Why the Darkness?

I just read the table of contents for The Best British Fantasy 2013. It seems, from the blurbs on the stories and the book summary on SF Signal, that the contents are dark, grim, apocalyptic, twisted.skull warrior I wonder why current short fantasy seems to be about what did, is or will go wrong in a horrifying way? Some of it is just about indistinguishable from straight horror fiction.

This trend is not new. It’s been happening increasingly for at least a decade, perhaps two.

Perhaps it’s reader’s taste for these dark tales, but in this case I almost wonder if it’s just that the readers consume what is fed them by the market, making sales of this stuff a self-fullfilling prophecy. Certainly the popularity of dark, horror games has a lot to do with it, and the market has jumped on it, all in.

Whither the stories of wizards, journeys, quests, magic, romance, even some elves or dwarves? Books with those elements still are being written and sell, but with short form fantasy it all seems so grim. Too bad. I miss the good old days of fantasy.

About Rick Robinson

Enjoying life in Portland, OR
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20 Responses to Why the Darkness?

  1. John says:

    I think all of what you are missing is still available, but it’s now being incorporated into this new subgenre called Urban fantasy which to my mind is more influenced by comic books and action movies than real fantasy novels. A lot of the wizards and elves, magic and quests, are showing up in YA fiction, too. But I haven’t found any worth recommending. THE NIGHT CIRCUS by Erin Morgenstern has everything you are longing for and had a huge PR push from the publisher but it’s severely lacking in real magic, if you know what I mean. The last really good fantasy novel in the style you are talking about that I read was Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. That was almost ten years ago.

  2. macavityabc says:

    I think this is true in the mystery field, too.

  3. Richard says:

    John, thanks for your insight. Strange and Norrell had it’s fans and detractors. I didn’t read it.

  4. Richard says:

    Bill, since noir and hardboiled have been around and popular for so long, and there are still plenty of cozies and humorous mysteries being published, I hadn’t noticed it so much in mystery, but I’m sure your right. I’m also wondering if shopping from home on-line instead of being in a bookstore and browsing covers and titles has anything to do with what I’m seeing and feeling in regard to this dark thing.

  5. I certainly think you could point to it being a sign of the general dissatisfaction people feel at the state of the world. This is probably even more apparent in Europe where so many countries close to Britain are or have been in major debt crisis, etc. And politics and social situations being what they are the world over, it makes sense that artists would be exploring their own feelings and what they see in their work, trying to make sense of it or give some glimmer of hope amidst all the darkness. Conversely there are moves towards more optimistic fiction. Strahan’s Edge of Infinity is one such anthology, meant to have a more optimistic outlook on the future.

  6. cgramlich says:

    I don’t think it’s particularly new. One of the things I think made Robert E. Howard’s stuff stand out so much for me was the elements of horror he brought to the fantasy genre. I often include some of this in my fantasy too.

  7. Richard says:

    Carl, you make a good point. What’s lost in that idea is that many (most?) readers read for enjoyment and escape, not to be mired further into unpleasant reality. I have that anthology but have not read it, though I think it’s SF. not fantasy.

  8. Richard says:

    Charles, I acknowledge a slight horror element in your work and more of it in Howard, but in neither REH nor your writing is the whole world a cesspool, as it seems to be in much modern short fantasy.

  9. Jeff Meyerson says:

    I think there is a connection with comics, especially with authors who do both like Neil Gaiman.

    Have you read his NEVERWHERE? I recommend it.

  10. Richard says:

    Jeff, unlike the rest of the universe, I’m not much of a Gaiman fan.

  11. Jeff Meyerson says:

    Well, that one might be the exception for you.

  12. Todd Mason says:

    I think John and Carl touch on a lot of it…given how there has been little interest in publishing horror as horror over the last decade…writers of the lighter fantasy are largely sucked into Paranormal Romance, YA fantasy, or sometimes are back to being sold as crime-fiction folks (or, if Audrey Niffenegger and Karen Russell among others, as “general fiction”)…

  13. I agree, people like to be entertained, but a lot of people get a cathartic release by being entertained by stuff that touches on, even unconsciously, what they are going through at the moment. And a lot of the darker stuff has threads of hope woven within. I admit, I like a good dystopian or post-apocalyptic story myself. Are they my favorite? No. But if they are written with skill then I am certainly entertained.

  14. You’re right, Rick. There’s a general lack of comedy in today’s publishing world. And TV and cable and movies consider stupidity “comedy” (I don’t). The last comedic book I read (years ago) was a Rumpole mystery.

  15. Richard says:

    Good points, Todd. Sad to think that non dark-grim-horriffic authors would have to don the YA hat to get published or find an audience. I do think, however, that there is a segment of the YA audience who love the dark violent stuff like Warhammer, the same ones who like the dark fantasy shooter games.

  16. Richard says:

    George, I wasn’t looking for comedic fantasy, just stories and novels focused on character and setting with the traditional fantasy tropes but without the darkness and horror. The Hobbit, the works by Dennis McKieren, the swords books by Saberhagen, Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane. The Belgariad and the following book in that series by David Eddings is an excellent example.

  17. Patti Abbott says:

    As said above, anyone who can find any optimism in this world probably can’t spin a tale.

  18. Richard says:

    Patti, all I have to do is look out the window at our garden, or the view over the Willamette Valley, or our nice home and I feel good. But a story about a happy person with few if any problems wouldn’t find much readership unless it was a romance with a happy ending.

  19. Cap'n Bob says:

    Have you tried Patricia McKillip?

  20. Richard says:

    Bob, I’m pretty sure I have something here by her, but haven’t read it.

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