Photo by GEORGE DESIPRIS
When Dak’tari enters the realm of the dead to avenge her beloved’s betrayal, it is a powerful scene and emblematic of why dark fantasy is so special.
One of the most popular genres of fiction out there is fantasy. It has numerous subgenres, including dark fantasy, epic fantasy, etc. Rich, varied, and pushing past the limits of human imagination, it is not surprising why many people flock to it yearly.
Defining the Fantasy Genre
As a genre of speculative fiction, fantasy invokes the magical and the supernatural. Its subjects cannot exist in the real world or are re-contextualized for a specific reimagining. Most fantasy stories are set in imaginary universes populated by imagined peoples with their fantastical natural laws. Sometimes these universes might mimic Earth or take place on Earth but with a hidden magical side.
The appeal of this genre is its indulgence of the human imagination without generally having to ground these fantastical elements in scientific facts. Although the science-fantasy subgenre exists. Some fantasy works pull on ancient myths and forgotten legends.
What Distinguishes Fantasy from Other Genres
Science fiction and horror are some of the most popular genres after fantasy. All three are part of the more expansive speculative fiction umbrella. Fantasy differs from science fiction by the potential feasibility of its subject matter and the elements presented in its setting.
Although science fiction also plays with imaginary concepts, it does so through logical and conceivable premises.
While both horror and fantasy invoke the supernatural, horror focuses on how it personally affects the protagonist. In fantasy, it is more ubiquitous.
Subgenres of Fantasy
With how popular fantasy is and the numerous stories written and published under the term, several unique subgenres have developed which exaggerate specific fantastical elements or create entirely new ones. Here are some of the more popular subgenres of fantasy:
- Urban fantasy is when traditional fantasy elements are juxtaposed in a modern setting.
- Magical realism is when the unbelievable is treated as mundane.
- Paranormal fiction is when romance plays a more central part than fantastical elements.
- Medieval fantasy is when the setting invokes a vaguely European atmosphere.
- Young adult fantasy is when the target demographic is adolescents aged 13-20.
The Subgenre of Dark Fantasy
Another subgenre of fantasy that saw a broad appeal in the 70s is dark fantasy. At the same time, a classic fantasy story conveys a soft and lighthearted mood. Dark fantasy revels specifically in the more disturbing and mature themes. It is in dark fantasy where fantasy and horror find the most overlap. It contains the setting of the former while incorporating the tone and sense of dread of the latter.
Vincent Bivona’s Blood of Deception is a worthy example of this rich genre. The scene where Dak’tari enters the realm of the dead is reminiscent of a traditional dark fantasy story. It harkens to many of the tropes associated with the genre.
A History of Dark Fantasy as a Subgenre
Charles L. Grant, a prolific fantasy author, is credited with coining the term “dark fantasy,” describing it as horror where humanity is against a force or entity beyond its comprehension. He used the term to distinguish his stories from the horror genre, which was becoming more associated with visceral and psychological works.
Karl Edward Wagner, another prolific author of the genre, expanded the term to where it is thought of today as any fantasy featuring dubious morality and dark themes.
The Trappings of Dark Fantasy
A staple of the dark fantasy genre is its adoption of stereotypically villainous, evil, and monstrous characters as the focal protagonists of the story; in other cases, these types of characters are presented sympathetically with more relatable motivations and human concerns. This is the opposite of the horror genre and the primary way it distinguishes itself from the latter: horror protagonists are typically victims and survivors, while the protagonists of dark fantasy are the monsters and the villains.
Dark fantasy explores much more mature themes than standard fantasy, presenting taboo elements, such as gore, violence, and sexuality, as commonplace in its setting and reflecting contemporary issues as realistically as possible in a fantastical setting. Dark fantasy is also an excellent genre for deconstructing standard fantasy tropes such as the Chosen One, Might Makes Right, the Empire, etc., depicting them in a darker extrapolation from the original meaning.