Tuesday, October 4, 2011

What, exactly, is dark fantasy?

The trend towards darkness is often discussed and sometimes lamented in fantasy circles. But what exactly is it? For myself, I realize I have lazily been accepting whatever label is applied to a particular book. If a book is referred to as 'dark' then I consider it so, without knowing who made the call, or why.

I began to wonder about it only when I noticed Teresa Frohock's MISERERE being referred to as dark. MISERERE, in case you don't know, is about a man who has committed a terrible betrayal and is seeking redemption.

So I did some research.

There seems to be some variation on the definition of dark fantasy. It is either

* Fantasy with elements of the horror genre (SOUTHERN VAMPIRE series, for example);

* Fantasy with ambiguous heroes or antiheroes (Locke Lamora, Thomas Covenant);

* Fantasy that is violent or gory or depicts unpleasant realities in vivid detail (gritty fantasy like PRINCE OF THORNS);

* Fantasy in which the protagonists die, become evil, or lose hope; or

* some combination of the above.

This would pull a lot of books into the 'dark fantasy' classification: Abercrombie, Bishop, Lynch, Donaldson, Lawrence, King, Harris, Hulick, Durham, Morgan, Moorcock, Gaiman, Wolfe, Bakker, Brett, Weeks, Jones, Rice, Hamilton, Friedman, West, and even Martin, not to mention lots of others I'm forgetting or haven't read. That is surely a trend. But given all the different definitions, do we all mean the same thing when we say 'dark fantasy'?

For me the loss of hope would be the most devastating thing to read in a fantasy book. I can live with violence--thought it bores me sometimes if there's just a lot of stabbing for the sake of stabbing--and moral ambiguity makes the characters more believable and interesting. But the loss of hope tears at me.

Some of the books referred to as 'dark' hold on to that thread of hope, that bright glimmer in the future that keeps the protagonists moving forwards. One such is MISERERE. Others do not. Others show the protagonists become bitter and twisted, unable to rise above the terrible circumstances in which they find themselves.

In short, if I had to guess what made a book dark, I would be wrong. I feel a bit more informed today, but still don't know exactly what others mean when they use the phrase 'dark fantasy,' or whether I, in responding to them, am referring to the same thing. Therefore I would find it impossible to say whether I like the trend, or find it a good thing or a bad thing. I encourage everyone to BUY A LOT OF BOOKS and figure it out for themselves :)


  1. Words are a real pain because they never mean what we mean them to mean. It's semantics, but it is important for those of us who comment on the genre.

  2. This is what Teresa Frohock wanted to post, but google prevented her:

    Daryl Gregory did an excellent guest post for SF Signal on anti-horror where he listed the basic structure of most horror novels.


    Then he went on to talk about New Horror as defined by Amelia Beamer and Gary K. Wolfe in Wolfe's collection, Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature.

    From Gregory's article:

    "New Horror uses the tropes and heightened emotional states of horror, as well as a variety of post-modern techniques, to achieve a sense of transcendence. The cost paid by the protagonist leads to 'some sort of accommodation, possibly even toward some version of grace.'"

    Dark fantasy, to me anyway, combines the regular tropes of fantasy with those of horror to produce a new variation on themes common to both genres.

  3. Dark fantasy to me = horror/paranormal elements. I think it gets confusing when it's applied to books like The Lies of Locke Lamora where there is moral ambiguity and violence, I prefer the term Fantasy Noir to make that distinction.

  4. To me dark fantasy is where the "tone" is generally one that is down. The characters are dubious, the settings are bleak, there is an overall heaviness.

    If this is being used as a contrast...and the books are generally trending toward hope or redemption than I enjoy reading them. But if its just a matter of people I wouldn't want to spend time with...in a world that is depressing and terrible...I would rather be somewhere else. I generally like my reading...and inparticular fantasy. To be entertaining and escapist. I would prefer not to escape into a world that is more depressing than my own.

  5. Interesting you should post when earlier this morning, I had a discussion on this very topic. I tend to agree with you, Michael. If the message is grim I regard the book as dark.