Wednesday, August 22, 2012

What exactly do you mean by "dark fantasy" anyway?

I frequently call my setting one of "dark fantasy" but I think that might require further elaboration, since there's a trend to migrate to dark fantasy in general in the genre... but the end result is not always the same.  And if you look up dark fantasy at Wikipedia, or Google it elsewhere, or whatever, you can get a lot of different interpretations on what it means.

One trend that's pretty noticeable in modern fantasy has rather pejoratively been labelled "grimdark"--although lacking any other descriptive adjective that really fits, I think the pejorative is becoming the mainstream label for it.  Probably the most notable example that I've personally read of this kind of stuff is by Joe Abercrombie.  When I say that DARK•HERITAGE is dark fantasy, this is not what I mean.  I thought Abercrombie's novel Best Served Cold was just gratuitously nasty and edgy, long after being nasty or edgy had any meaning anymore.  It just kept on serving it up until I was sick of it.  Sex, violence, seedy betrayals, torture, incest, cannibalism--it had it all, and it was all luridly on display.

So, again, just to get that out there--that is not what I mean when I say dark fantasy.  But Joe Abercrombie didn't come from nowhere, and he hardly is responsible for starting the trend.  I look at pioneers like Glen Cook and see a tone that I like better.  Sure, it's got pretty rough anti-heroes doing pretty nasty things; but not really gratuitously, and usually "off camera" anyway.  I most especially like the notion of likeable scoundrels and rogues; folks who are more anti-heroic, yet charismatic and interesting to read about.  I also love the idea of anyone who uses magic being scary beyond all reason.  Something about the very nature of using magic is corrupting, unnatural, and just... inhuman.  I like that.  It's very Lovecraftian.

So there's not a lot of black and white good and evil in DARK•HERITAGE.  Lots of folks are bad.  Most folks that you'll encounter, maybe.  Most likely the protagonists and PCs will be more anti-heroic rather than traditionally heroic.  Think of it as a strong patina of noir over a sword and sorcery (rather than high fantasy) base.

A lot of so-called dark fantasy today is in modern-day paranormal "chicklit"—the successors, contemporaries and collegues to Laurell Hamilton and Stephanie Meyers.  Clearly DARK•HERITAGE doesn't fit that mold; I greatly enjoy the pleasure of constructing a "secondary world" fantasy setting, and I'm looking to emulate—to some extent—Westerns and swashbucklers with that, not the modern world.

But one thing I do have in common with that brand of dark fantasy is the focus on the paranormal that is more horror-like in approach rather than typically fantasy like.

In fact, I'd say that that's what I consider to be dark fantasy; the kind that I'm trying to emulate in my setting, at least.  It's sword & sorcery specifically (as opposed to high fantasy) with a thick coat of noir and horror laid on top of it as thematic elements and tone.


shortymonster said...

In book shops at least 'urban fantasy' is all about the vampire chick-lit, but if I get your idea of dark fantasy correctly, the two things that spring to mind are Lankhmar and the Scott Lynch books. If you haven't read them take a look. I'm a big Abercrombie fan, but put Lynch on a much higher pedestal as he knows when to turn it down a notch without ever compromising on the darkness of his setting.

Joshua Dyal said...

I have read Lankhmar (and I recently rebought the first White Wolf collection, so I'll be reading it again) and while I haven't read Scott Lynch, I do own a copy of Lies of Locke Lamora so it's on my "to read" list. I'd say I'm fairly Glen Cook's Black Company series with a few more overt horror references.

Then again, fantasy has frequently had a lot of horror references anyway--Book I of Fellowship of the Ring reads an awful lot like a horror novel at times. I think the main difference between them is the approach to the supernatural, though, and how its dealt with in the conclusion of the story.

D&D in particular gets to the "generic" monster; they become completely non-monstrous, and are no more horrific than a dangerous animal like a lion or a cape buffalo--worthy of some respect by big game hunters, but not of fear.

In my take on dark fantasy, monsters are always actually monstrous and frightening. And that's an element of tone that comes more from horror than from fantasy.

Joshua Dyal said...

Just to clarify--Lankhmar is not dark fantasy as I describe it. I describe my variety of dark fantasy as sword & sorcery with a heavy dose of genre conventions from noir and horror. Lankhmar is just regular sword and sorcery. Heck, along with Howard's Conan stories and maybe Moorcock's Elric stories, Lankhmar are considered the foundational base of sword and sorcery, equivalent to sword and sorcery by definition.

So to get to where I'm going, you need to take Lankhmar, add more noir and horror elements. Monsters that are truly horrifying rather than exciting challenges. Ramp up the tension and sense of impending dread. Darken up Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser exceedingly. They're likeable scoundrels, but I may have mispoke a bit when I described my "heroes" as such; I don't mean scoundrel in a Han Solo kind of sense, I mean really quite scoundrely guys who are into some bad business. Michael Corleone as a fantasy character, for instance. He's likeable and charismatic... but he's bad. Not just Han Solo, yeah I smuggle stuff sometimes and hey, maybe I'll shoot someone who's trying to kill me... as long as he make the first shot.

So yeah; by dark fantasy I mean something that, by definition, is darker than Lankhmar.

I just want to point out that I don't want to go to dark. With the prevalence of guys like the aforementioned Joe Abercrombie and others kind of "owning" the tag of dark fantasy, to the point of becoming "grimdark", where it feels like a parody of itself somehow, I'm not going that direction. I'm going more the Polansky, Hulick, Cook, maybe Weeks approach... except with even then a bit more overt horror influences too.

Andrew said...

Since you've expressed an interest in my work previously, may I recommend you take a look at my "Thief" game. It is self-contained, and updated, to specifically address dark fantasy and urban noir. I'd be interested to know what you think.