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Theory of Fantasy Literature 102: On Dark Fantasy


The first installment of the series covered the most prominent sub-genres of fantasy, but it has not explored everything that fantasy has to offer. This continuation of the series will look into sub-genres that have been omitted from the previous one. However, it will also discuss some adjacent genres, like science-fiction, fables, and fairy tales, all of which are fantastical, but none of which constitute an actual sub-genre of fantasy.

Theory of Fantasy Literature 102 is divided into six chapters including:

1. On Dark Fantasy

2. On Urban Fantasy

3. On Superhero Fiction

4. What About Science-fiction?

5. What About Fables?

6. What About Fairy Tales?

In a previous article, grimdark fantasy as a sub-genre was discussed, unveiling how closely it relates to the sub-genre of dark fantasy, in which the first is more realistic and gritty than the latter. However, dark fantasy does not necessarily exist in a juxtaposition to its grim peer. First and foremost, dark fantasy was formed as a response to the rise of the horror genre with which it shares many similarities—so much so that it is often difficult to make strict and accurate borders between them.

Three different people are credited with coining the term "dark fantasy": Gertrude Barrows Bennet, Charles L. Grant and Karl Edward Wagner. While Wagner and Grant are contemporaries, they started their writing careers in the 1970s. Bennet, on the other hand, published her first story in 1904—if someone must be credited for coining the term, then it should surely be the person who came first. Naturally, for each of the three of them the term refered to something slightly different. Yet, the common thread among all definitions of the sub-genre are physical embodiments of fantastical darkness that cause and create a terrifying setting, provoking unease and fear among readers. The quintessential representations of these figures are vampires and werewolves that have been extensively romanticized in recent popular media (both literature and film/TV). It became common practice to distill the horror of vampires with an overabundance of romantic plotlines and relationships, making these creatures seem not quite so monstrous. Thus, such media is more drama than horror, and lacks a key component to be considered dark fantasy: the setting is not overtly fantastical.

Figure 1: The Vampire Diaries; Stefan, Elena, and Damon. CW. 2012. Perhaps the most popular vampire show that was carried by drama much more than horror.

It is impossible to explain or theorize dark fantasy without comparing it to the genre of horror because of the extensive overlapping between the two. “Both genres explore the nature of evil and darker aspects of the human condition such as death, anxiety, madness, pain, revenge, sin, and war. Much dark fantasy features a creepy or frightening atmosphere, and may employ monsters such as vampires, werewolves, or zombies” (Snyder, 2005, p. 177). The differing factor thus becomes the setting of the story, where “horror often involves an intrusion of the frightening and unknown into a mundane, everyday world” (Snyder, 2005, p. 178). In dark fantasy, it is immediately clear that the world is entirely separate from consensus reality. The sub-genre consisting merely of “horror stories set wholly or partly in secondary worlds” (Stableford, 2009, p. 97) necessarily devalues the sub-genre as a whole, making it seem entirely derivative and remarkably unoriginal. For example, Stephen King's It is largely regarded as a horror story first and foremost. However, if that same story was set in an overtly secondary world (such as Middle-earth, Narnia etc.), then the genre would shift closer to dark fantasy—it is difficult to argue that the quality of the story or the emotions it evokes would be any lesser because of that change.

Figure 2: Cthulhu. Wallin, A. 2021. Lovecraft's dark fantasy world is not necessarily based on the physical threat of monsters; however, many depictions of his horrifying old gods sprang from it.

It is also helpful to recognize that the breadth of horror as a genre does not help to differentiate dark fantasy from it:

Unlike such genres as the western and the gangster film, which remain fairly specific in their setting, horror movies are set in a variety of times and places, from medieaval castles to modern motels, from the cluttered labs of demented scientists to the fog-bound streets of 19th century London (Lowry, 1984, p. 13).

Even though Lowry speaks of film, the sentiment most definitely translates to literature: horror seems to exist more as a mode of storytelling that encompasses anything and everything even remotely horrifying and fear-inducing. Furthermore, the settings Lowry lists are all real places (or were once real places) and are clearly distinct from fantastical settings. A medieval castle, for example, is an excellent conduit for a horror story and nothing about it is necessarily fantastical.

Figure 3. Dracula Untold. Universal Pictures. 2014. The movie revived Stoker's story and brought it closer to the sub-genre of dark fantasy even though it is not set in a secondary world, once again proving how thin the lines between horror and dark fantasy are.

Indeed, dark fantasy has become (and maybe always was) a signifier that marked a less serious horror story. For example, even though Stoker’s Dracula features a fantastical monster, it is considered horror because it is not set in an overtly fantastical world. The same goes for Shelley’s Frankenstein and the plethora of short stories by Poe. Furthermore, to call any of those texts dark fantasy would imply a lessening of their grandeur and position among other works of literature. This correlates to the larger issue of fantasy as a whole not being taken seriously as a genre of literature that can convey messages and ideas pertinent to the society at large.

Figure 4. Frankenstein; Frankenstein's monster. Universal Pictures. 1931.

Even science fiction, a genre much more seriously discussed than fantasy, was by some seen as a “species of horror, substituting supernatural forces with futuristic technologies” (Carrol, 1987, p. 51). Supernatural elements are as pivotal to works of fantasy as futuristic technologies are to science fiction: yet, Frankenstein (which utilizes both) was rarely spoken of as either fantasy or science fiction—it had to be horror or gothic fiction because those had gravity to them. It is only at the sunset of the twentieth century that Shelley’s work became recognized as the origin of science fiction.

All of this serves to underline just how ephemeral the lines between horror and dark fantasy are. The common argument seems to be that “the aesthetic success of a work of fantasy … depends upon an ontological separation from our own world in order to fully develop the sense of unreality that defines the genre” (Fabrizi, 2018, p. 3). Thus, if a story is set in a world where the existence of monsters is taken as fact and the world is displaced from consensus reality, it is no longer a part of the horror genre. Therefore, dark fantasy can be thought of as fantastical horror, a story by Poe set in Middle-Earth—it must be clear that the events are not a part of the primary world. While he is not the first author of dark fantasy, H. P. Lovecraft's work reflects the nature of the sub-genre rather well: horrifying supernatural forces in fantastical settings.

Dark fantasy joins the many fantasy sub-genres in being considered a lesser version of literature and as something that is not to be taken seriously purely because it does not seek to emulate reality. Yet, like all other fantastical stories, its unboundedness to natural laws allows for a deeper exploration of death, angst, pain, loss of sanity. If one must think outside the box, one just might stumble onto a thought or idea that realism simply does not offer which, after all, is one of the many draws of fantasy. Besides, as evidenced by the article, dark fantasy and horror are barely different. One takes place in London, the other in Dunwich—emotions, problems, and struggle all remain enchantingly realistic.

Bibliographical References

Carroll, N. (1987). The Nature of Horror. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 46(1), 51–59.

Fabrizi, M. A. (2018). Introduction: Challenging horror literature and dark fantasy. In Critical Literacy Teaching Series: Challenging Authors and Genres (Vol. 10, pp. 1-16). Brill Sense.

Lowry, E. (1984). Genre and enunciation: The case of horror. Journal of Film and Video, 36(2), 13–72.

Snyder, L. A. (2005). Dark fantasy. In Westfahl, G. (Ed.), The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy: Themes, Works, and Wonders (Vol. 1, pp. 177-179). Greenwood Press.

Stableford, B. (2009). The A to Z of Fantasy Literature. The Scarecrow Press.

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1 Comment

A good introduction to this deeper look into fantasy literature, going into more detail about the fine line between dark fantasy and horror. The clear prose certainly helps in following the finer points of the discussion—I look forward to the rest of the series!

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Dino Mušić

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