri. Caine blew up a nuclear plant near the fictional town of Morganville, Texas (so watch out if you’re in the state). And Lazellari jokingly “plead[ed] the fifth” because his sequel has an epic ending he doesn’t want to ruin.
Because the stories are all set in our media-saturated present, it’s a relevant question how the humans in these authors’ books haven’t managed to stumble onto the presence of supernatural creatures. How, one fan asked, have the vampires stayed out of reality TV?
Briggs pointed out that Jim Butcher’s books ironically feature a tabloid that reports the real news. But it was Lazellari who came up with the panel’s most insightful observation: Real-life monsters like Jaycee Dugard’s kidnapper and Josef Fritzl—both who kept the young women, in this case Fritzl’s daughter—locked in basements for decades. If they could get away with it, then so can the fictional monsters.
Natalie Zutter is a playwright, foodie, and the co-creator of the webcomic Leftovers, about food trucks in the zombie apocalypse. She’s currently the Associate Editor at Crushable, where she discusses movies, celebrity culture, and internet memes. You can find her on Twitter @nataliezutter.