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 :)