Tanya Huff, Blood Price and the Formulation of Urban Fantasy

I’ve been reading Tanya Huff’s book Blood Price, published back in 1991. Or, more accurately, I’ve been reading the 2006 omnibus edition that also includes the sequel, Blood Trail, and a new introduction by the author. Here, Tanya Huff states that she had the idea for the novel back in 1989, and gives the commercially-minded decision behind its conception:

BloodPriceWhy a vampire book?

Well, at the time I was working at Bakka—a science fiction bookstore in Toronto—and I noticed that vampire readers are very loyal. In a desperate search for somethingng decent to read they’ll cross their fingers and pick up just about anything with fangs on the cover. We were thinking of buying a house in the country and so would need a mortgage and vampire books came with a large—and, as I mentioned, loyal—fanbase built in.

So I wrote the first chapter of my “vampire book” and it just wasn’t working. The beloved read it and said, “You know, instead of writing a vampire book, why don’t you write a Tanya Huff book with a vampire in it.” And so that’s what I did.

The main character, Vicki Nelson, is a private investigator who has no prior involvement with the supernatural. Her day-to-day life hits familiar crime fiction beats, as she bickers with her partner from her days as a police detective and is ultimately vindicated. The villain, Norman Birdwell, has an utterly mundane motive: he is a bullied college nerd who stoops to murder as a way of getting revenge against the women who rejected his advances. Aside from his means of committing these murders – namely, summoning demons – he could easily have turned up in a straight crime novel. (As an aside, he would also fit right into Buffy, demon-summoning intact.)

Much urban fantasy will, at some point, have to confront what I’ve come to think of as the Munsters Factor: that the more you integrate beings of supernatural horror into mundane settings, their scariness wanes and their silliness grows. Some stories will embrace the Munsters Factor as a source of parody (as in, well The Munsters); others will do a sort of dance with it, treating their horrors as cartoonish jokes at certain points while lending them weight elsewhere (as in Buffy) while still others fail to notice that the issue exists in the first place and fall flat (Twilight).

With Blood Price, Tanya Huff takes the straightforward tack of giving us multiple degrees of supernatural being, each one moving further from the mundane.

The vampire, Henry Fitzroy, turns out to be a harmless sort – he spends his time writing romance novels, an idea that plays right into the Munsters Factor. The novel goes through the familiar ritual of check-boxing the established vampire rules, accepting some (Henry is harmed by sunlight) and rejecting others (he can enter a house without invitation) but, either way, telling us exactly what Henry can and cannot do. Like Varney before him and Angel and Edward after him, he ends up coming across as a sympathetic man with some supernatural quirks, rather than as a truly inhuman being.

After learning of his existence, Vicki initially suspects Henry of being the murderer. But it turns out that the killings are the work of Norman Birdwell’s demon.  And so we come to the second tier of supernatural creature: unlike domesticated vampires such as Henry, Norman’s demon maintains something of the unknowable about it. It is still bound by rules, but crucially, it has more room to find loopholes in thoe rules. For example, Norman summons it to murder a woman; as he does not know her full name, he shows her discarded glove to the demon and asks it to kill the woman carrying the other glove of the pair. Inevitably, by that point someone else has picked up the second glove, and so the demon ends up killing the wrong person.

Finally, a third tier appears when we find out that Norman’s demon is, itself, trying to summon a second, more powerful demon. The lesser devil has a familiar, gargoyle-like form, but the Demon Lord is an unknowable, eldritch being. As Henry says at one point: “This is demon lore. There aren’t any cut and dried answers. Experts in the field tend to die young.”

While Henry Fitzroy is clearly a specimen if the domesticated vamp, he is not without intrigue. A climactic scene has Vicki heal Henry by allowing him to feed off her, which is where the sex-horror combination beloved of vampire fiction comes into play: “She could see why so many stories of vampires tied the blood to sex—this was one of the most intimate actions she’d ever been a part of… He could feel the life that supplied the blood now. Smell it, hear it, recognize it, and he fought the red haze that said that life should be his.”

Huff also has fun exploring the implications of Henry’s immortality, revealing that he is in fact the same person as his historical namesake, the illegitimate son of Henry VIII.

(One thing I did find jarring about the period flashbacks, however: Huff portrays the vampire folklore of Eastern Europe as being common knowledge in Tudor England, to the extent that Henry VIII is familiar with the stake-and-garlic routine. Logically, if English people from this era were to encounter a vampire, they would instead view the creature through the prism of their indigenous folklore relating to ghosts and witches. Funny, the things that can damage your suspension of disbelief.)

Part and parcel of the Munsters Factor is that, as a fantasy concept becomes commoditised, mystique fades away. When Bram Stoker wrote Dracula, a few authors had written vampire stories (Polidori, Le Fanu and Rymer being the most prominent) but the vampire was still primarily a figure of folklore, ambiguous and intangible. When Tanya Huff wrote Blood Price, on the other hand, she knew full well that a good chunk of her readership will have grown up with Count Chocula breakfast cereal.

If you write a vampire story set in the present day, then you will have to deal with the fact that your protagonists will know about vampires primarily from horror movies and children’s cartoons. This looming spectre of pop culture achieved perhaps its most solid manifestation in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where the characters use fiction as a constant reference point, largely for comedic purposes.

We can see a few early glimmers of the trend towards Whedonism in Blood Price. One scene has Vicki and another character, held captive by Norman, discuss whether their situation more resembles an Alfred Hitchcock Revenge of the Nerds or a David Cronenberg I Dream of Jeannie. Meanwhile, the early discovery of a corpse with claw-marks has characters invoking Freddy Krueger – a quick way to establish a contrast between the harmless bogeymen of the cinema, and the real demon summoned by Norman Birdwell.

Seanan McGuire, one of Tanya Huff’s fans in the professional fantasy scene, has cited Blood Price as the novel that began the urban fantasy genre as we know it:

Do you think she just woke up one day and said “I think I’ll create a genre?” Blood Price was really the moment where you could see the urban fantasy genre start to turn from something that sort of skulked around the edges of the high fantasy into a fully-fledged, fully-functional genre in its own right. Engaging story, awesome characters, top-notch writing, Blood Price had it all. Still does. You want to see where the genre started, this is the place to go.

GateofDarknessAs noted above, Huff conceived Blood Price not as a vampire book, but as “a Tanya Huff book with a vampire in it”. It was the fifth of Huff’s novels to see publication; of the first four only one – Gate of Darkness, Circle of Light from 1989 – was urban fantasy, the others being set in more conventional secondary worlds. Wizards were a recurring theme across all four novels, but with Blood Price she replaced wizards with vampires. She also worked in a dash of detective novel, and in doing so, ended up with a concept that had been well-trodden by earlier generations of ghost story writers: the occult detective.

To top it off, Tanya Huff successfully tackled the Munsters Factor by pitting a domesticated, defanged monster against a more sinister horror, with a good helping of self-awareness on the side.

All in all, a perfect formula. Small wonder it started a subgenre.

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