“Ernest Hemmingway once said: ‘The world is a good place, and worth fighting for.’ I agree with the second part.”William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) in Se7en
The last line of this horror movie, in my humble opinion, can sum up the philosophy of grimdark, if there’s any to be had down here at the bottom. Yes, the world is nihilistic and shitty, and the heroes don’t always win. But since change is only made and lives are only saved by individual people’s actions, you need to fight to mitigate the crappiness. Most often, most people don’t. Even on the rare occasions when they do, heroes fail a fuckton in both grimdark and horror.
That’s to say nothing of the antagonists. Characters who fight for selfish or evil ends are often characterized as normal, relatable even—if they’re not complete monsters. In horror, they are often otherworldly monsters. But in grimdark, no matter how vile their deeds are, they’re usually human just like you and me. (I find human monsters to be all the more frightening than the inhuman ones as a rule.)
Both genres handle gruesome subject matter and darker themes, but not necessarily to invoke the same feelings or communicate the same ideas. Grimdark can get so gruesome, people often assume it’s “horror fantasy.” But I don’t believe this is actually true. But horror and grimdark are definitely kissing cousins (or more incestuous).
Even though I’m a genre fiction writer, I have a dubious relationship with the word genre. We live in a post-modern world where genres are broken up into sub-sub-sub genres (what I call a niche). And they all blend over each other to the point where genre can seem like meaningless noise—and even reasonable experts can disagree about which is which. In my observation, what most people think of as genre is really a marketing category anyway.
However, there’s an official definition for what genre is. According to Oxford Languages, it’s “a category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, characterized by similarities in form, style, or subject matter.” For marketing and art purposes, it lets the consumer know what to expect. Soup is soup, but I want to know if I’m getting creamy tomato, clam chowder, or a clam-tomato bisque when I pick up a can at the grocery store.
In novels, genre lets the reader know what elements will be in your book on the surface level, and what themes, characters, and formulas you’re going to expect. When you pick up a fantasy book, you expect magic, dragons, good vs. evil, and maybe some elves and dwarves. Formulaically, you’re expecting the narrative to rely heavily on a monomyth structure. If they don’t, you’re going to expect subversions and deconstructions, some thematic hint as to why your expectations were upended.
Horror and Grimdark
Horror is a broad genre where the protagonist is typically helpless against their obstacles and succumbs to whatever monster is plaguing them. The monster could be some nameless cosmic horror lurking in the darkness like in H.P. Lovecraft, or it could be your “Number One Fan” who’s holding you hostage until you write the next installment of their favorite series specially for them – *cough* Misery by Stephen King.
The horror could be the madness within, as in countless Edgar Allen Poe stories. Either way, the protagonist is destined to fail, and succeeding often means that the monster is still hunting them, literally or figuratively.
Grimdark has horror elements, sure, but the horrors of their everyday world are a backdrop and can be navigated to a (somewhat) successful conclusion. Sometimes. Well, maybe once in a while. All the main characters need is skill, knowing their limits, opportunities, luck, and reliable support to succeed, or at least, survive. The stakes for failure are grisly though.
The distinction I see is that the horrific experience is the point of horror. It is usually a cautionary tale. Survival itself is the goal for the heroine. On the other hand, the horrific experience in grimdark is just another Tuesday at the office. Survival is certainly at stake in grimdark, but the point is often on the other side: finding meaning, or maybe just finding a reason to go on.
Violence and Fear
Violence in literature is like ice cream; there’s at least 32 flavors, and like everything else in art, what violence signifies to the reader varies depending on the theme, message, or what the act is communicating to the reader. Putting bullshit debates like authorial intent aside, violence is a device like anything else in a story. It works with the genre, characters, and other plot elements to weave a theme, to deliver a message, to give the reader something to learn without being taught.
Horror is meant to scare the reader or viewer. Duh. The name of the genre is a synonym of fear. The terror you find on the pages is meant to put you at a sense of dis-ease, employing tropes like insanity, the uncanny valley, and loads of violence meant to terrify you. Jump scares and cheap surprise are great examples. The tension built by describing the stillness of the scene isn’t as visceral as creepy music or certain shots in movies, but it can work in a novel, too.
Grimdark is fantasy rooted in realism. It uses fantasy for catharsis by employing violence to mirror violence in our own world: poverty, disease, war, abuse, torture, and more. It can have horror elements in it. One of my favorite elements of A Song of Ice and Fire was the Nightfort, a haunted outpost on The Wall associated with scary stories, murder, and the possible origin of the series’ main antagonists, the White Walkers.
However, the point of these scare stories isn’t necessarily to establish insurmountable terror for the characters to fight. Other elements establish the upcoming battle between humanity and the White Walkers. They exist to expose the characters’ reactions to these stories in later volumes. When Bran visits the Nightfort, he remarks on the eerie atmosphere and the stories he heard about it growing up, saying “there are ghosts” in A Storm of Swords.
On the other hand, Stannis, a man not given to superstition, decides to make it his seat in A Feast for Crows. Considering that his most trusted advisor is a magician from Asshai, you have to wonder if his decision is dumbassery that will bite him later in the series. Knowing that mistakes have dire consequences in Martin’s works, Stannis’s decision to make a “cursed” abandoned watch post his station (along with the reader’s knowledge that the White Walkers are real), the readers are waiting for the other shoe to drop regarding Stannis’s decision.
Morality and Survival
Grimdark is cynical. Sometimes, doing the wrong thing is what will get the protagonists closer to their goal, and the right thing will get them killed. A hallmark of grimdark is moral ambiguity, and sometimes, the protagonist has to make a tough decision that would make a traditional fantasy hero blanche.
Horror is actually more moral if you think about it. Evil is evil, and even if the forces of good are powerless to stop it, they’re still good. If they’re not, they become food for the monster precisely because of their failings. A good, but general example is when the teenagers in love have sex and then the slasher kills them, potentially making a metaphor about the dangers of premarital/teen sex or engaging in social taboos.
Going back to the movie Se7en that I quoted, the killer himself sets out to punish those committing the seven deadly sins—including himself. His victims suffer horrific deaths, but the idea behind the violence points to a moral means-and-ends quandary that leads into the final gambit of the killer: turning his final victim into his own executioner.
What are your favorite horror elements in grimdark fantasy?
You may find some of what tickles your adrenal glands best in the free prequel to the Temple of Vengeance series: Death Descends.