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What is Dark Fantasy as a genre?
Dark fantasy is a sub-genre of fantasy fiction and is becoming increasingly popular within the reader and bookish communities. It is characterized by borderline horror aspects that are dark, gritty, and create a gloomy world and aesthetic. However, it is distinctive from horror in the sense that the main aim of the writing is not to scare the reader. In fact, dark and gory details become quite normal as you keep reading because they play well into the overarching plot and theme. Eventually, there is nothing “surprising” about the horrific elements and scenes, because it’s masterfully woven into the plot and development of characters. The reader gets the idea that the darkness displayed is not at all strange or out of the ordinary at all.
With horror, however, a scary event or scene is supposed to trigger a horrified response in the reader because it’s surprising, uncanny, or the complete opposite to what they would expect to be normal in that world or setting. The scary events are are many times contrasted with a very ordinary scene for this reason (just a normal day going to the park, but with a nightmarish jumpscare that will keep readers up all night, for example).
Horror as a genre displays the greatest terror the writer’s world could possibly offer.
Dark fantasy, on the other hand, is supposed to display “tip of the iceberg” elements of darkness that are very normal to the writer’s evil realms.
Dark fantasy (sometimes interchangeably called Grimdark) is supposed to make readers think, “Geez, if this is just a normal, daily occurrence in this fiction world, it must be a very, VERY dark place.” That is a huge part of dark fiction’s appeal: the way evil and terrible things are commonplace and normal. It’s beyond intriguing— it’s addictive! So let’s dive into some examples of how exactly Dark Fiction manifests itself, shall we?
Characters that are considered “Grimdark”
Characters and beasts in Dark fantasy are more depraved than typical fantasy books, and the main characters are usually anti-heroes who don’t get the fairy tale happy ending (sorry, not sorry). There’s a certain… unashamedness the comes with these characters, as well as the authors who craft them 😉
Zombies don’t come to attack the city to be destroyed by a set of heroes, the main character IS a zombie, with a horrific twist to their already sinister plan to rule the city. And a great writer will make you wonder, “How far am I really from being that kind of villain? What is evil anyway? Is it not an innate part of who we are that cannot be totally eradicated?“
Dark fantasy makes you think and ponder life from a different viewpoint than we are used to with fantasy fiction. In fantasy fiction, characters have a Disney-like optimism that is not only barf-worthy, but it can also appear—well… fake. Readers of dark fantasy appreciate a realism you don’t find in many genres. The reality that humanity can be very dark. The main character might be physically disfigured even to mirror their more twisted view on life itself based on very realistic things that happened to them. Basically, grimdark writers recognize that many people have an evil side to them crafted by many events that don’t control, that is annoying to ignore and constantly turn into “good-ness.” Grimdark characters provide a nice change in pace and expectations—good does NOT always win, and we like it that way 🙂
Settings that make readers squirm
Dark fantasy settings are hellish and deeply flawed. The places the characters live and interact with are decaying and/or pose formidable threats to all inhabitants. There is very little relief from the squalor around them, and that helps spur on the common themes of hopelessness we see in dark fiction writings. Many times in fantasy fiction works, the world around the main characters builds hopeful relief from the evil and terrible events happening to them. Not so with dark fantasy. These works of fiction drive home the horror by adding scenes or settings that make the reader truly wonder what next evil twist is coming and when. Sometimes the setting isn’t a focus at all, as the author wants to keep the horrific events and plot happening as the focus. Either way, there is a noticeable lack of Narnia/ Middle Earth/ Asgard-like settings.
Morality is a topic that is an undercurrent to everything you’ll read in the dark fantasy genre. Most characters in dark fantasy are considered to be “morally grey” at best. Many times this arises from an almost humorous focus on the reality that leads to a pessimism we can all relate to. The morality in these books is NOT chivalrous. There is no golden rule. There is no drive to unrealistically, perfectly put all preferences and needs aside for others. However, morally debase actions are not necessarily condoned. Many times the morally grey actions we see help us question institutions that support unhealthy patriarchy and religious hierarchies that continue and many times support the questionable things the characters are living out, or are victims to. As mentioned before, these books are meant to get us thinking. Why do evil people prevail in the real world? Why do dark institutions keep staying in power? How does this direct the paths of these interesting, quirky characters?
It’s important to note that not everyone agrees on the boundaries that label a book “Dark Fantasy.” I’ll end with a definition by Goodreads that keeps all our opinions in check since there can be so many interpretations of this incredible genre. Just know that this area of fantasy fiction, where high fantasy incorporates horror elements, is growing and becoming a full-scale fiction genre in its own right.
“Dark fantasy is often used as a synonym for supernatural horror. Some authors and critics also apply the term to high fantasy stories that feature anti-heroic or morally ambiguous protagonists. Fantasy works by writers typically associated with the horror genre are sometimes described as ‘dark fantasy.’ Conversely, the term is also used to describe ‘darker’ works by authors best-known for other styles of fantasy.”— Goodreads definition.
This book is the result of years of acknowledging, appreciating, studying, and enjoying the darkest elements we see and experience all around and inside us. It would be remiss to go through life ignoring our deepest midnight instincts. What is life if we aren’t experiencing darkness to contrast with light?
The Raven Queen is my first high fantasy in the Temple of Vengeance series, a quadrilogy of epic releases featuring the assertive anti-heroine Illyria and containing more swords, sorcery, and sex than the law allows.
Rising from a mass grave with scars from her brutal murder, crossing back into the living world with her trusted raven guide, oh and a partnership with Death himself… you don’t want to miss this exciting, ultra-dark fantasy coming October 2021. Pre-order the book on Amazon today! —Dave Reed