How Dark Is Your Fantasy?

I had an interesting exchange of emails with one of my readers the other week. She’d just begun reading ‘The Psychonaut’ (book 1 in my trilogy) and expressed a certain disquiet at the content of my first chapter. She said she was glad she hadn’t been listening to the audio version (now half way through recording) as her daughter might have wondered what her mother was listening to!

Those of you who have read the opening scene will know that it features some quite graphic content and sets the tone for the evil motivations of the Ukurum – the ancient order set against my protagonist, Merrick Whyte.

Did I include this just to provide a lurid introduction that might appeal to the baser instincts? Well, as I hope you’ll see if you read on, there is a higher purpose in mind. I would first like to say, however, that readers come to my email list through many routes. One of those is via cross-promotions where the Psychonaut is listed alongside broad fantasy genres such as epic fantasy, high fantasy urban fantasy and a whole host of others. So I can imagine that some fantasy aficionados might be expecting something akin to Lord of the Rings or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. If this is the case then I can quite understand that my stories will not be to their taste. I try to give a forewarning about the content by sticking an 18+ tag on any listings carrying my books, but sometimes I guess it gets lost in the small print. I’ve therefore resigned myself to the monthly unsubscribe notifications from my list; and this is OK as it’s simply me finding my audience and readers finding the authors that suit their tastes.

But why delve into these dark catacombs of experience anyway? To answer this question one has to be aware of my influences. While quite broad they tend towards horror and what might be termed ‘dark fantasy’ – but even this latter term can be quite misleading. Some of the books I see on Amazon under this category would probably only merit a 12 or PG certificate if they were films. For me, dark fantasy treads the road of Clive Barker, who is for me the king of the genre. George R.R. Martin would definitely feature here too. Others would be Stephen King, Brian Lumley and early Christopher Fowler. These authors helped me appreciate the liberty of stretching the imagination to its furthest reaches, daring to think the unthinkable, enabling me to confront my fears and evaluate what true horror is. In this way I can testify that it has benefited me in more ways than I could describe. These benefits aren’t always easy to relate, however.

For me, dark fiction is part therapy. I don’t get so scared of death, the unknown or the future if I embrace the darkness. I get far less nightmares since I got into horror – it’s like Stephen King once said: Reading and writing horror is like growing hair or nails. The stuff exudes itself from your body and then it’s cut off rather than lying stuck under the surface to cause all sorts of discomfort. Another strand is the idea that great literature accompanies progress in developing civilisations. The reason? Great stories and characters help a reader to empathise, to put themselves into another’s shoes – very important if society is to accept others and improve the lives of all. Horror fiction takes the evoked emotions to an extreme level, so we are able to experience dread, terror, sense of loss as well as love in its variety of forms. There you are, we horror writers are providing a public service.

Going back to that initial scene in the Psychonaut. Sarlic, the Ukurum’s top lieutenant, plays with his victim by administering torture via a sack of wasps. Wasps are a pet fear of mine as I was once stung on the eye by one in an unprovoked attack. Writing this scene was a way of getting that memory out of my system. Now, I’m able to rationalise my fear to manageable levels.

Other authors have offered their own explanations of why they write what they do.

Neil Gaiman – “If you are protected from dark things then you have no protection of, knowledge of, or understanding of dark things when they show up.”
Whereas Clive Barker stated “I don’t think I write horror. I am a man who invents worlds of dark, and light, and somewhere in between. The idea of writing something just to horrify people is rather trite, I think. I want to distress and disturb and wake people up to the condition of the state we find ourselves in.”

Hans Christian Anderson had the courage to write stories with unhappy endings. He didn’t believe that you should try to be good because it pays (as today’s moral tales insistently advertise, though it doesn’t necessarily turn out that way in real life), but because evil stems from intellectual and emotional stuntedness and is the one form of poverty that should be shunned.

Jack Wallen is a fellow horror author/narrator and has written a quite excellent blog on these ideas, together with a treatise on the whole concept of ‘offence.’ Check it out at this link . His approach can be summed up in this quote:
(My) artistry insists I approach my horror fiction in ways that some might find offensive. I’m not talking about overt gore, over the top violence, or exploitation. Instead, the fear I peddle comes by way of making the reader question their reality, their faith, their, truth. To me, that is the darkest of fears.
Now whether I actually achieve these lofty ideals is for others to judge but it’s a road I’m travelling on, and I haven’t yet reached my destination. But then – the point of the journey is not to arrive.

By the way, the reader who balked a little at my opening chapter is now giving me some great feedback on a daily basis. I’m glad she persevered!

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