Festivals emphasizing death and the supernatural are common in almost all cultures. Modern Hallowe’en, for example, is influenced by and probably originated with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced ‘SAH-win’ or ‘SOW-in’). Around 1,000 BC the Celts – who at the time populated Ireland, Great Britain and northern France – celebrated the first day of winter as their New Year. Winter began, in the climate of northern Europe, in November. The end of summer marked radical change in the daily life of this pastoral people. The herds were brought down from the summer pastures in the hills, the best animals put to shelter, and the rest slaughtered. For the Celts, the period we now consider the end of October and start of November was a time of preparation, festival and plenty before the coming of the long winter. As agriculture became a part of their lives, harvest time also became part of the seasonal activity. This communal celebration became known as Samhain. Linguistically, the word evidently simply combines the Gaelic words sam for ‘end’ and hain for ‘summer’ i.e. end of summer. However, although the bounty of nature and the change of seasons were important aspects of Samhain, it was also a festival of the supernatural.
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.
Snow White is a German fairy tale known across much of Europe, the most popular version of which was published in 1812 by the Brothers Grimm in the first edition of their collection Grimms’ Fairy Tales. Following the release of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs animated feature in 1937, the tale took on a whole new level of popularity and is today one of the most famous fairy tales worldwide. While the majority of people today regard it as nothing more than a story for children, with magic, romance and cute dwarfs, the older versions of the story, including that of the Grimms’, with its themes of sexual jealousy, revenge and murder, was incredibly dark and certainly not written with children in mind – except as a warning. These deeper themes in the story have given rise to a significant body of ‘Snow White scholarship’, which seeks to explore the hidden meanings in the fairy tale and place them in some sort of context. Michelle Abate has explored the fact and fantasy of filicide in Snow White, Shuli Barzilai has considered the fairy tale in terms of its being a mother’s story, Vanessa Joosen has highlighted the retellings of Snow White between magic and realism and Steven Jones has given broad consideration to the inherent pitfalls in Snow White scholarship. Perhaps most interesting of all, however, is Neil Gaiman’s famous revisionist re-telling of the story, Snow, Glass, Apples, which completely reconceives the fairy tale in a manner more disturbing even than the Grimm version that is best known today.
The Cthulhu Mythos was a term coined by August Derleth to describe the collective work of several writers, among them Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E Howard (creator of Conan the Barbarian) and, most famously, H P Lovecraft. Architect of a universe without symmetry or sanity, Lovecraft challenged the preconceptions of his readers through his tales, in which mankind is alone and helpless in a reality as cruel and mysterious as it is vast. Lovecraft and his circle remade the horror genre in the early 20th century, discarding ghosts and witches and instead writing about malignant entities from beyond the stars. A number of plot devices were utilized by those writing about the Cthulhu Mythos in order to convey the essentials of Lovecraft’s cosmic philosophy. These devices included a wide array of extraterrestrial creatures (deemed ‘gods’ by their human followers), such as the cosmic entity in The Call of Cthulhu, the fungi from Yuggoth in The Whisperer in Darkness, and the Old Ones of At the Mountains of Madness. Then there is the veritable library of mythical books containing the forbidden truth about these ‘gods’, such as the Necronomicon, a blasphemous grimoire containing all manner of satanic rituals, apocalyptic prophecies and black magic spells, written circa 700 AD by the mad Arab Abdul al-Hazred. Most memorable of all, perhaps, is the fictionalized New England landscape which was to be such an influence on later horror writers. As Stephen King once said, when as a child he found in his attic a dusty copy of Lovecraft’s The Lurker in the Shadows that once belonged to his father, “I knew that I’d found home”.
As September fades towards its dying embers, it is almost impossible to escape the thought that summer is but a memory and that the autumn season is upon us. This is a cause of sorrow for many and, accordingly, in art autumn is a season that is traditionally associated with melancholy. In Keats’ poem To Autumn, for example, he describes the season as a time of “mellow fruitfulness”; while the autumn-themed poetry of W B Yeats and the French poet Paul Verlaine is similarly characterised by a strong sense of sorrow. In contrast, I for one always look forward to the beginning of October as being, in my eyes at least, the official start of autumn in this country. Summer wanes and the year slouches on towards winter, green things fade and twilight comes earlier, but I don’t see this as any reason for despair. On the contrary, with the promise of Halloween and Bonfire Night casting their long and delicious shadows over the season, for me it is a time to revel in the still cold night and the falling leaves which echo the fall of the year. If you listen closely, you can already hear the steady beat of the drums of autumn.
As a novelist, Stephen King needs no introduction. He is perhaps the bestselling, most widely read horror author of all time and among living writers he has no equal in any genre in terms of success, popularity and influence. What is perhaps less well known is that King not only writes fantasy novels, as well as the horror for which he is best known, but he is also an avid reader and fan of fantasy fiction. It was in fact an early reading of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings that led in part to the creation of King’s own fantasy epic, The Dark Tower series. Far from being a mere side interest The Dark Tower actually stands at the heart of King’s imaginarium – as he has said on many occasions, this series is not only King’s magnum opus, it is the glue that binds together his entire literary output. In his own mind every single story that King has written is connected, even if there is no evidence in the story itself of this connection, and this makes The Dark Tower a very intriguing series indeed for any self-respecting King fan. Incorporating themes from multiple genres, including fantasy, science fantasy, horror and westerns, The Dark Tower has almost as many sources: the poem Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came by Robert Browning, Arthurian legends, the films of Sergio Leone and the aforementioned Lord of the Rings have all, at one time or another, been cited as influences on King. In spite of this, The Dark Tower is one of the most original, compelling and downright frightening works of fantasy ever written. It is also, even eight books later, far from finished.
Fans of vampire fiction may be interested to hear about a genre which does not feature angsty teenaged bloodsuckers or bodice-ripping paranormal romance. In fantasy novels, vampires tend to be more elegaic and horrifying figures than those who appear in more mainstream horror novels and for this reason I find the sub-genre of vampire fantasy fascinating. Although there are not a lot of examples of such novels around, the originality and power of those that do exist makes me wonder why more contributions have not been made to this genre. Perhaps the best examples that I can think of are Jack Yeovil’s creation The Vampire Genevieve, Sarah Ash’s Tears of Artamon trilogy, Oliver Johnson’s Lightbringer trilogy and the fantasy game worlds of White Wolf’s World of Darkness, TSR’s Ravenloft and Games Workshop’s Warhammer. It’s perhaps also worth mentioning that the most famous fantasy world of the lot – Middle Earth – also has vampires in it!