One of the key differences between paranormal fantasy and traditional fantasy is setting. Rather than weave new worlds from whole cloth, those of us who spin our tales of the paranormal—whether urban fantasy or one of its offshoots (can a book set in rural Alabama really be called “urban”?)—develop worlds using the raw materials of our own reality. We create rules, political structures, social strata, and variations on myth and superstition that might exist secretly beside our own reality or might have integrated with it.
In many ways, this makes the task of the paranormal fantasy author more difficult because, by choice, we remain largely bound by physics and biology. Unless radical changes are required to tell our story, we try to keep our newly created version of the real world as believable as possible. Gravity still holds our characters’ feet to the ground most of the time; we continue to breath oxygen; our bodies in their normal state have two arms and two legs and a specific gender. (At least that’s true of the characters who are human or humanlike.) Our characters travel in vehicles we recognize along streets in cities we might know.
We twist the reality, though. Maybe alter the history of our city, or create new fantasy communities in and around the real ones so that there’s a fae reservation in Washington State in the worlds built by Patricia Briggs, or hidden nests of vampires and wizards in Jim Butcher’s Dresdenverse, or a Hollows in Cincinnati where Kim Harrison’s non-humans live and work. In my "Sentinels of New Orleans" series, there is an alternate version of New Orleans lying sandwiched like a no-rules-apply border town between the real city and the paranormal world Beyond.
In a lot of ways, New Orleans as a setting doesn’t need a lot of embellishment. My hometown lives its life large. Its history is bizarre and colorful and dramatic, its people defiantly so. New Orleans is tragic and beautiful, decadent and decayed. It’s no coincidence that so many writers and artists, poets and pirates, castaways and con men have found their way into the city. It belonged to France, and briefly to Spain, long before the Americans ever got there, and as a result, New Orleans is an alien landscape in a South that has grown increasingly homogeneous.
Hurricane Katrina didn’t change that when its winds pushed the waters of Lake Pontchartrain into the bowl-shaped city, causing overflow-canal levees to fail and drain until the water in the city of New Orleans was even with the water in the lake—and then had nowhere to go. If anything, Katrina underscored the ugliness and beauty that coexist in New Orleans.
Reminders of the post-Katrina flooding remain, and one of the most unsettling became the major setting for my novel Elysian Fields, third in a series that sets its fantasy around the premise than the metaphysical levees between our world and the preternatural world also were torn down because of the hurricane.
Some of the earliest 9-1-1 calls after the levees began failing around the city on the morning of August 29, 2005, came in from New Orleans East before the phone systems collapsed and communication became impossible. I remember going through a friend’s house afterward, looking at the wreckage left in a three-year-old home that had stewed for weeks beneath twelve feet of water.
And not far away sits the Six Flags amusement park.
Six Flags New Orleans was never a particularly healthy enterprise. Face it; most of the visitors who come to the city each year didn’t have a lot of interest in kitschy Cajun-themed carnival rides twenty miles from the French Quarter, even if the rides had cool names like “Krewe of Kreeps” and the “Jean Lafitte Pirate Ship.” Rumors of its eventual sale floated around for years before the levee failures created an unintended underwater theme park.
Now, as we approach the eighth anniversary of the hurricane, Six Flags still sits, derelict, owned by the city and in a terminal case of litigation. Each year, we hear the park will be torn down. Yet still it sits. Weeds peek from cracked sidewalks. Giant clown heads the size of cars rest on one ear. An enormous merman welcomes people to the midway—minus his head, which apparently floated off to parts unknown. A ghoulish figure holds a “Zombies welcome” sign. Gang tags and graffiti compete for wall space with dried mold spores and peeling paint.
The swinging chairs hang from their now-faded carousel, rocking in the breezes as if being boarded by an army of ghost children. The enormous roller coaster reaches rusty, curling fingers into the sky. The entrance sign still has the message “Closed for Storm.”
Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up. [For a great visit to the abandoned park, check out this YouTube video; its notes say the park was scheduled for demolition, but it was never torn down.]
It’s a tableau ready-made for paranormal fantasy, with just the right touch of reality.
By Suzanne Johnson
Suzanne Johnson writes urban fantasy and paranormal romance after a career in educational publishing that has spanned five states and six universities. She grew up halfway between the Bear Bryant Museum and Elvis's birthplace and lived in New Orleans for fifteen years, so she has a highly refined sense of the absurd and an ingrained love of college football and fried gator on a stick. She lives in Auburn, Alabama, with two rescue dogs named after professional wrestlers. The third book in her "Sentinels of New Orleans" urban fantasy series, Elysian Fields, came out on August 13.