Urban Fantasy 101: A Quick Guide to Dastardly Demons

Urban Fantasy 101 - A Quick Guide to Dastardly Demons

Demons are another urban fantasy and paranormal romance staple and, like the vampires and shifters I’ve written about before, they encompass a wide range of various supernatural species across different cultures. A demon in one urban fantasy or paranormal romance series might not be recognized as a demon in another and, generally, these demons don’t look like the ones in demonology around the world.

What even are these demons?

We talked about this in UF101: Mythology Soup: sometimes, we squish a whole lot of things together that maybe… don’t quite need to be squished together. In the urban fantasy and paranormal romance genres, demon can sometimes count as an umbrella term under which a whole bunch of other supernatural beings are expected shelter.

Case in point? In Hannah Jayne’s Underworld Detection Agency series, the term “demon” kind of encompasses anything that’s not human. That includes “actual” demons like the kind we’re used to seeing as villains of the hour on episodes of Charmed and Supernatural and other supernatural species that aren’t typically associated with the demonic. Like werewolves, zombies, and vampires.

Talk about casting a wide net, huh?

In the UF and PNR books that aren’t so free with their definitions, the term “demon” can refer to the aforementioned “actual” demons (usually with complicated names full of clunky consonants), incubi and succubi, and fallen angels. Oftentimes, the authors’ grasp of demonology is wildly Western, but I’ve seen authors enfold supernatural beings like the Japanese kappa and the Scottish kelpie under that umbrella of Western demonology.

When you crack open an urban fantasy or paranormal romance novel, there’s honestly no set-in-stone approach to demons. Every author has their own approach and while Western authors brought up in the Christian church tend to subscribe to an ethnocentric, Western approach to demonology (because that’s kind of how that works, I guess) as their base to build off of, a lot of what they build?

Looks pretty darn amazing.

The Good, the Bad, and the Awfully Upsetting

The Good

  • Sometimes, authors give us demons with horns and tails and I am always going to be here for that.
  • Individual authors’ hierarchies of hell(s) can be really innovative. In stories set primarily or partly in a hell dimension, seeing how the author sets up a demonic hierarchy can be such a treat!
  • Pretty Princes of Hell (e.g., Prince Sitri in Craig Schaefer’s Daniel Faust series and Lucifer in Lilith Saintcrow’s Dante Valentine series).
  • Many PNR and UF series’ portrayal of demons as just as complicated as humans are with a complex society and morals that might not match ours, but are fascinating nonetheless.
  • Contracts. So many contracts.

The Bad

  • I almost always want to summon a demon after reading a really good demon-centric book.
  • Demons in these two genres either tend to focus on a Christian-centric notion of the demonic or they assign this Christian-centric idea of the demonic to non-Christian religions and their concept of evil.
  • You can just tell when the authors in question get their demonology knowledge from sixteenth century European demonologists – many of whom, I suspect, were just making shit up as they went along and wouldn’t know a demon if it literally crawled out of a hell dimension and licked them.
  • Not enough tentacles. Y’all are talented authors and you have all of horror and fantasy to pull from when it comes to designing your demons and yet I can only think of a handful of urban fantasy/paranormal romance series where demons have tentacles. Shame on y’all!
  • In books where they’re not the main supernatural species, there tends to be a pretty binary view of good and evil. This isn’t a true “Bad”, because some books don’t need gray areas or demons inhabiting them, but I don’t have anywhere else to put it.

The Awfully Upsetting

  • So many demons in the genre tend to be rapists and general sex pests? Especially sex demons like incubi and succubi. While I get that sexual assault is one of the worst things you can have happen to a character and still survive, I think that the PNR and UF genres aren’t the greatest at writing such sensitive topics almost as a rule.
  • Lots of slavery? Demons enslaved by humans, humans enslaved by demons, demons enslaved by demons. It’s tiring and I’m tired of it. (It’s also rarely written by folks who have the range to write about slavery and so you get really uncomfortably written content that doesn’t do the greatest job.)
  • A strange and sometimes stressful application of human morality and -isms to demons (i.e., Lucifer’s racist complaints against rap music in the series’ pilot, the hierarchy that places white skin as a greater/more valuable accessory for a demon to have than the skin of a Black person in Liz Williams’ Detective Inspector Chen series). What on earth is the point of racist demons? Why would they even be racist towards/about Black people?

Why (I Think) You Should Be Reading Stories About Demons

Obviously, you shouldn’t read stories about demons if oft-casual use of demons in fiction makes you uncomfortable because of your religious beliefs. However, if you’re thinking about getting down with some of the dastardly demons in the urban fantasy and paranormal romance genres, here are five reasons why I think you should:

  • It’s always fun to see how writers build off of the basics of demonology and make it their own
  • Certain series have super intricate hierarchies and demon societies that are great to explore
  • No two writers write the exact same demon species or demon princes (if they’re running with the Ars Goetia)
  • When demons are the main characters, many authors focus on their main characters inhabiting an in-between, gray space of morality and that’s always fun to explore as a reader
  • In the urban fantasy genre in particular, stories about demons tend towards a gritty, almost neo-noir tone that combines several subgenres in order to tell fascinating stories

Notable Authors

Lilith Saintcrow

Kim Harrison

Craig Schaefer

Diana Rowland

Kelley Armstrong

L. A. Banks

Debra Dunbar

Recommendations/Where to Start

An Urban Fantasy Writer’s Guide to Classical Demonology by J. S. Kupperman

WOC in Romance’s page on demons

Brooklyn Ray’s Witches of Port Lewis series (check out my reviews of the first two books for content warnings) and upcoming novella

Unbroken (an upcoming stand alone in Brooklyn Ray’s Port Lewis series)

Lilith Saintcrow’s Jill Kismet and Dante Valentine series

Kenya Wright’s Santeria Habitat series

Simon R. Green’s Nightside and Secret History series

Craig Schaefer’s Daniel Faust series

Rob Thurman’s Trickster series

Max Gladstone’s Two Serpents Rise (his Craft Sequence series is set in cities across a non-Earth planet)

Debra Dunbar’s Imp Series

A Ferry of Bones and Gold by Hailey Turner

Superstition, a recently canceled Syfy series about a family of Black demon hunters

Everything that comes up when you search Amazon for “urban fantasy demons”

What are your thoughts on demons in urban fantasy and contemporary paranormal romance books? Have you read any of the books I’ve recommended? What are some of your favorite books on demons in these genres?


3 thoughts on “Urban Fantasy 101: A Quick Guide to Dastardly Demons

  1. I’d like to add Mike Carey’s Exorcist series to the mix, which has one of the most badass succubi I’ve ever read:
    The Devil You Know Series, with Juliet. Yes, Juliet is a succubus, but she’s somewhat atypical in that she’s also an assassin and warrior, who falls in love with a human woman, after being summoned to kill the protagonist of the series.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mike Carey has such a great stuff! It’s been a while since I’ve read his work, but he definitely belongs on a rec list about demons in urban fantasy!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I also suggest William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist — a bit preachy and lot outdated in its prose, but it was the source of the demon outbreak in our modern film and fiction!


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