Defining Dark Fantasy

This came up recently on a message board I frequent. What is dark fantasy? How is it different than horror or other fantasy literature? I tried to answer briefly, and seemed to just muddy the water, so I decided to look at the issue a little more closely for this Monday’s “serious” blog entry.

The first thing I did was put the question, “What is dark fantasy?” into Google. One of the first listings was quite humorous, I thought. The Christian Guide to Fantasy defines dark fantasy as: “A subgenre of Fantasy (also Dark Science Fiction); this genre is almost always overrun by those who are not merely secular pagans, but tend more towards Satanism. Vampirism, bondage, sado-masochism, gore, etc. are common elements.”


What is a secular pagan? What’s wrong with a little bondage, S&M and gore? Ah, topics for another day.


Wikipedia was more rational, offering a long description you can read by clicking the link. I’ll quote bits of it as I go along here. Here’s the opening paragraph: “Dark fantasy has yet to be solidly connected to its own particular subgenre of Fantasy. Stories often described as dark fantasy are therefore more likely to be “officially” placed in either the horror or fantasy genres, based on which genre the story tends more toward.


That leaves it pretty open. What, you may ask, does it matter if a book is called horror, fantasy or dark fantasy? In the world of marketing, it matters a great deal. Some publishers don’t want horror, but they’re very interested in dark fantasy. Some authors snootily refuse to be called horror writers, saying they write dark fantasies. Some fantasy stories are so far removed from Tolkien that they seem more like horror stories. To pitch your book to an editor or agent, you have to know what a marketing department is likely to call it.


Wikipedia says, “Perhaps the most definitive works of dark fantasy are those of H.P. Lovecraft, whose blend of fantasy and horror (and to a lesser extent, science fiction) cannot reliably be placed in either genre.


I agree. Lovecraft is best known for his Cthulu Mythos stories, about Elder Gods influencing modern Earth in some way. Typically, a story using mythical deities would have fit squarely into the fantasy category of, say, Lovecraft’s contemporary, Robert E. Howard. But, the difference here is that Lovecraft has his gods interacting with modern, realistic settings, a staple of the horror genre.


If you frequent many bookstores, you know that most don’t have a horror section anymore. But those few that do don’t put Anne Rice in the horror section even though most of her books are about vampires, witches, ghosts and mummies. Why do you think that is? I suspect it is because Rice’s purpose in writing her books is not to elicit the kind of fear Stephen King goes after (or used to). Look at The Vampire Lestat, for instance. He’s a vampire. He kills people by drinking their blood. But he’s also the hero of the story. And, more importantly, we don’t fear Lestat the way we fear the count in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.


Defining a writer’s intent is a tricky thing and something I hate, really. How many English professors have expounded on what they believe to be the intent of some writer? Too damn many. And here I am presuming to do the same thing with a writer who isn’t even dead. But really, did anybody feel the same sense of fear from reading The Vampire Chronicles that you felt reading The Exorcist, The Shining or Rosemary’s Baby?


Wikipedia goes on to say, “More generally, dark fantasy may be used as a synonym for supernatural horror, to distinguish horror stories that contain elements of the supernatural from those that do not. For example, a story about a mummy or vampire rising from the grave would be most likely described as dark fantasy, supernatural horror, or horror fantasy, while a story about a serial killer is simply horror. In this sense, there is a considerable overlap between dark fantasy and contemporary fantasy.


But then says, “[dark fantasy] refers to stories that focus on elements usually found in the horror genre but which take place in a setting more alike sword and sorcery or high fantasy. It may or may not take place in its own fantasy world.


If you define “fantasy world” as a New Orleans populated by vampires and Mayfair witches, I agree. But when I think of a fantasy world, I’m thinking more in terms of Middle Earth. A horror story that takes place in, say, the Mines of Moria is still a fantasy story as far as I’m concerned. Move Moria to the Rocky Mountains, though, and I’m open to calling it dark fantasy.


So, what have we learned? Probably nothing that will help anyone. Here’s the take-home message: Editors and agents who turn up their nose at horror may be more open to looking at your work if you can call it dark fantasy, but don’t expect them to be able to exactly define the difference is between the two genres.

0 responses to “Defining Dark Fantasy”

  1. Thanks for the link to The Christian Guide to Fantasy, I think. Where did you come across that?
    And I would have to go with the last bits from Wikipedia. Dark Fantasy is fantasy with horror elements where there is no hero or the hero fails. Just my opinion.

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