In fiction, ‘darkness’ is in the eye of the beholder

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kobalos trilogyAs a fiction writer, I tend to mostly work in the fields of fantasy and horror. I don’t consider my fantasy works especially dark, nor do I consider most of my horror to be overly gory.

But readers as individuals have different tastes and wants in their literature. Why, just recently I had a reader e-mail me asking me about the darkness in my fantasy series, The Kobalos Trilogy. I was not surprised, but as recently as a couple of years ago I would have been.

When I first set out to write The Kobalos Trilogy, I wasn’t planning on writing dark fantasy. I was thinking of writing epic fantasy, but I didn’t want it to be huge epic fantasy, if you know what I mean. Yes, there’s a bit of traveling and a dark mage and some of the tropes of epic fantasy, but I wanted the story to mostly focus upon a core group of individuals, a half dozen or so people, instead of spanning across nations and armies and whole populations. In the end, I believe I mostly accomplished what I set out to do in those regards, though there is a touch of a broader, world-spanning plot.

Also, something else I wanted to do was to make the violence in my fantasy to seem realistic, not to be overly bloody or gory, but to have some of the emotional impact that violence does in real life. When one of my characters kills someone, I want it to mean something, to have an emotional impact upon the reader. Which is one of the reasons I don’t use non-humans in my fantasy, because I feel such characters limit the emotional relevance to many readers. I see far too many fantasy novels filled with heroes who slash aside orcs or goblins or other meanies without there being anything real to it; the bad guys are just bad guys and stand-ins for any kind of bad guys (not that there isn’t a place for those stories as well, but they’re not what I wish to write). Violence has real-life repercussions, regardless of whether it’s committed by some sordid serial murderer or a patriotic hero waving a flag; there might be different levels of the violence, different reasons behind it and different repercussions, but they are there. Violence of any type by any person leaves no one without scars, often not even the perpetrator of the violence.

Darkness and horror

What brought this to mind, besides the one e-mail from a reader, was my own recent readings. Upon the recommendations of various friends of colleagues, I’ve read several fantasy novels lately that have been labeled as “dark.” Some of these novels are from traditional print authors, while some are from indie authors.

None of them have I found overly dark. Violent, perhaps. Bloody, sometimes. Dark? Nope.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What is the difference, at least for me? To me, “dark” literature is fiction that explores the debased side of humanity, our darker thoughts, ideas, etc., what some might call evil and/or the disturbed. To my way of thinking, blood and horror and gore and violence in and of themselves are not necessarily dark, sometimes being little more than titillation, what late author John Gardner said celebrates “the trifling.”

True dark literature, in my opinion, goes beyond the mere physical acts of violence and explores the emotional depths of the darker sides of humanity.

For example, despite the large numbers of murders and deaths, I wouldn’t consider the Friday the 13th series of movies to be overly dark. Gruesome at times, yes. Dark, not on your life.

Keeping with an example from film, Apocalypse Now I find to be a truly dark film. Yes, it has its blood and gore and its fair share of battle scenes, but it goes beyond this to explore the emotional effects of the Vietnam War on soldiers, the effects of violence and madness, the outgrowth into more violence and madness, etc.

Stephen King, American author best known for his enormously popular horror novels. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To that end, such novels as Fight Club and Moby Dick I consider “dark” literature, though they are not necessarily overly gore-filled. On the other hand, I don’t consider most horror novels as truly dark literature, though there are exceptions. Clive Barker writes dark fiction, sometimes so does Neil Gaiman, but honestly, despite my liking of his writing style, I don’t consider most of the works of Stephen King as overly dark, as horror-ific as some of them might be.

Now, I freely admit I’m simply offering my own opinion here. I’m not suggesting no other opinions are valid. This is just how I see things.

So what are your thoughts on dark fiction?

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A former newspaper editor for two decades in Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky, Ty now earns his lunch money as a fiction writer, mostly in the fantasy and horror genres. In his free time he enjoys tabletop and video gaming, long swording, target shooting, reading, beer tasting and recalling fond memories of his late wife and their beagle baby, Lily. Find City of Rogues and other books and e-books by Ty Johnston at Amazon.

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