“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 divided into several genres: epic, high, low, heroic urban, suburban, historical, scientific, weird, dark…you’ll probably find one of these words before ” Fantasy” these days. Many authors enjoy mixing and “splicing” genres, which can often lead to new subgenres and even anti-genre approaches. There are two enduring genders that have always married well, blending seamlessly into each other, and their combination continues to be a popular couple.
Often horror and fantasy are lumped together like fraternal twins forced to wear the same plaid sweater. There are many theories defining exactly what each of the genres actually IS, and the closer you look at one or the other, the more splintering you find, the more subgenres there are, the more distinctions made at the “microcosmic” level. Yet examples of Horror/Fantasy blends continue to amaze and terrify readers.
One of the most inspired writers to blend horror and fantasy was HP Lovecraft. Even in his Dunsany-inspired “Dreamlands cycle” stories, which are set in a fantasy realm of mystical felines, enchanted forests, and smoky mystery towns, he never suppresses the aura of menace that lurks beneath the dreamy fantasy. ‘The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath’ and ‘The Doom That Came to Sarnath’ are prime examples of his ability to blend cosmic horror into a fantasy world that could have been all ‘sweet and light’. For Lovecraft, moving from dreams to nightmares was just one step. Or a wink.
JRR Tolkien has spoken about his horror side to the great modern-era fantasy series, THE LORD OF THE RINGS, which, for better or worse, has become something of a “master plan” for much of the world. ‘Epic Fantasy that was to follow. Tolkien’s trilogy wouldn’t 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 the poor, mad, and selfish Gollum, and the ultimate terror of Mordor and Sauron.
Tolkien’s iconic Dark Lord is such a horrific entity that the author never has to show us Sauron… the mere fact that he existence is enough to evoke the gripping terror of Frodo’s quest. Sauron’s inhuman minions are just aspects of his bottomless evil. The kind of evil usually only found in the Horror genre, where the same character could very 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 are precious, vulnerable, and perhaps ultimately doomed. Unless someone intervenes to oppose this horror.
Horror and fantasy intermingled so often and so well that the term Dark Fantasy eventually came to characterize the hybrid. But how does Dark Fantasy differ from non-Dark Fantasy? It is more important to ask a different question: Can Fantasy really succeed without a certain amount of Horror?
Horror can certainly succeed without any of the trappings, tropes, or tricks of Fantasy. You’ll find enough non-fantasy, real-world horror just by reading your daily journal. Humans are a constant source of horror for other humans, not to mention the horrors nature sometimes unleashes upon the human race. But when it comes to fantasy, is the “dark element” essential? What would you have without horrible elements in a work of fantastic fiction?
The heart of any good story is conflict. Imaginary conflicts most often (too often, if you ask me) involve the classic Good vs. Evil dichotomy. In recent years, this trope has been broken a bit – our society loves its “shades of gray” characters. For some reason, we love anti-heroes, thieves, outlaws, and scrappy survivors way more than just “heroes.” The example I always give to my students is the Disney PIRATES movies. In the first film, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) is obviously the hero; but it’s the anti-hero, the foil, the scoundrel Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) who becomes the real star of the film and all its sequels. It seems that our modern society has decided that “heroes are boring”. Or have we just matured to the point where we realize that even “heroes” are just people – and people are never totally good or bad? We want realistic characters more than heroes.
This is where Horror usually comes in when writing (or reading) Fantasy. It comes in the form of a conflict that your protagonist has to deal with. (“Protagonist” is a better word than “hero” for the reasons stated above.) This is certainly true of Tolkien’s heroes, who courageously sacrifice themselves to confront ultimate evil in order to save what is good and decent in life. the world. This is true for all Heroic Fantasy protagonists and for most Epic Fantasy protagonists. That may not be so true, however, for the protagonists of Dark Fantasy tales. In Lovecraft’s Dreamlands tales, its protagonists don’t usually fare so well. It descends much more to the “horror” side of things. The evil that infests the universe is never dispelled, only avoided or ignored. Sometimes barely.
The same goes for another classic fantasist, Clark Ashton Smith, a giant of weird fiction. Smith reveled in subverting the tropes of fantasy and sword and sorcery. Smith’s fantasies, especially his brilliant tales Zothique, Hyperborea and Poseidonis, evoke all the glittering wonders of magical and primordial worlds, but are imbued with the dark, demonic presence of a universe where horror reigns above all else. Only in a few instances do Smith’s protagonists avoid gruesome fates – from swordsmen to wizards to kings to astrologers – the weird and wonderful fantasy world they inhabit gives them death. Unlike the Conan and Kull tales of his friend Robert E. Howard, Smith did not care about having permanent heroes in his tales. One could even say that there are no heroes in Smith’s fantasies. Yet what magnificent and splendid fantasies they are, though of a mercilessly dark nature. There is beauty in darkness, as in all things. Smith saw it and showed it to his readers.
Most fantasies offer point-of-view characters that readers “inhabit” as they see the world, and a main character who is relatable on a human level. There are exceptions, but generally if the reader understands, sympathizes with, or relates to your main character, they’ll be drawn into the story and more than likely to finish the book. Viewpoint protagonists (sometimes antagonists) are “fictional costumes” that we all wear when entering these fictional worlds. Reading a book is virtual reality without technology. 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 we could never endure, endure, or conquer in the real world. This includes dealing with issues, problems, and harsh 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 story world face the horrors we dare not face in real life. And in Fantasy, more often than not, they CONQUER that horror. Or at least keep it at bay. Most of the protagonists win victories that we cannot, they take risks that we would never submit to, they face the horrors of the universe and say, “Here I am. Give me your best shot.”
Many readers prefer horror to fantasy. Horror fans don’t care for a point-of-view protagonist who either fails or ultimately meets a terrible fate. Fantasy enthusiasts often prefer fantasies that offer a more traditional “heroic triumph.” Or not. It’s all a matter of taste, and that explains one of the reasons why Clark Ashton Smith’s tragic Dark Fantasy will never be as popular as Tolkien’s High Fantasy, in which the dark elements are comfortably banished to oblivion.
There must be Horror in any fantasy setting if the writer wants their fantasy world to reflect the complexities of the real world. Because our world – the one in which we live, breathe, write books and surf the Internet – is full of horror. Literary horrors are metaphors and analogies for the real horrors of human existence. Literature, especially fantasy, allows us to confront these horrors and either succumb to the inevitable fate it brings or overcome it with heroic effort. Either way, we survive the experience and bring back some wisdom.
A great fantasy tale takes you somewhere far away and leaves you with heightened clarity about your own existence. This is the magic of fiction. The truth behind all the narrative lies we tell. The subtle sorcery of writing, the sound of Well Told History and the transcendent pleasure of reading fiction.
If you remove Horror from your Fantasy, you’ve removed a lot of relevance (not to mention conflict). Darkness must be present in some form, and you need look no further than the dark depths of the human heart.
SEVEN PRINCES is charged with horror because it is charged with humanity. There is blood and betrayal, struggle and sacrifice. Some characters will run away from horror. Some will rage against it. Some will be.
As a reader, you can do anything.
Now that’s magic.