Definition and overview
These terms are used to describe stories set in the putative real world (often referred to as consensus reality) in contemporary times, in which magic and magical creatures exist but are not commonly seen or understood as such, either living in the interstices of our world or leaking over from alternate worlds. It thus has much in common with, and sometimes overlaps with secret history; a work of fantasy in which the magic could not remain secret, or does not have any known relationship to known history, would not fit into this subgenre.
Novels in which modern characters travel into alternative worlds, and all the magical action takes place there (except for the portal required to transport them), are not considered contemporary fantasy. Thus, C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where all fantasy events take place in the land of Narnia which is reached via a magic wardrobe, would not count as contemporary fantasy; on the other hand, the part of The Magician's Nephew, where the Empress Jadis gets to London, tries to take over the Earth and clashes with police and a crowd of cockneys, would qualify as such.
Contemporary fantasy is generally distinguished from horror fiction – which also often has contemporary settings and fantastic elements – by the overall tone, emphasizing joy or wonder rather than fear or dread.
In his preface to That Hideous Strength, one of the earlier works falling within this subgenre, C.S. Lewis explained why, when writing a tale about "magicians, devils, pantomime animals and planetary angels", he chose to start it with a detailed depiction of narrow-minded academic politics at a provincial English university and the schemes of crooked real estate developers: "I am following the traditional fairy-tale. We do not always notice its method, because the cottages, castles, woodcutters and petty kings with which a fairy tale opens have become for us as remote as the witches and ogres to which it proceeds. But they were not remote at all to the men who first made and enjoyed the tales". The same is true for many of the later works in the genre, which often begin with a seemingly normal scene of modern daily life to then disclose supernatural and magical beings and events hidden behind the scenes.