The Dark Fantastic

8 Nov

Following on from last month’s post on the lighter side of urban fantasy, I will now turn to that sub-genre of fantasy whose protagonists initially believe themselves to inhabit a world of consensual mundane reality then to their terror learn otherwise – the Dark Fantastic. In what follows the term dark fantasy is used to describe that particular sort of urban fantasy which standardly consists of a series of thrillers/detective stories that are set in, and whose plots are determined by, a mundane world entirely, but not always visibly, permeated by the worlds of faerie or the supernatural. A product of the 1980s and authors such as Clive Barker and Neil Gaiman, Dark fantasy could in a sense be regarded more as an evolution of horror than of fantasy. It also includes what is in many ways a sub-sub-genre within Urban fantasy, Paranormal Romance, which dilutes the peril of the undead with romantic, vampiric anti-heroes. The protagonist of standard dark fantasy makes the discovery of the real, non-mundane nature of the world as an existential crisis, and thereafter learns more in the course of solving puzzles, or acquiring refinements of technique for living in such worlds. Whether these protagonists are wizards, like Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden, or exorcists, like Mike Carey’s Felix Castor, they are cousins to Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and inhabit the same mean streets, even if they do so alongside vampires, ghouls and the more sinister denizens of faerie.

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Though this post concentrates on dark fantasy as a literary form, the influence on its development as a genre and publishing category of various television shows and a few films is undoubted and needs to be acknowledged. Crucially, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off show Angel helped determine much of the vocabulary of the template form of the genre – both shows had an extensive range of spin-off novels and the original fiction of most of the writers who produced those spin-offs has tended to fall into the dark fantasy category. At least one template dark fantasy series – Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden novels – and one paranormal romance series – Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse novels – have made it onto television, as The Dresden Files and True Blood. Similarly, certain comic books clearly belong to the genre and have influenced its development. In this respect the influence of the likes of Joss Whedon, Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman has been two-fold, both in helping to create or refine some of the central tropes of the genre and in creating an appetite for it among an audience, particularly of young adults.

To an extent paranormal romance is both a subset of dark fantasy and an entire genre in its own right. Laurell Hamilton’s Anita Blake always has crimes and political quandaries to resolve, alongside her complicated amours with vampires and shape-shifters – crimes in which her skills as raiser of the dead are usually seen as a forensic technique and her legal right to execute supernatural transgressors a convenient plot device. However, the driving force of the Anita Blake books is always, ultimately, her relationships. What identifies a book as a paranormal romance has to be the extent to which its plot is determined by its erotic dimensions. Charlaine Harris publishes the Sookie Stackhouse novels as paranormal romance, which is right because the mundane world her telepath inhabits is one coping with the existence of vampires and others, and the plots of intrigue take much of their motive force from Sookie’s relationships with supernatural beings.

The importance of the erotic dimension is clear even in the special case of Stephanie Meyer’s young adult Twilight novels, which are, more or less explicitly, platforms for the author’s strong religious views about sexual abstinence. The heroine’s constant desire for the vampire Edward who courts her is the driving force of the books, along with the author’s determination that it remains a tease until after Bella and Edward marry, at which point the emphasis shifts almost immediately to their offspring and her odd relationship with Bella’s former suitor, the werewolf Jacob. However, Meyer’s use of the genre is itself an example of another aspect of dark fantasy in general and its more popular, commercialised forms in particular – these are books in which the supernatural is a free-floating signifier for race and sexuality in their various forms, in the way that superpowers are such a signifier in Marvel comics. (The title sequence of True Blood, Alan Ball’s television adaptation of the Sookie Stackhouse novels, for example, shows a billboard with the slogan ‘God Hates Fangs’, punning on the anti-gay slogans of some religious groups in the US and elsewhere.)

Most dark fantasy, and in particular most paranormal romance, is to some degree revisionist fantasy. Standard supernatural tropes are presented in ways that humanize them at the very least and in many cases domesticate them – one of the taproot texts for paranormal romance is Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire and its sequels, which, if they did not invent the soulful misunderstood non-murderous vampire, certainly did a lot to popularise him. Those later treatments of vampires which return to the previous consensus and see them as essentially murderous – the current TV series The Vampire Diaries and The Originals, for example, or the Joss Whedon series that preceded them – do so in the full knowledge of, and often with direct reference to, what Anne Rice had made a cliché. In Whedon’s work, most vampires are soulless bloodsuckers, but a few – Angel himself and his occasional ally Spike – are more complex, enabling Whedon to have his cake and eat it, so that the two vampires who are Buffy’s principal love objects retain the potential to turn on her in a moment if things go wrong. This is a strategy adopted by much dark fantasy and paranormal romance: both Anita Blake and Sookie Stackhouse get caught up in vampire intrigues that have quite specifically to do with ethical debates about their relationships with humanity.

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It can be argued that dark fantasy is not only concerned with the effect of incursions of the other into the mundane, but with the ethical quandaries for both that this produces. Dark fantasy, like almost any other genre, also has room within it to encompass its opposite – some of the novels and tales of Angela Carter set up the possibility of an accommodation between the mundane and the other in order to dash our hope that this might be possible. There is, almost as a default, an overlap between the dark fantasy genre and fantasies of history in that all dark fantasy worlds have an implied secret history (although in contrast, almost as a default setting, most paranormal romances take place in universes in which that secret history is no longer secret). In much dark fantasy, the protagonist is gradually initiated into a pre-existing body of lore and drawn into the wainscot society of those who already possess that lore, or into a conflict between such societies. Likewise, the central characters of dark fantasy and paranormal romance series tend to accumulate knowledge and power from book to book. In little more than a decade the Dark Fantastic has become a definable genre with heavily commercial sub-categories and a number of definable genre rules. Like all genres, its existence is partly a matter of critical perception, partly a matter of the (not always rational) marketplace and partly a matter of the continued interest of writers and readers. It remains to be seen whether this process of generic evolution continues to develop the form or whether it will turn out to be a briefly fashionable sub-genre like the locked room mystery or the Cold War spy story.

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