The definition of Dark Fantasy is “Fantasy with elements of Horror in it.” So the question is, how much Horror is required to take the story out of the realm of Fantasy and into the realm of pure Horror?
This is something that hasn’t been clearly defined and it is not my intention to try to carve out a dividing line for the genres here, but only to stimulate some speculative conversation among readers of these genres.
Both of the genres, Horror and Fantasy, are typified by strongly imaginative elements. Much of what I’ve read in both genres might easily fit into the other. For example, I found a story set in Hell with some of the familiar landscape we expect from that location (thanks, Dante) in the Fantasy section. It was unquestionably dark and so easily classified as Dark Fantasy. But why not Horror?
My theory is that if the author had intended Horror, more horrific scenes would have aroused our worst visions of what could happen in a place of torment and despair. But the story was about a quest, a protagonist who had to find a way out of Hell to complete a task, which is very much the stuff of Fantasy. The result is a Dark Fantasy.
In these days of easy publishing, the lines between genres are easily blurred. Mysteries and thrillers overlap, Horror sometimes has elements of science fiction or wanders into the relatively recent new definition of ‘Paranormal’, Historical Fiction has developed sub-genres that include alternative history as well as parodies, and every genre has been infiltrated by Romance.
Dark Fantasy, however, has been a recognised genre for a long time. Gertrude Barrows Bennett (September 18, 1884 – February 2, 1948) who wrote under the name of Francis Stevens, has been referred to as “the woman who invented dark fantasy.” The invention of the term is attributed to both Charles L. Grant (September 12, 1942 – September 15, 2006) and Karl Edward Wagner (12 December 1945 – 14 October 1994).
Bennett’s best known books include Claimed (1920) and The Citadel of Fear (1918) as well as a dystopian novel, The Heads Of Cerberus (1952), which Amazon touts as, “The First Sci-Fi to use the Idea of Parallel Worlds and Alternate Time.”
The term is often applied to stories with supernatural elements to separate them from ‘gore hor’ or to stories told from the monster’s point of view. Sometimes it is applied to Fantasy stories that have dark undertones or that contain some fearful elements, as in my own Goblin Trilogy.
It can also refer to stories with Fantasy elements that explore the darker side of human nature or emotions, as well as those that feature anti-heroic or morally ambiguous protagonists. But what about Horror with Fantasy elements? When the story was first released in 1976, Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire was easily classified as Horror. It was dark and about vampires, back when vampires were all scary and didn’t sparkle.
This is where genre blur really sets in. One could argue that the modern glut of Romance stories with vampire characters has precedent that go back to the original Dracula, especially in the film version. Dracula is an undeniably dark story, but has overtones of forbidden allure, the danger that the monster presents in enticing his victims to comply willingly.
Where do we draw the line between the horror of blood and undeath and the romantic fantasy of giving in to forbidden passions? There is no definitive answer to where that line should be placed, but plenty of room for opinion and speculation. Horror often delves into the ‘unreal’, worlds that contain demons and monsters in various forms. H.P. Lovecraft is particularly well known for exploring nightmare scenarios where unseen, sometimes worm-like creatures wait for opportunity to attack humans. There is no romanticism in his stories.
I would postulate that Dark Fantasy is the realm where we recognise a certain fascination with the darker side of the world or characters created, but still maintain natural fear of the monster or situation. I would not include the bdsm erotica that sometimes lays claim to the genre or consider it the same thing, but would perhaps dub that ‘dark erotica’ to differentiate.
Traditionally Fantasy genre is speculative in nature and exercises the imagination, building alternative worlds that might contain magic, mythological creatures or original fantastic elements, all of which can also occur in Horror. Whether there is even a point in drawing a line between them in these days of modern publishing is a matter of individual opinion.
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