by E.A. Copen
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by stories others might describe as scary or dark. Mostly, I like any genre of fiction that has the potential to make me a little uncomfortable or to challenge a commonly held belief. I’m in love with the darker side of fiction.
In recent years, that darkness has expanded beyond horror and mixed with science fiction and fantasy. One of the reasons I fell in love with urban fantasy is the potential for darkness to co-exist with humor, creating a dichotomy that just isn’t found in other genres. One minute, your wizard hero is cracking jokes, and the next he’s plunging a knife into the heart of the woman he loves to save his only child. That mix has bled into fantasy as well, creating subgenres like Grim/Dark fantasy, which is quickly becoming another of my favorite genres. We need humor in fantasy so we can make it through the more difficult parts of a book, but we need the darkness too.
1. Bravery is born of fear.
“Bran thought about it. ‘Can a man still be brave if he’s afraid?’
‘That is the only time a man can be brave,’ his father told him.”
— George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones
In dark fantasy, characters often face impossible odds and horrifying creatures straight of out nightmares. There are plenty of chances for them to give up, more so than in stories where the main character might easily use a spell or shapeshift to get away. Their fears become literal demons that must be confronted or else the entire world could come crashing down. These stories teach us bravery in the face of impossible odds. They show us that, while being afraid is a perfectly valid reaction to facing down monsters, it’s no excuse to back down and let the bad guys win. The familiarity of the setting in urban fantasy makes the situation that more relatable.
2. Darkness starts conversations.
“When kind men grow angry, things are about to change.”
— Jim Butcher, Blood Rites
Fantasy has long been a safe place to talk about and encourage social change or to criticize some aspect of society without making a direct political statement. In a day and age when we’re being bombarded on television and social media concerning politically charged topics, it’s easy to feel overloaded. We’re so saturated in these topics that they wash over us unnoticed all the time. Dark fantasy is a place where those same topics can be approached from a new angle. While some fiction chooses to serve simply as a distraction from the rat race of politics, crime, and social or racial inequality, darker fiction often addresses these topics head-on, creating a medium where fans can debate and discuss in forums and Facebook groups, sometimes with more civility than the same people can talk about their preferred political candidate.
3. It reminds us humans are complex, not black and white.
“I try to be a good cop. I try to be a good little soldier and follow orders up to a point. But in the end I’m not really a cop, or a soldier. I am a legally sanctioned murderer. I am the Executioner.”
— Laurell K. Hamilton, Skin Trade
Not everyone can stake vampires or sit in the Iron Throne, but everyone has a monster to slay. Dark fantasy gives these monsters faces and names, and their victims a medium to talk about them. Many adults I know have lived through something traumatic they don’t like to talk about. When they do, they often describe a feeling of helplessness in the moment. The heroes of dark fantasy are very often helpless, too. They get their spines broken. They’re drugged and forced to perform sick fantasies. They have literal body parts cut away and their identities destroyed. Even if we start out disliking something about these characters, even if they start out as the villains of the story, the potential is still there for us to become sympathetic to their situation, and for them to rise up and do good. A queen who commits infanticide may become someone we cheer for if we’re somehow presented with someone worse like a religious fanatic. No matter how evil someone is, there’s always someone out there a little worse. It’s easy to shoehorn people into little boxes of good and evil, but life just isn’t like that. When we remember that even the worst humans were, in fact, human, they become a little less frightening.
It’s a misconception that dark fantasy is depressing and full of meaningless death and scares. If anything, dark fiction provides more of an opportunity for positive messages like hope and bravery to shine through.
What’s your favorite dark fantasy read?