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

by Alan Baxter

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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.