HorrorAddictsCon: Steven Rose Jr. – Horror and Dark Fantasy III

Horror and Dark Fantasy: One and the Same?

by Steven Rose, Jr.

Part III

The dark fantasy tends to contain literary elements from both the epic fantasy and, as stated at Beyond, a horror story. The dark fantasy plot often involves a quest on the main character’s part, but it is often a quest into darker, more forbidden settings. The hero may or may not have friends or companions on that quest with him/her. The obstacles he/she faces are menacing creatures that you find in many horror stories, creatures such as zombies or evil spirits ready to devour the hero either physically or spiritually. There often tends to be more fairy or folk tale elements in this type of story than in the epic fantasy or horror story. Therefore there may be magical creatures, such as fairies or talking animals that help the hero, and the hero may come from humble beginnings like the hero in the fairy tale often does. Also, the story’s ending is more like that in the fairy tale—a joyful ending where everything turns out good for the hero(es) and they either go on living life as normal as before or better.

These distinguishing elements between horror and dark fantasy can best be seen if we compare a horror novel such as Dracula with a dark fantasy novel such as Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. In Dracula, a young man who can be considered the hero goes on a journey to the evil count’s estate in Transylvania on business. He is imprisoned by the count, and faces many obstacles in his attempt to escape and in doing so is in utmost fear for his life. He finally does escape, but the count follows him home to his native England . It is there where Dracula causes the terror and havoc on not just the hero’s, Jonathan Harker’s, friends and beloved, Mina, but even on the society at large. The horror of this creature is that he can take control of a person’s life and soul in that he can make them into one of the living dead like himself making them have to feed off of innocent people’s blood. He is immortal and undefeatable. He can appear anywhere at anytime, and, unlike in most of the movie adaptations, can even walk about by day under certain circumstances. He can make people come to him over remote distances by merely thinking about it, like he does with Mina. He can change into a bat, wolf or mist. He can even change the appearance of his age from old to young. Jonathan Harker, Mina, and the vampire hunter Dr. Van Helsing, along with others form a kind of expedition to go after Dracula and kill him after the evil count has fled back to his native Transylvania . In this way the basic mythic motifs of the quest and battle against an enemy comes up in this novel. But even though Dracula has become a threat to an entire society, the climaxing battle here is more for an individual’s soul, Mina’s.

Gaiman’s Neverwhere is a story that is actually developed from the basic plot of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. The story mostly takes place at night in the underground ofLondon . Because it’s based on Alice in Wonderland, it’s got a fairy tale quality to it and this kind of otherworld atmosphere, yet it takes place in the subterranean structures of an actual geographical based city. However, this underground world in the novel is a fantastical one in that it is seldom seen by Londoners and is occupied by magical beings and so is an environment of mystery. One of the magical beings is an enchantress who sucks the life source out of people, an element of horror since it is so close to the idea of sucking the soul out of a person and is a more personal threat like what we see in Dracula than a societal one. But the very fact that this hidden society comes out both underground and above at night while the rest of Londoners are sleeping gives the setting a more imaginary, dream-like quality seen in much of high fantasy. The majority of the characters the hero comes in contact with are of magic and mystery, as opposed to the more rational based human characters in Dracula (save for the vampires themselves, of course). One of these characters is a talking rat, a rodent character type often seen in a lot of fairy tales and fables such as The Nutcracker. So the quest inNeverwhere, unlike in Dracula, involves more fantastical characters who help the hero on his journey, and the purpose of the quest is more societal than it is personal.

Another high fantasy element in this novel is a giant boar that the heroes must battle in the sewers, a creature used as a dragon type in this story. Likewise, Dracula himself on a more implicit and symbolic level is a dragon figure. In fact, his very name derives from a word associated with dragon. As a dragon figure he is a threat to society. But more importantly he is a hoarder of not only blood but gold like the typical Western dragon is. And, of course, he is a devourer of human blood just as a dragon is the devourer or destroyer of human flesh and lives.

So in comparing these too popular novels, we can see that the distinction between the genres of horror and dark fantasy is that one is more emphasized on the threat of the individual as opposed to a whole society, more specifically the threat to a person’s soul, although dark fantasy can contain that same kind of element. However, there is a more fairy tale quality to the dark fantasy than there is to the horror story since more impossible characters occur, characters like talking and humanized animals such as the talking rat in Gaiman’s novel. In the horror story, the characters are more rational and realistic and the plot, although fantastical in its involving supernatural creatures, consists of more realistic and so more believable events.

Another factor that we shouldn’t overlook is that the distinction between these two genres is also due to the commercial industry’s categorization and marketing of fiction. The majority of book retailers sell their literary merchandise according to popular interests and therefore according to what the majority of customers are going to be looking for in story type. But in order for retailers to do that, and in order for them to consider readers’ preferences, the literary conventions of these story types have to be considered.

So the distinction between the genres of horror and dark fantasy seem to be based on two factors: literary convention and marketing. Yet when looking at the conventions closely between stories of these two subgenres, the distinction seems very blurred because many of these conventions are used to a more or lesser degree in both. What are your thoughts on the differences in these two subgenres? Would you say the two are based more on conventions or more on marketing methods? Are such categorizations more up to the reader than the forces of literary convention and marketing? Are horror and dark fantasy interchangeable terms, or can dark fantasy be considered a mixed genre of horror, high fantasy and even fairy tale elements? Should both just be considered dark fiction and not have any further classifications? Let’s extend this discussion, and so please feel free to leave any answers or other comments!


Suggested Reading

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/

7 thoughts on “HorrorAddictsCon: Steven Rose Jr. – Horror and Dark Fantasy III

  1. Dracula and Neverwhere are two very good movies/books. You know, the more I read about your take on this, the more I allow myself to be “ok” with the Dark Fantasy tag many have put on my vampire series, Night’s Knights. I am leery when they say this because fantasy in my mind conjures dragons, gnomes, and magic — which I’m not really comfortable with. But perhaps, after reading your stuff, it does make some sense. I suppose the ending of NK, is very fantasy-ish. Dusk’s Warriors (the sequel) is turning even more so. Some have even told me I’m more of a modern fairytale storyteller. So, have I doomed myself to a label of Dark Fantasy instead of horror? Have I always been a fantasy author and never knew it? ~Identity crisis!!~ hehhee.


    • Well, as I mention in the article, the dividing line between the two genres often appears to be very blurred and therefore the two can and often do overlap. Personally,

      I feel that genre classification is a somewhat subjective concept and so is really up to both the author and the reader individually. To use an example from film, George Lucas has claimed in interviews that he did not make Star Wars with the intention of it being a science fiction movie and even hates it when people classify it as that. In a way, that makes sense because the movies do have a more fairy tale, good vs. evil, quality to it and don’t emphasize the science so much (if at all!). Yet some Star Wars fans (myself included) will still refer to it as science fiction simply because the setting is outer space and interplanetary and much of the technology is (or at least was when the movies came out) far advanced for the present time.

      As far as any kind of promotional labeling of a fictional work goes, it depends on who’s promoting the work and that person’s/group’s intentions for promoting it. If the author him/herself is promoting it, especially through self publishing, the author most likely will promote it with the label he/she feels most comfortable with. If a traditional publisher promotes it, that publisher will use the label that brings in the sales, samething with a bookstore (the very few that are left on the planet) or distributer. A reader? In my experience, I refer to a work as being a certain genre–whether horror, dark fantasy, sci fi, whatever–according to the emphasis and amount of elements that come from that genre that the book uses. The book that contains a balance of elements from several different genres often have a brilliant work. Yet it can work the other way: an author who tries too hard to use elements from several different genres can come out with a cheesy Frankentein-ish patch work (cheesy if the original intent wasn’t for the story to be a patch work).

      So returning to your comment about not feeling sure whether your fiction falls under dark fantasy instead of the intended horror category, Em, I wouldn’t worry about it too much because the two often overlap so much to begin with. You may have been joking about the “identity crisis”, but I thought I would just mention this just in case and to relieve the worries of other authors or aspiring authors who may be in a similar boat. lol


  2. I need to step offline for about an hour to take care of an important family matter. Plus my porto-computer (laptop) needs to rest. She’s been on all day, almost literally, and so she’s burning out, (also almost literally! lol). I apologize for any inconvenience, but please feel free to post any further questions or comments and I’ll answer them as soon as I get back online and on this wonderful horror con-line (online convention).

    Thank you all.


  3. I have returned! Finally! And once again, my apologies. It took a little longer than I thought it would; I had to pick up my grandfather from the convalescent where he visits my grandmother each day and I had to wait til they were done eating dinner. Unfortunately I don’t have a smart phone or Internet on my skel-phone at the time but I hope to change all that soon. Thank you all for your patience. And now on with the horror show (the horror con in this case)!


  4. This reply is just for a correction I made on my name’s link. It wasn’t connecting to my own blog which I invite you all to visit. It’s been a while since I’ve posted there, but I’ll be posting again soon. I hope to see you there!


  5. Pingback: Review: Gather ‘Round The Campfire for a Howling Good Time … of Horror, Fear & Fantasy | Write @ You!

    • Thanks for posting the link to my article on your site! That was a great review of the collection of flash fiction by Todd Russell. I read one of the stories, “The Spider Cometh”: very painfully creepy!


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