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On the Shelf: What is Dark Fantasy?

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The parsing of genres into subgenres and then into sub-subgenres has its champions and its critics. Many who oppose it feel it’s a disingenuous marketing gimmick created by the publishing industry to sell more books. Those who encourage breaking down science fiction, fantasy, and horror into further subsections feel it’s easier to discuss the books they like and to find other authors like the ones they’ve just read.

This won’t be the last I mention categorizing books, and I won’t go as in-depth here as I will in the future, however, a brief acknowledgment was is in order before mentioning a recent SF Signal round table discussion that took place on their podcast.

The topic, one I’d been eagerly awaiting, was “Dark Fantasy”. It’s a term I use often to describe a story that is mainly fantastical in nature but has a creepy element to it.

The panel of well-read experts was largely in agreement with the definition: Karen Burnham, editor of Locus magazine’s Roundtable Blog, said that horror is not the main thrust; Paul Weimer, blogger and SF Signal contributor, said that fantasy is the key and the horror is merely lurking; and similarly, John Stevens, writer and bookseller, said that with dark fantasy, the horror elements are there to intensify the fantastical. All agreed that the term was ambiguous and subjective, which is apparent from their selection of books they accredit with the moniker. If you want to know what they suggested, you’ll just have to listen.

Have you read any dark fantasy lately? How would you define it? Who are some of your favorite dark fantasy authors? Favorite books?

On the Shelf for Halloween
Here’s a mixture of dark fantasy and horror titles to get you in the mood for Halloween.

The Complete Grimms’ Fairy Tales by Brothers Grimm (1812)
This was interesting: The first volumes were much criticized because, although they were called “Children’s Tales”, they were not regarded as suitable for children, both for the scholarly information included and the subject matter. Many changes through the editions – such as turning the wicked mother of the first edition in Snow White and Hansel and Gretel to a stepmother, were probably made with an eye to such suitability. They removed sexual references—such as Rapunzel’s innocently asking why her dress was getting tight around her belly, and thus naïvely revealing her pregnancy and the prince’s visits to her stepmother—but, in many respects, violence, particularly when punishing villains, was increased. [Wikipedia]

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1823)
To those who have not read the book, the name Frankenstein is often associated with the monster rather than its creator. The mistake is perhaps not altogether erroneous, for as many critics point out the creature and his maker are doubles of one another, or doppelgängers. Their relationship is similar to that between the head and the heart, or the intellect and the emotion. The conception of the divided self–the idea that the civilized man or woman contains within a monstrous, destructive force–emerges as the creature echoes both Frankenstein’s and narrator Robert Walton’s loneliness: all three wish for a friend or companion. Frankenstein and his monster alternately pursue and flee from one another. Like fragments of a mind in conflict with itself, they represent polar opposites which are not reconciled, and which destroy each other at the end. For example, the creature enacts the repressed desires of its maker, alleviating Victor Frankenstein’s fear of sexuality by murdering his bride, Elizabeth Lavenza, on their wedding night. Identities merge, as Frankenstein frequently takes responsibility for the creature’s action: for instance, after the deaths of the children William and Justine, both of which were caused by the creature, Frankenstein admits they were “the first hapless victims to [his] unhallowed arts.” [Brandeis]

Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897)
By this time I had finished my supper, and by my host’s desire had drawn up a chair by the fire and begun to smoke a cigar which he offered me, at the same time excusing himself that he did not smoke. I had now an opportunity of observing him, and found him of a very marked physiognomy.

His face was a strong, a very strong, aquiline, with high bridge of the thin nose and peculiarly arched nostrils, with lofty domed forehead, and hair growing scantily round the temples but profusely elsewhere. His eyebrows were very massive, almost meeting over the nose, and with bushy hair that seemed to curl in its own profusion. The mouth, so far as I could see it under the heavy moustache, was fixed and rather cruel-looking, with peculiarly sharp white teeth. [BBC]

Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allan Poe from 18 Best Stories by Edgar Allan Poe
The vengeful Montresor repays the supposed insults of his enemy, Fortunato. Luring Fortunato into the crypts of his home with the promise of Amontillado sherry, Montresor entombs Fortunato in a wall while the carnival rages above them. [Sparknotes]

The Gormenghast Novels by Mervyn Peake (1946 – 59)
Classic epic fantasy:
Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls. They sprawled over the sloping earth, each one half way over its neighbour until, held back by the castle ramparts, the innermost of these hovels laid hold on the great walls, clamping themselves thereto like limpets to a rock. These dwellings, by ancient law, were granted this chill intimacy with the stronghold that loomed above them. Over their irregular roofs would fall throughout the seasons, the shadows of time-eaten buttresses, of broken and lofty turrets, and, most enormous of all, the shadow of the Tower of Flints. This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. At night the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow. [Titus Groan. Book 1]

Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959)
The ghost story is a small genre to begin with, but its subgenre, the psychological ghost story, the category to which The Haunting of Hill House and Henry James’ tales belong, is tinier still. The literary effect we call horror turns on the dissolution of boundaries, between the living and the dead, of course, but also, at the crudest level, between the outside of the body and everything that ought to stay inside. In the psychological ghost story, the dissolving boundary is the one between the mind and the exterior world. [Laura Miller, Introduction to the Haunting of Hill House]

Hellboy by Mike Mignola and John Byrne (Character’s first appearance: 1993)
Hellboy is one of the most celebrated comics series in recent years. The ultimate artists’ artist and a great storyteller whose work is in turns haunting, hilarious, and spellbinding, Mike Mignola has won numerous awards in the comics industry and beyond. When strangeness threatens to engulf the world, a strange man will come to save it. Sent to investigate a mystery with supernatural overtones, Hellboy discovers the secrets of his own origins, and his link to the Nazi occultists who promised Hitler a final solution in the form of a demonic avatar. [Indiebound] Check out some Hellboy Art

The Blade Itself by Joe Ambercrombie (2007)
Dark fantasy meets sharp-edged war story in the standalone tale of a single great battle for control of the North, set in the world of The First Law.  Taking place over three days, it follows the misadventures of six varied people on both sides of the conflict and at all levels of command, their stories played out against an epic backdrop of intrigue, ambition, betrayal and, of course, a lot of edged weapons used in anger. [Joe Ambercrombie]

The Years Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2011 edited by Paula Guran (2011)
With short stories from Neil Gaiman, Gene Wolf, George R.R. Martin, Tim Powers, and more.

Welcome to the dark. It comes in more colors than you may have imagined. Quiet blue shadows, a glimpse of ghostly white, a once-dim corner deepening to stygian black, the sudden scarlet stain in the basement, the flash of flesh turning to fur, crumbling ash-gray memories, deep jungle greens, mottled-glaucous full moons, the brown of fresh-turned earth, a cutting slash of silver, the tempting glint of gold, bruising purple, alien orange, urban neons, the iridescent shimmer of colors the human eye cannot always see…Find them all in the words of these masterful storytellers. The best dark fantasy and horror from 2010: more than 550 pages of dark tales from some of today’s best-known writers of the fantastique as well new talents. Chosen from a variety of sources, these stories may help you see the many colors of the dark. [Prime Books]

What are you reading this Halloween?

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Written by Gabrielle

October 27, 2011 at 5:49 am

One Response

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