“As a small child, I felt in my heart two contradictory feelings, the horror of life and the ecstasy of life.” — Baudelaire
In today’s world Fantasy fiction is split into many genres: Epic, High, Low, Heroic Urban, Suburban, Historical, Science, Weird, Dark…you’re likely to find any of these words in front of “Fantasy” these days. Many authors enjoy blending and “splicing” genres together, which can often lead to new sub-genres and even anti-genre approaches. There are two enduring genres that have always gone well together, seamlessly blending one into the other, and their combination continues to be a popular pairing.
Often Horror and Fantasy are lumped together like fraternal twins forced to wear the same plaid sweater. Many are the theories defining exactly what each one of the genres actually IS, and the closer you look at either, the more splintering you find, the more sub-genres, the more distinctions being made on the “microcosmic” level. Yet examples of Horror/Fantasy blends continue to amaze and terrify readers.
One of the most inspired writers ever to blend Horror and Fantasy was H. P. Lovecraft. Even in his Dunsany-inspired “Dreamlands cycle” stories, which are set in a Fantasy realm of mystic felines, enchanted forests, and smoky cities of mystery, he never removes the aura of menace that lies beneath the dreamy fantasy. “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” and “The Doom That Came to Sarnath” are perfect examples of his facility to blend cosmic horror into a fantasy world that could have been all “sweetness and light.” For Lovecraft, moving from dreams to nightmares was no more than a single step. Or the blink of an eye.
J. R. R. Tolkien evoked his share of horror in the great Fantasy series of the modern age, THE LORD OF THE RINGS, which for better or worse became a type of “blueprint” for much of the Epic Fantasy that would follow. Tolkien’s trilogy would not be the same without the visceral horror of the Orcs, the spectral damnation of the Ringwraiths invading Middle Earth like a virus, the existential horror of poor, mad, selfish Gollum, and the ultimate terror of Mordor and Sauron.
Tolkien’s iconic Dark Lord is such a horrible entity that the author never has to show Sauron to us…the simple fact of his existence is enough to evoke the clutching dread of Frodo’s quest. The inhuman minions of Sauron are only aspects of his bottomless evil. The kind of evil usually found only in the Horror genre, where the same character might well have been known as Satan. In Tolkien’s work, as in most High/Epic Fantasy, the horror is there to remind us that the breathtaking beauty and golden peace of the higher realms is precious, vulnerable, and perhaps ultimately doomed. Unless somebody steps up to oppose that horror.
Horror and Fantasy have blended so often and so well that the term Dark Fantasy eventually came along to characterize the hybrid. But how is Dark Fantasy distinguished from non-Dark Fantasy? It is more important to ask a different question: Can Fantasy really be successful without some measure of Horror?
Horror can definitely succeed without any of the trappings, tropes, or tricks of Fantasy. You’ll find enough real-world, Fantasy-free horror just by reading your daily newspaper. Humans are a constant source of horror to other humans, not to mention the horrors that nature sometimes unleashes on the human race. But when it comes to Fantasy, is the “dark element” essential? What would you have without horrific elements in a work of Fantasy fiction?
The heart of any good story is conflict. Fantasy conflicts most often (too often, if you ask me) involve the classic Good vs. Evil dichotomy. In recent years that trope has been shattered a bit—our society loves its “shades of grey” characters. For some reason we adore anti-heroes, rogues, outlaws, and scrappy survivors far more than simple “heroes.” The example I always give to my students is the Disney PIRATES movies. In the first movie, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) is obviously the hero; but it’s the anti-hero, the foil, the ne’er-do-well Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) who becomes the real star of the movie and all its sequels. It seems that our modern society has decided that “heroes are boring.” Or have we simply matured to the point where we realize that even “heroes” are simply people—and people are never wholly good or evil? We want realistic characters more than we want heroes.
This is where the Horror usually comes in when you’re writing (or reading) a Fantasy. It comes in the form of a conflict that your protagonist must face. (“Protagonist” is a better word than “hero” for reasons stated above.) Certainly this is true of Tolkien’s heroes, bravely sacrificing themselves to face the ultimate evil to save what’s good and decent in the world. It’s true of any Heroic Fantasy protagonists, and most Epic Fantasy protagonists. It may not be so true, however, for protagonists of Dark Fantasy tales. In Lovecraft’s Dreamlands tales, his protagonists usually don’t fare so well. He comes down far more heavily on the “horror” side of things. The evil that infests the universe is never dispelled, only avoided or ignored. Sometimes barely.
The same is true of another classic fantasist, Clark Ashton Smith, a giant of weird fiction. Smith reveled in turning the tropes of Fantasy and Sword-and-Sorcery on their heads. Smith’s fantasies, especially his brilliant Zothique, Hyperborea, and Poseidonis tales, evoke all the glittering wonder of magical, primordial worlds yet are steeped in the dark, demonic presence of a universe where horror reigns above all. Only in a few cases do Smith’s protagonists avoid horrible fates—from swordsmen to wizards to kings and astrologers—the weird and wonderful Fantasy world they inhabit provides their doom. Unlike his friend Robert E. Howard’s Conan and Kull tales, Smith did not care to have ongoing heroes in his tales. One might even argue that there ARE no heroes in Smith’s fantasies. Yet what gorgeous and splendid fantasies they are, albeit of an unforgivingly dark nature. There is beauty in darkness, as in all things. Smith saw it, and showed it to his readers.
Most fantasies offer viewpoint characters that readers “inhabit” as they view the world, and a main character who is relatable on a human level. There are exceptions, but usually if the reader understands, sympathizes with, or relates to your main character they will be drawn into the story and more than likely to finish the book. Viewpoint protagonists (sometimes antagonists) are “fiction suits” that we all wear as we step into these fictional worlds. Reading a book is tech-free virtual reality. Brain-hopping from character to character.
This relationship between the reader and the protagonist(s) of a story explains why Horror is so often a crucial partner to Fantasy. In the guise of our protagonist (or “hero”), we face things that we could never stand, endure, or conquer in the real world. This includes facing the problems, issues, and stark realities that haunt us in our waking moments. From bloodthirsty bullies to vicious predators to the unbridled fury of nature (or supernature), our fictional avatars in the World of the Story face the horrors that we dare not face in real life. And in Fantasy, more often than not, they CONQUER that horror. Or at least hold it at bay. Most protagonists achieve victories that we cannot, they take the risks we would never submit ourselves to, they face the horrors of the universe and say “Here I am. Give me your best shot.”
Many readers prefer Horror over Fantasy. Horror buffs don’t mind a viewpoint protagonist who fails, or ultimately meets a terrible fate. Fantasy buffs often prefer fantasies that provide a more traditional “heroic triumph.” Or not. It’s all a matter of taste, and it accounts for one reason Clark Ashton Smith’s tragic Dark Fantasy will never be as popular as Tolkien’s High Fantasy, wherein the dark elements are banished comfortably into oblivion.
There must be some Horror in any Fantasy setting if the writer wants his imaginary world to reflect the complexities of the real world. Because our world—the one in which we live and breathe and write books and surf the internet—is full of horror. Literary horrors are metaphors and analogies for the actual horrors of human existence. Literature, especially Fantasy, enables us to face those horrors and either succumb to the inevitable doom that it brings, or overcome it with heroic effort. Either way, we survive the experience and bring away some wisdom.
A great Fantasy tale takes you somewhere far away and leaves you with a heightened clarity regarding your own existence. This is the magic of fiction. The truth behind all the narrative lies we tell. The subtle sorcery of the written word, the sound of the Story Well Told, and the transcendent pleasure of reading fiction.
If you take the Horror out of your Fantasy, you’ve taken out much of the relevance (not to mention much of the conflict). The Dark must be present in some form or another, and you need look no farther for it than in the murky depths of the human heart.
SEVEN PRINCES is loaded with horror because it is loaded with humanity. There is blood and betrayal, struggle and sacrifice. Some characters will flee the horror. Some will rage against it. Some will become it.
As the reader, you get to do it all.
Now THAT’s magic.