A work of moral edification suitable for well-bred young ladies

On Poppy Z Brite‘s journal, she quotes an Amazon.com review of an one of her older books, which begins thus:

T. Jackson (Portland, OR United States)
Though I am a big fan of many dark films and movies, I usually like for them to have some sort of moral, lesson or hope to impart. Most of them do. This book is darkness for darkness sake, extremely gross and sadistic, and beyond disturbing.

Have some moral lesson to impart? Excuse me? Is this 1890 and are we talking about books for kids, or what? This is horror, people! Horror is supposed to be disturbing.

Which reminds me of a panel I was on at VCon over the weekend. It was “Dark Fantasy: Just another word for horror?”

There was a vocal contingent in the audience (aided and abetted by a couple of panelists in agreement) that seemed to think that dark fantasy differs from horror primarily by being of a higher literary quality. No evidence to the contrary seemed to disabuse them of this notion. They were convinced that dark fantasy was more “psychological” and had richer characters and more fully realized worlds and whatnot and soforth.

It was a peculiar dialectical experience, because this contingent didn’t actually disagree with my evidence — they just Sarah Palined me, acting like my counter-evidence didn’t exist.

For the record, I claimed that horror (like comedy) was primarily defined by emotional effect, and could otherwise be any genre — fantasy, mystery, science fiction, drama, romance, etc. I also claimed that dark fantasy is fantasy with a horror mood or setting, but not necessarily a horror plot or story.

Is dark fantasy less violent, disturbing, or gross than horror? In general. Sort of. Maybe. Halloween stories for kids are usually dark fantasy, and stuff for kids can be gross but not violent or disturbing. The Haunting of Hill House is horror, and it is disturbing but not violent or gross. Or, take Sandman — dark fantasy throughout, but some issues were out-and-out horror. (Example: “24 Hours” otherwise known as “diner of death.”)

The reason you would make the distinction is marketing, because that’s the only reason to bother making any genre distinction. And people like T. Jackson are exactly why. S/he sounds like someone who enjoys dark fantasy but not horror. Well, okay. But it seems rather small-minded and pissy to take an author to task for having written a horror story that was horrifying.


  1. A useful lesson for young ladies

    That Jackson person just isn’t good enough at learning. “Darkness for darkness sake” can be a lesson. Sometimes the lesson you need is, “Things really can be that awful and people really can be that terrible.”

    I may sound like I’m joking, but I’m only joking halfway. You may remember that my mother-in-law is not like other people. (I know that as a daughter-in-law I’m in no position to persuade anybody about that, but take my word for it.) Oh, I can list traits — hysterical, vicious, deceitful, manipulative, over-charming — but while those might hint at a Cluster B personality disorder or two, they’re also all very ordinary. They don’t really give a sense of how deeply weird she is. There’s something about the profundity, totality, and brilliance of her insincerity that, once perceived, is unsettling. So unsettling that I spent a few years trying to talk myself into not perceiving it, and then another year scrabbling to rationalize what I’d perceived.

    I don’t usually read things marketed as horror — not for any ideological reason, just because I’ve never gotten around to learning which authors I like. But last year I picked up a horror anthology on a whim. It put me right. There was one scene in one story — it resonated so much that I jotted part of it down.

    “And they faces… You live a thousand years, you never come across no faces like them. Little pointy chins and pouty lips and eyes bout to drink you up. Delicate faces. Wise faces. And yet I has the idea they ain’t faces at all, but patterns like you finds on a butterfly’s wing.”

    I was all, fuck. That’s my mother-in-law. That’s her right there. That’s it. Sure, you can say that we all wear masks in this world, successfully or otherwise, hiding or highlighting parts of our personalities and making them into our personas — but what she’s doing is something else. It’s less masking than mimickry; her social signals are meant to elicit behavior from other people but do not have meaning in themselves.

    Suddenly I had a symbol for her behavior that worked for me. I gained some traction on the situation and stopped scrabbling. It was a good lesson. But I don’t imagine for a minute that it was written to be a lesson.

    1. Author

      Re: A useful lesson for young ladies

      I think the lesson of fiction can mostly always be summed up as: here’s one way to look at the universe.

      1. Re: A useful lesson for young ladies

        I’ll buy that.

        Reminds me vaguely of the old story about the composer-pianist who was asked, after he played a piece, “But what does it mean?” (You know that story? My cursory googling is not tracking it down for me.) The musician was taken aback for a moment. Then he said, “It means this,” and played the whole thing over again.

  2. I think you are right and there is a difference between dark fantasy and horror. While the lines do blur, I think that horror focuses more on the terror and pyschological aspect and dark fantasy is fantasy with a darker aspect to it. For example, spending a night in a haunted house where something’s not right would be horror. Spending a night looking for lord knows what and giving it a good beating would be more dark fantasy (hard to fear something if you are going to take it out once and for all).

    Also, I think that a lot of horror as some element of madness in it with the victim wondering if he’s slowly losing it. That element is not something I’ve seen in dark fantasy.

    If you want a clear cut example of dark fantasy, look into the role-playing game Cursed Empire. I think you’d love the illustrations of some of the bad guys.

  3. As aggravated as you were by it, you actually got a lot more out of that panel than me. I tuned out because I was bored. Topics like “What is the difference between X subgenre and Y incredibly similar subgenre” are interesting because they lead people into specifics about what makes certain genres work, and usually they cite a pile of admirable examples, so I pick up a pile of recommendations. But mostly everyone’s comments were kinda bland and dull and generic, and my eyes glazed over.

    Now if I knew more about the topic, I’d have spoken up myself. But I don’t read a whole lot of what I think of as “dark fantasy.” Actually, here’s a question – other than marketing, is there any reason why “dark fantasy” is different than “fantasy”?

    That panel was the exception though – most panels at V-con were great, including some that I didn’t expect much of.

    1. Author

      I don’t blame you for being bored.

      I think one of the irritations of that panel was that people who have an untenable opinion cannot supply evidence, so they resort to vague generalities, which are not as interesting as concrete examples.

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