Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Dark Fantasy vs Horror

So, I commented last week that T Kingfisher’s The Twisted Ones is perhaps more dark fantasy than horror. I think this is the case. But then why would I, or anyone, say this? What is the difference?

There is one fairly obvious differences, like so:

Horror does not have to have fantasy elements. It can draw solely on the horror internal to the human condition — Misery, by Stephen King, for example. Or it can use real-world elements and nothing but — Cujo, for example. Or it can use science-fiction-y elements, such as genetic experimentation gone awry or computers that develop in odd ways or, of course, aliens.

Dark fantasy must by definition use fantasy elements.

But okay, plenty of horror does include fantasy elements or supernatural elements, so how do you separate horror fantasy from dark fantasy? Blood and body count? This post at Disquieting Visions argues that if the adventure is foremost, it’s dark fantasy, while if generating suspense is foremost, it’s horror. That post suggests that the distinction is made, essentially, by whether the reader of the book would tend to exclaim: “You got blood on my adventure!” vs. “Your adventure is detracting from my sense of pervasive fear!” That is a very nice line. This definition would perhaps make The Twisted Ones horror, at least at first, although the second half might be dark fantasy.

However, I don’t agree that this is necessarily the case. It seems to me that there is a whole lot of adventure in a good many horror novels, superseding the atmosphere of dread; for example, in It. Though again you might then say that most of It is horror, but the last part is dark fantasy. But since It is a horror classic, that suggests the definition needs work. You really cannot use a definition of horror that excludes half of all classic horror works.

Here’s another post that I liked quite a bit: On Dark Fantasy, by an author named Lucy Snyder.

Horror is about an intrusion of the frightening and unknown into a mundane, everyday world the reader is familiar with. … The intrusion doesn’t have to be supernatural (a deranged serial killer will do just fine) though it often is.

Dark fantasies have an established setting that is fantastic or otherworldly. … If you start out in a world where vampires or ghosts or magic are treated as a “normal” occurance by the characters, it’s a fantasy world.

So for Snyder, horror is not about suspense or blood; it’s about the intrusion of the frightening into the mundane world. I could go with that, and in that case, again, The Twisted Ones would fall into the horror genre — again, tending a bit more toward dark fantasy toward the end. However, there are so many fantasy, not horror, novels where something fairly creepy intrudes into the mundane. Bone Gap by Laura Ruby. Shadows, by McKinley. Just a huge number. So I’m just not sure I’m happy with that definition either.

Snyder makes two more important points, but I’m not sure either works much better for me than the first. One is that the protagonists of dark fantasy novels are heroes, who at some point deliberately choose to face something terrible in order to save others; while the protagonists of horror novels are victims, forced to face something terrible because they can’t get away. This is very much, I think, like the adventure versus pervasive dread argument above. Heroes choose to act and therefore their stories are adventures. Victims of horror aren’t choosing anything and just want to survive.

Well, you know, this still doesn’t work. A whooooole bunch of horror novels have heroes, including classic novels like, again, It, and also The Stand and just about everything by Dean Koontz. You can either define all those as dark fantasy — even if they also involve the intrusion of eerie elements into the mundane world — despite the obvious fact that they are considered absolute classics of horror. Or you can give up on this characteristic.

I will add, though, that this particular element is a big driver of whether a dark fantasy / horror novel will work for me. I very much prefer heroes. I am not into helpless victims, even if they eventually take action to save themselves. I loathed Misery almost as much as I hated Cujo. In the latter, I was so filled with contempt for the ineffectual protagonist that I came close to throwing the book in the trash rather than giving it away. These days I would never bother finishing a story like that one.

But moving on: The other point Snyder makes is this: In many dark fantasies, there’s an implied promise that the characters the reader cares about will make it out alive in the end, and the day will be saved, while in horror neither is guaranteed.

I suppose this might have been true at one time, but the rise of grimdark fantasy zaps the distinction completely. Grimdark fantasy is not horror, but there is no such implied promise. Also, I always considered Dean Koontz to be writing “horror lite” — that is, horror where the good guys are going to live and the day will be saved. But those are still horror novels; nobody would call them dark fantasy, just as no one would peg Joe Abercrombe grimdark classic The Blade Itself as horror. This could be a matter of historical convention: if an author started writing when horror was popular, he’s writing horror. If his career took off when horror was in eclipse, we find another word for what he’s writing — grimdark or dark fantasy. Which, by the way, I think of as completely different subgenres.

When I picked up The Twisted Ones, I did indeed assume the good guys would win and the day would be saved, based on T Kingfisher’s other work, and if I’d been wrong I’d have been pretty unhappy about that. Since it’s marketed as horror, should I have been worried? I don’t think so. Lots of authors write horror where you can be pretty sure the good guys will triumph, at least the good guys you most want to survive.

Anyway, all this leaves the question of what, if anything, distinguishes dark fantasy from horror still unresolved. So far we have:

a) Horror involves intrusion of the weird and scary into the mundane world; dark fantasy involves secondary worlds and/or fantasy elements.

b) Horror involves the maintenance of pervasive dread rather than adventure; dark fantasy prioritizes adventure above the maintenance of pervasive dread.

c) Horror involves victims who have little other goal than survival; dark fantasy involves heroes who strive to save not only themselves but others.

d) Horror means no assurance about any characters surviving; dark fantasy carries an implicit promise that all or most of the characters will survive and the adversary will be defeated.

None of these defining characteristics seem to me to do a very good job of separating dark fantasy from horror. What else might work better to actually distinguish the two? Any ideas? Or should we just give up and declare there is no difference other than a marketing decision? Or should we say, “I don’t know, but I know it when I see it?”

Here’s where I would start:

a) Tone. Dark fantasy should be eerie and atmospheric. The feel should be high fantasy or mythopoeic. Grotesque is fine, but not buckets of gore splashed all over everything. It should not be overly gritty. It should not intergrade with grimdark. That is a different sub-subgenre.

b) The eeriness should be unexplained. Aliens, no matter how strange, are not eerie. Pseudoscience need not apply. Definitely no computers gone amok.

c) There should indeed be heroes rather than solely victims, and most or all of the characters should survive. If someone dies, it’s because they deliberately sacrifice themselves, not because the author threw in gratuitous death for no particular reason.

d) It is not primarily a romance story. Paranormal romance is a different subgenre with an entirely different “feel” to it. some Urban Fantasy might also be dark fantasy, however.

Here are some examples of what I would consider actual dark fantasy, in basically no order except how I thought of them:

1)Uprooted by Naomi Novik

2)Cuckoo’s Song by Francis Hardinge

3) Coraline by Neil Gaiman

4) Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

5) The Dark Tower series by Steven King

There, that’s five, enough to go on with. I’ll add one more:

6) The City in the Lake

What do you all think? What constitutes dark fantasy, and what novel do you think is a good example of the subgenre?

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4 Comments Dark Fantasy vs Horror

  1. Mary Catelli

    I’ve heard people say that the rule for dark fantasy is that there are rules for the world, they are just darker than you thought. Horror is the break-down of rules.

    But that founders on the way that horror can include pure mundane elements and nothing else.

  2. Allan L Shampine

    Very tough to define. My personal definition is that horror viscerally disturbs me. I remember trying to read Dan Simmons’ Summer of Night and finding it so disturbing I stopped reading. That was horror. Most “horror” that I can tolerate fits closer to the “dark fantasy” definitions. So I guess I use a definition of exclusion – horror is something that I find too disturbing to want to read. Dark fantasy isn’t.

  3. Hanneke

    Hmmm, none of your five examples ever made me want to read them, while I liked your City in the Lake and sought out your other books afterward. The poetic McKillip- like style and language gives off a very different signal than the darkness of the first five does, for me, and made me trust I’d feel good about it after I’d finished reading.

  4. Rachel

    Hanneke, I truly disliked the Gunslinger series and only kind-of-sort-of liked Miss Peregrine’s Home … but I loved Cuckoo Song. Have you read anything by Hardinge? Because of these examples, she’s the one I think you might like.

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