Horror and Dark Fantasy: One and the Same?
by Steven Rose, Jr.
In the last ten years at least, the dark fantasy subgenre has become just about as popular as the horror subgenre. The two have many similar elements even to the point where they may seem interchangeable or synonymous with each other. Dark fantasy has been permeating just about all media, including video games and books. Neil Gaiman is one of the most popular dark fantasy writers of today, and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series of novels and the TV series Supernatural can also be considered to fall under this fantasy subcategory. Authors more associated with strict horror have also written some dark fantasy–Steven King with his DarkTower series, for instance.
Two other authors, who write much science fiction and horror but also write a lot of dark fantasy are Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison. Ray Bradbury’s most famous dark fantasy is his novel Something Wicked This Way Comes, while Ellison has famous stories of the subgenre such as “The Basilisk” and “Chatting with Anubis”.
Directors such as M. Night Shyamalan and Guillermo Del Toro who typically make horror movies, like Devil and The Orphanage, also make films that can be classified as dark fantasy: Shyamalan Lady in the Water, Del Toro Pan’s Labyrinth. It shouldn’t be too surprising that such authors and movie directors of horror also produce dark fantasy works since the two subgenres are both imaginative, dark forms of story telling, but what literary elements and conventions really distinguish the two?
Since horror has been the more popular familiar genre for a longer period of time, we’ll look at the literary conventions that make it up before we do the ones of dark fantasy. But before doing that, because dark fantasy descends from the more typical epic or high fantasy, we’ll look at the conventions of epic fantasy before looking at the ones of dark fantasy. But as far as supernatural horror goes, horror itself is also a subgenre of fantasy since it involves imaginary events such as hauntings and black magic.
Horror stories involving more realistic menacing characters, such as serial killers, would not be considered supernatural horror and so would hardly fall under the umbrella of the fantasy genre. So in general, fantasy story telling, regardless of the medium it is told through, involves any type of plot that is centered around magical or impossible events. In a wider perspective, this includes science fiction. The scientific events in a science fiction story, although much more plausible than events in high or epic fantasy, have not occurred in the present time the story is produced and so at that time of production these events are impossible, yet they are visionary since they are possible for a future time. But since we are looking at the distinctions between two subgenres of fantasy that do not primarily deal with science, we’ll disregard science fiction for purposes of this discussion. Because the fantasy genre is the umbrella that the subgenres supernatural horror and dark fantasy fall under, we’ll look at the conventions of epic/high fantasy which is the oldest form of story telling that falls under that genre.
Most epic fantasy involves either a hero’s quest or a battle to save a society–often a kingdom, maybe even the world. Magic, the supernatural, or both play a major role in the story. The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) involves wizardry and underworld creatures such as demons and spirits–the Orcs and Ringwraiths, for example–in the war that occurs throughout Tolkien’s trilogy. The main hero’s, Frodo Baggins’, quest is to take a magic ring to its rightful place and destroy it before it leads to the world domination of evil. The hero or heroes in stories such as this must face several obstacles to completing a task, these obstacles often involving the supernatural. However, they often receive help from a supernatural force such as a deity or elf, or a magic object they obtain. This is the case in the Lord of the Rings prequel, The Hobbit, when Bilbo finds the ring (before its evil power is discovered in LOTR) because he can turn invisible in times of danger by slipping it on his finger.
The hero in epic fantasy often makes it back to his/her homeland after completing the quest/battle bringing some sort of redemption to the society. Such fantasy is often also referred to as high fantasy. Northern Virginia Community College’s literary Website, Beyond . . . , indicates that a slight difference between the two terms is that high fantasy often takes place in imaginary worlds (as is the case with LOTR) whereas epic fantasy is based more in reality and so more directly based on myths rooted in our world’s history (for example, The Odyssey). A good example of epic fantasy would be Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon since it is based on Arthurian and therefore British/Celtic myth. But in nearly all circumstances both kinds of fantasy involve the unknown and mysterious. Because of this we’ll use these terms interchangeably for reasons of simplicity since this discussion’s aim is to distinguish horror and dark fantasy, not epic and high fantasy, from each other.
- Beyond . . . a Guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy
Steven Rose, Jr. is a journalist and writer of fiction. His non-fiction includes book, television, and movie reviews. His fiction consists of horror and science fiction short stories, although he plans to write novels in the near future. Besides writing, Steven serves as a public relations rep for the Sacramento based network, Sylvanopolis Writers’ Society. For more information about Steven, go to: http://faroutfantastic.blogspot.com/