So what is it exactly?

RealmShift is classified as a dark fantasy novel. It’s also a thriller and an action adventure story, but primarily, by genre, it’s dark fantasy. Subsequently I often get asked, What is dark fantasy exactly? It’s actually a very difficult thing to define accurately. I recently stumbled across the blog of fantasy and horror writer Sarah Monette where they were having a discussion about this very subject as it had come up during a panel at Wiscon. I ended up posting my thoughts on that blog and thought I might reproduce those thoughts here. Maybe I’m just trying to prevent people asking me difficult questions.

The truth is that any kind of genre definition can be hazy, but that’s especially true of the whole speculative fiction genre. Where do you draw the line between fantasy and science fiction, for example? Star Wars is a prime candidate for that issue as it carries strong elements of both. It deals with ideas of magic (The Force), religion (Jedi Knights) and is also very much a science fiction movie with laser guns, space battles and clear cut heroes and villains. Generally people ignore the fantasy nature of it and concentrate on the science fiction. Arguably, it’s the fantasy elements of Star Wars that are the most important and engaging. But that’s another discussion altogether.

Some people consider dark fantasy to be horror, which I strongly disagree with. In the blog discussion I mentioned above, someone defined horror as being something designed to scare, and they draw a good definition. If something is fantasical or paranormal and deals with the darker side of life, darker emotions and psychological stresses, but doesn’t have, as it’s primary intention, the desire to scare readers, then it isn’t horror but would certainly seem to be dark fantasy.

RealmShift is contemporary, set in the world we know and in our own time, but with many elements of magic, gods, demons and various other paranormal creatures and situations, and it is often quite unpleasant in its characters and the things they do. If I were to call it fantasy, people would think first of swords and sorcery, which it isn’t. If I were to call it horror, people would expect a scary story, which it (on the whole) isn’t. So perhaps dark fantasy is more a description of what something is not, rather than what it is!

Another person in the discussion on Sarah’s site mentioned Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea stories as dark fantasy and that’s certainly valid. I would call that dark fantasy as it deals with the darkness inside people and the black that follows the character of Ged. I would also call Neil Gaiman’s work dark fantasy, even though that is far removed from something like Earthsea. Interestingly, the fact that Gaiman’s novel American Gods won three major awards, one recognised as primarily a horror award, one recognised as a sci-fi award and one recognised as a fantasy award, goes some way to demonstrating how hard a time people had categorising that novel. I think dark fantasy is the perfect category for it. I read American Gods after people started drawing comparisons between it and RealmShift. I’d only previously read his Sandman comics (which, incidentally, I would also classify as dark fantasy).

I think a lot of Stephen King’s and Dean Koontz’s books would also be better classified as dark fantasy rather than horror, but they are both authors that certainly blur the lines between those two genres.

The movie Dark City would be another good example of dark fantasy. It’s certainly fantastical, it’s often scary, but it’s not a horror film. The movie The Prophecy would fit in there too.

So, to me, a work is dark fantasy if it deals with any elements of fantasy and/or the paranormal in a way that studies the dark and frightening side of our nature, psychology and the weird, sublime and uncanny. If it doesn’t shy away from the gore and horror of its own darkness, yet doesn’t primarily aim to spook. If it has heroes that are not knights in shining armour, but people that sometimes have to do unsavoury things. If it has villains that aren’t necessarily all bad as well as villains that really are all bad!

It is definitely a very hard thing to pin down with a single definition, but it is far and away the best definition for many things that don’t quite fit within the generally accepted genres of fantasy or horror.

And I certainly don’t claim to be the final authority. I’m certainly open to any other comments people might have on the subject.

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2 thoughts on “So what is it exactly?

  1. Another good example just came to mind: Clive Barker’s Weaveworld. That was released in 1987 and Q Magazine said, “Weaveworld confirms Clive Barker as a formidable talent in British dark fantasy.”

    Perhaps some of you might like to leave your own examples to help to identify a definition of the genre.

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