Fantasy is just one giant pile of subgenres and subgenres, isn’t it? But that’s the beauty of it for me. There’s so much that can be done with it, but as I’ll be discussing with all my Genre Talk posts, it seems like almost all of them are stuck in the same rut.
So with dark fantasy, how exactly do we describe it? What is the definition of dark fantasy? As with almost every subgenre, the exact act of defining it is a little tricky (not just literary, either – if you have a day I highly suggest reading a bit on the subgenres of metal but that’s an aside).
Dark fantasy is defined by the usage and incorporation of horror elements. It however doesn’t specify what kind of setting (high fantasy vs urban fantasy, for instance) nor does it exclude elements of the supernatural. Which then brings on an interesting discussion: where does dark fantasy stand? Why is it not just fall under supernatural fiction? What makes dark fantasy a subgenre of fantasy and not horror? Why does dark fantasy seem to lend itself to extreme violence and gore?
That last part might be a result of people’s definitions of “horror” and “dark”. After all, “dark” isn’t a vert specific adjective. It could easily refer to a lot of things, although in this day and age it seems to almost always refer to “gritty realism”. I put those in quotations because I’m not particularly fond of the trend. Consider George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire – the series gained popularity due to its uniqueness in the genre at the time where it wasn’t afraid to show ambiguous protagonists, where everyone had an equal chance of dying, among other things. It was published right after the big high fantasy boom of Tolkien’s work and the popularity of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. But those two authors were significantly different than George R. R. Martin’s work. They contained “classic” high fantasy tropes: a quest with high stakes, lots of visible magic, and an almost impenetrable running theme of hope. Compare that to A Song of Ice and Fire. The first book in the series was published in 1996 and I’d argue the series fit in with the 90s grittiness that popularized by Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, and Frank Miller. Of course, as things moved forward and trends became more watered down to its bare bones, we saw “ambiguous protagonists” turn into almost completely unlikeable protagonists, somehow still falling under the classification of “dark”.
I’m willing to bet there’s a connection to noir as a genre there too but I have yet to look into that.
Back on topic, though.
That only covers part of one definition of dark fantasy. It’s one that isn’t inherently rooted in horror, and seems to be the exception in that. And yet, it still manages to root itself in extreme violence. A lot of dark fantasy sets the tone with things like body horror, decaying bodies, and just terrible, terrible acts in general. This is where we start to fall into the horror territory. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not looking down upon this part. I think this is a crucial bit in dark fantasy. Where Tolkien’s orcs were seen as savages and unafraid of torture, his elves were pristine and dignified, a clear and deliberate distinction to be made. Tolkien shows us that in his world, evil is always balanced by good. In a lot of dark fantasy, we don’t see this good. Or it’s shown as being not much better than the evil. Which I think lends itself to authors thinking they need to have unlikeable protagonists. That last part is just me speculating, though.
But these are the elements we see fall under horror. Unethical experimentation that leads to grotesque freaks of nature. Finding that violence is sometimes the only way out. The unsettling and general uneasiness that comes from walking into a dark room and finding body parts on the ground.
What’s interesting to me, is that I’ve seen dark fantasy appear more in video games than I have in anything else. I have a theory on this, but I’ll get to that after. Three video games come to mind immediately: Amnesia, Bloodborne, and Dark Souls (I, II, and III). The last two are admittedly from the same company, but we can consider them different games due to their settings. It should also be noted that these games are usually classified as horror games, not strictly dark fantasy. The first two are actually relatively similar in setting. They both take place in some 19th century, ambiguously German setting and draw heavily on Lovecraftian mythos. Both Amnesia and Bloodborne also run more Gothic in that they use the descent into madness type of horror commonly found in Lovecraftian literature. In both cases, any Gothic elements are a consequence of using Lovecraftian lore and I wouldn’t solely classify those as horror elements. The horror elements of Amnesia and Bloodborne, are also shared with the Dark Souls series: body horror, a general sense of unease/displacement, and a good amount of gore and violence.
Which leads me to my theory on why it seems to work well in video games (and probably visual media in general): dark fantasy relies a lot on atmosphere. Horror relies a lot on atmosphere. It builds tension and sets the mood and you can get away with showing a lot of violence without explicitly showing it. Amnesia did an excellent job with this. There are entire rooms in that game where you could only extrapolate what happened, although it gave you some (very eerie) audio clues as you interacted with some objects. The horror of the game was more on what you didn’t see than actually running away from monsters (who were terrifying in their own right). Bloodborne and Dark Souls similarly, although I’ll argue less so, in that they create it within the environment. With Bloodborne, the scenery, while dark, doesn’t contribute to the story as Amnesia did. That doesn’t change the fact that the statues of veiled figures begging for mercy, or the random decaying horse bodies, or the intense labyrinth of Gothic architecture absolutely affected how you perceived the game. But in Bloodborne, it’s beautiful in a dark way. With Amnesia, it’s downright unsettling.
So, we’ve got atmosphere down for what makes dark fantasy “dark”, beyond just horror. Atmosphere, in my opinion, plays a larger role than grimdark, unlikeable protagonists and gritty realism because it allows for a lot more flexibility. The latter two end up running stories around in a circle, and that kind of storytelling gets old fast (notice how a lot of that trend is slowly dying off).
But atmosphere only provides us with the tone of dark fantasy. It still doesn’t distinguish between making it a subgenre of horror or the supernatural. What makes dark fantasy specifically fantasy? Why isn’t it fantastical horror? Or supernatural horror?
Let’s talk about the horror genre first. Horror has a very specific rhythm to its storytelling, and one that is significantly different than that of fantasy’s. While they both heavily draw from the use of exposition in order to set the tone, horror tends to lie in the events happening to the main characters, rather than the characters themselves. But it might also just lie in the semantics of marketing. Fantasy, in literature, has a much larger audience than solely horror. In fact, there might not be much of a difference between dark fantasy and fantastical horror, but rather that authors and publishers will market the work as fantasy to reach more people. Similarly, but also on the flip side, in video games, these kinds of worlds are marketed as horror because of the mechanics they use and also because they would get lost in a sea of fantasy games. Ultimately, it’s probably up to how the author and publisher wants to frame things.
This still leaves us with the supernatural, though. Why isn’t dark fantasy supernatural horror? Don’t they both have elements of the fantastical? Supernatural fiction typically borrows from the occult, giving us things like angels, demons, magic, etc., but these elements only work within the real world to still be the occult. Once they’ve been translated over into a fantasy world, it simply becomes “magic”. In fact, the occult and by extension supernatural fiction, is deeply rooted in our world and its mythologies. But I’ll talk about that in another post. For now, I want to leave you with the connection that supernatural horror and the occult no longer become supernatural when the world is supernatural to begin with. It’s just “natural”.
I might’ve rambled a lot there, but I’ll try to sum it up:
Dark fantasy’s power is in its atmosphere. Once you establish the tone of your world, what you do within it no longer has to follow certain cliches. The world can be dark, but your stories can still be filled with optimism and hope. Don’t let the notion of “gritty realism” be your only definition of dark.
Who’s the artist?
Tobias Kwan is a freelance illustrator and concept artist who I found through a collaboration on an art book called Motherland Chronicles. I highly recommend checking out the entire gallery if you’re into dark fantasy work. With no violence or grittiness shown, it really makes a great example of how dark fantasy relies on atmosphere.