Op-Ed: Horror Or Dark Fantasy – What is it exactly?

by Alan Baxter

This article is an opinion editorial. Views expressed are solely those of the individual author and not necessarily those of Thirteen O’Clock, its Contributing Editors, or its contributors. Thirteen O’Clock welcomes interaction – please feel free to discuss this piece in the comments section. If you’d like to write an op-ed for Thirteen O’Clock, please pitch your article to the editors via the Contact page.

Many terms are bandied around when it comes to dark fiction. Since the schlock and pulp of the 80s, the term horror has carried many connotations, most of them doing a disservice to what horror really is. As a result, many people have moved away from using the definition “horror” and tried to address the genre in different terms. But there are variations of dark fiction and, in my mind, it’s not all horror in the definitive sense.

I’m a speculative fiction writer, primarily dark speculative fiction. My work covers sci-fi, fantasy, thriller, crime and all variations thereof, usually with dark and definite horror aspects. I certainly write horror sometimes, but I classify myself more as a dark fantasy writer; mainly contemporary, often urban-based dark fantasy. My novels and the majority of my short fiction falls into that category, with occasional forays into sci-fi, crime and straight fantasy as well as horror.

I’m not loathe to use the word horror where it fits. I’m happy to be thought of as a horror writer for the horror I do write or when horror is used as a catch-all definition. Just as Space Opera, Hard SF, Science Fantasy, Planetary Romance, etc. are all sub-genres of SF, I see Weird Fiction, Dark Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, Splatterpunk, Ghost Stories and so on as sub-genres of Horror. But a lot of people see the word “horror”, think slasher movies or torture porn, and don’t give the genre as much respect as it deserves. I’m sure the majority of people reading here wouldn’t think that way. Anyone with a good reading history of horror would know how interesting and diverse the genre is. But from a literal definition, I’m not primarily a horror writer.

Of course, then comes the difficult task of defining just what these genres are. Any kind of genre definition can be hazy. Some people consider dark fantasy and horror to be the same thing, but I strongly disagree. One definition I’ve often seen is that horror is something designed to scare or cause terror, and that’s where it sits in my internal dictionary.

From www.dictionary.com:

1. an overwhelming and painful feeling caused by something frightfully shocking, terrifying, or revolting; a shuddering fear: to shrink back from a mutilated corpse in horror.
2. anything that causes such a feeling: killing, looting, and other horrors of war.
3. such a feeling as a quality or condition: to have known the horror of slow starvation.
4. a strong aversion; abhorrence: to have a horror of emotional outbursts.

This, by actual definition, certainly encompasses a lot of fiction with a dark bent. But I feel that a lot of dark fiction, a lot of my own included, explores beyond this definition.

Charles L. Grant is often cited as having coined the term “dark fantasy”. Grant defined dark fantasy as:

“a type of horror story in which humanity is threatened by forces beyond human understanding.” (The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy: Themes, Works, and Wonders, Volume 1,edited by Gary Westfahl, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2005.)

Grant’s term was a direct alternative to the perception of horror as visceral works designed to frighten or terrify. It’s exactly this division of definition which works for me.

If something is fantastical, supernatural or paranormal and deals with the darker side of life, darker emotions and psychological stresses, but doesn’t have, as its primary intention, the desire to scare readers, then it isn’t horror but could certainly be dark fantasy.

If we were to call something horror, most people would expect a scary story, which, at its heart, it might not be. If we were to call it contemporary fantasy, people would think first of a swords-and-sorcery-style tale set in the modern world, with an expectation of something lighter, which it isn’t. Therefore, contemporary dark fantasy gives us a far better expectation of the story contained. It’s contemporary, not historical or sci-fi; it’s dark, not light and probably frightening or horrible in places; it’s fantasy, so has fantastical elements, be they supernatural, cryptozoological or whatever. Perhaps dark fantasy is more a description of what something is not, rather than what it is.

It helps if we use direct examples. Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea is dark fantasy, in my opinion. It deals with the darkness inside people and the black that follows the character of Ged. So while it’s primarily fantasy, it’s also dark. But it’s not horror.

I would call Neil Gaiman’s work contemporary 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 book. I think dark fantasy is the perfect category for it. It’s also the ideal definition of Gaiman’s Sandman comic books and most of his other work.

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 who certainly blur the lines between the two genres. Some of the things they write are definitely horror. But not all.

The short fiction of Angela Slatter and Lisa L Hannett is as often dark fantasy as it is horror.

Clive Barker’s Weaveworld.

Trent Jamieson’s Death Works novels.

The movie Dark City would be a 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 supernatural or paranormal in a way that studies the dark and frightening side of our nature, our world and other worlds. If it explores the darkness of our 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 who sometimes have to do unsavoury things. If it has villains who aren’t necessarily all bad as well as villains who really are all bad. But, regardless of all these things, its primary purpose is not to scare or terrify, but to explore the darkness.

And I certainly don’t claim to be any kind of final authority. This is really just scratching the surface and genre definitions are always minefields of opinion. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.


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About Alan Baxter

Alan Baxter is a British-Australian author who writes dark fantasy, horror and sci-fi, rides a motorcycle and loves his dog. He also teaches Kung Fu. He is the author of the dark urban fantasy trilogy, Bound, Obsidian and Abduction (The Alex Caine Series) published by HarperVoyager Australia, and the dark urban fantasy duology, RealmShift and MageSign (The Balance 1 and 2) from Gryphonwood Press. He co-authored the short horror novel, Dark Rite, with David Wood. Alan also writes short fiction with more than 50 stories published in a variety of journals and anthologies in Australia, the US, the UK and France. His short fiction has appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction (forthcoming), Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily Science Fiction, Postscripts, and Midnight Echo, among many others, and more than twenty anthologies, including the Year’s Best Australian Fantasy & Horror (2010 and 2012). Alan also writes narrative arcs and dialogue for videogames and wrote the popular writer’s resource, Write The Fight Right, a short ebook about writing convincing fight scenes. He has twice been a finalist in the Ditmar Awards.

12 thoughts on “Op-Ed: Horror Or Dark Fantasy – What is it exactly?

  1. This I something I struggle with. My intention when I write a dark story is rarely to scare. I usually write dark themes to explore the darkness inside me, or what I see in the outside world. Although I do have a few horror stories under my belt I tend to avoid labelling my stories as horror, as I feel like a fraud. Midnight Echo’s current call for submissions leaves me feeling a trifle daunted, as it seems horror is often in the perception of the reader rather than the intentions of the writer.

  2. I don’t have any intention at all when I write a story except to ‘write a story’. It’s not my fault they always end up being dark and icky.

    I just prefer the term ‘horror’ for everything. I don’t like genre labels much anyway, but it is easier for me to say ‘horror’ than to try and break things down. Honestly, I still have no real idea what ‘urban horror’ is! For me, urban horror is pension day at the local shopping centre and mums driving SUVs.

    As for the Midnight Echo guidelines, I think these ones are easier to work with than issue 7 (the ‘Taboo’ issue) was. With three editors, each with very different needs, I think they’re just looking for really good, dark stories. They can be gross or scary or disturbing or whatever, as long as they hold the editor’s/reader’s attention. That’s the sort of thing that will appeal to all of them at once :-)

  3. I’ll admit that my work is in the horror genre, but the horror aspects are mostly secondary to the tale. Horror and terror are our most primal instincts – linked to survival and is an emotion that surfaces when we are most vulnerable. I find that horror allows you to say more about the human condition than any other emotion. Regardless of what category your story may be in the end it’s the story and the characters within that matter.

  4. I’m a bit like Stacey in that the themes of my writing are often dark and I go on to explore where that leads. I agree that the protagonists should be recognised as normal everyday people who find themselves in frightening situations. This way the reader empathises with them and shares their trials and tribulations and the often awful places that leaves them. But if there has to be a definition, I think ‘horror’ covers. I certainly wouldn’t be able to define any of Clive Barker’s works other than horror as they are so multi-faceted.

  5. Andrew you made me laugh, urban horror indeed! (Or trying to find a park at a shopping centre at Christmas time). I suppose I worry that readers will scoff at the “scariness” of my stories, given that most of my horror is quite subtle (or may not be at all understandable to some readers). I should probably stop worrying about what other people think though. ;)

  6. I pretty much agree with everything Andy said. I prefer the term “horror” and it’s the term I use, although I do adjust this sometimes to suit the person I’m speaking to. For me, horror encompasses a helluva lot of things, which is the beauty of it – but having said that, I can understand why others may prefer to drill down into the genre by attaching labels to its sub-genres, such as “dark fantasy”, etc. I don’t set out to write horror, I just set out to write; but most of my stuff turns out to be horror, and I’m very proud of that. I’m also ok with simply using the term “dark” to describe the nature of a piece…for me that means horror, anyway.

  7. Interesting comments – thanks for weighing in, all. I usually tell people I’m a “dark speculative fiction” writer, but that almost always leads to, “What’s that?”


  8. This is a bit of a hobby-horse topic for me, so I’ll try to be brief. By now it’s days after Alan’s article was first posted and probably nobody is reading anyway, which is probably for the best…

    I’m like Andrew, in that I don’t usually think about genre when I start writing–I find a story and I just go for it. Usually, but not always, they come out pretty dark. More often than not there’s a blend of genres, but sometimes it’s straight up SF, crime, fantasy, historical fiction, or even social realism. (I dislike the term ‘literary fiction’).

    You’ll notice that I didn’t include horror in there, although I believe that most of it counts as horror–indeed, I’ve published four volumes of an out-and-out horror anthology. I guess my position is that I’m not convinced that horror is a genre–or, if it is, it’s orthogonal to most other genres.

    Horror, as Alan pointed out in the main article, is a feeling. I think that most of the horror stories we talk about are actually stories from other genres (most often fantasy or crime) that are just told with an emphasis on evoking horror.

    ALIEN is a great science fiction movie that’s steeped in horror.

    I think comedy is another genre that’s orthogonal in the same way. HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY, is, likewise, a great science fiction novel that’s steeped in comedy.

    Often horror fiction is very funny, and of course comedies can be equally horrifying. Look at EVIL DEAD 2 for a terrific example of the former, or, say, VERY BAD THINGS as a not-so-good example of the latter. Or HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE, which in its own way has quite a frightening outlook on things.

    As I mentioned on facebook to some of the guys here, my comedy graphic novel from 2010 is categorized as horror because it’s about devil worshipers, but if you actually read it, it’s a lot closer to THE SIMPSONS than to ROSEMARY’S BABY.

    Okay, so, I’m not saying that horror is not a genre, or that horror is comedy, or anything so severe; I’m just trying to express what I think is an interesting (and not specially original) way to look at it. Genre is a very plastic term. Genre boundaries change. Sometimes the slide across different ‘media’. Sometimes people deny that such things exist, or insist that the boundaries are particularly rigid.

    For me, I feel as if my home is in the so-called genres, but I resent anybody who thinks that means that this is cause for snobbery, or that this cheapens the work I do outside what is considered genre. I believe that every story–EVERY STORY–falls into a genre of one description or another.

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  10. I really like some of your thinking, there Jason. Especially that ‘Horror’ isn’t really a genre. It’s the only genre named after a feeling or an emotion. Everything else is act or setting: crime, fantasy, SF, western, romance even. None of the other genres try and tell a reader what they should feel, and that, to me, makes Horror a strange one when compared to the rest.

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