I have always loved cities, always been excited and frightened by them. I never wanted to go on a long journey towards Mordor—I don’t even really like to camp. In my dreams I wander through vast and teeming metropolises, through slums where misery is distilled and handed round like shots of liquor, past white towers and laughing lovers and skittering children, down alleyways that curl back on themselves where old women blind as worms peek out from half-shuttered windows and mutter in an unprepossessing fashion.
Those Above is, along with a lot of other things, a story about this essential cityscape, though of course I’m not the first writer to find himself inspired by the teeming hives of mankind. Here are five favorites of mine!
Lankhmar—The Fafhrd and Gray Mouser Series by Fritz Leiber
Lankhamar is, of course, New York, and Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are prototypical New Yorkers. Provincials traveling far to the heart of the world, an affected cynicism and their own friendship all they have to defends themselves from the machinations of the Thieves Guild, and the mystical stratagems of Ningauble of the Seven Eyes and Sheelba of the Eyeless Face. Also, they have swords to defend them.
Nessus—Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe
You didn’t think I’d made a list without Gene Wolfe on it, did you? Nessus is a vast and horrific and marvelous metropolis (Maybe it’s Buenos Aires? Maybe it’s not?) the seat of the god-like Autarch and his world-spanning empire. It captures perfectly one of the extraordinary things about cities generally, which is that they are built on the bones of prior inhabitants, of peoples and cultures and epochs which are gone but still manage occasionally, ghost-like, to peak through.
New York—A Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin
Ignore the terrible, absurd, incoherently stupid movie (which must certainly have been the result of a lost bet, because this novel is absolutely unfilmable) and check out New York as a imagined by Mark Helprin, where gangs from the Five-Points chase flying horses across a wintry skyline, and mankind’s capacity for horror and decency is deeply plumbed. A gilded age which never existed but which you will wish you lived in.
Kyoto—Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu
Admittedly 10th century Kyoto was a real place, but readers will discover a city that seems fabulously strange, consisting of nothing but pleasure palaces, cherry blossom orchards and white-faced woman whispering behind curtains. A rough half a million words detailing the life and career of Genji, a courtier to the Emperor court, it is widely considered the most important work of classical Japanese literature as well as being, essentially, the first novel ever written. It is, in addition, almost indescribably boring (to modern readers at least) but the setting itself is immensely evocative. I cribbed from it mercilessly for Those Above.
Gormenghast—The Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake
The great castle-city of Gormenghast is ancient, and strange, and has terrible and potent secrets rotting away behind its walls. Overwritten and sometimes tedious, still the sheer imaginative power of Peake’s creation shines through across the two books, chronicling our hero’s attempts to forge an authentic individual identity against the rigid and moribund forces of his fantastical but curiously recognizable society.
Daniel Polansky is the author of four novels, including the Low Town series which began with The Straight Razor Cure. His newest novel, Those Above, is set in a new world and on a much larger stage. Polansky lives in Brooklyn, NY and can likely be found writing at a neighborhood bar.