Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

The Line between Horror 
and Dark Fantasy

by Lazette Gifford

2002, Lazette Gifford


The darkness and the light are both alike to thee. (Psalm 139:12)

I do not write horror, nor do I even read much of it, but I am drawn to dark fantasy.  Both of these genres can have much the same type of scene -- dark alleys, creatures of the night, necks ripped open by vampires, and any number of other ghoulish additions.

So what is the difference?

Intent.

Let's look at one possible story with two separate conclusions.

Detective Dave Holmes has been on the force for ten years.  He's seen a lot of strange, sick things in Chicago, but this current case has him spooked.  Street kids have started disappearing, as many as two or three a night for the last week.  No bodies, and the only witness said a tall, dark, robed man grabbed the child -- who didn't even struggle -- and disappeared into the alley.

Holmes has trouble enough with this, but then two things happen to escalate the trouble.  A man is found dead in one of those alleys -- an influential businessman who had no reason to be there.  And that night a child is stolen from his bedroom.  And two more the next night.  Desperate now, Holmes throws himself into the work, and begins to learn dark secrets of the night: that there are other intelligent creatures besides man who walk the earth, and they do not have the same agenda.  Although one such encounter nearly gets him killed, he is determined to stop the fiend that is taking the children.

Eventually he tracks the creature who has been stealing children to an old warehouse, and there...

Version one, horror: Holmes finds the bodies of several of the children.  Others, still chained to the walls and bleeding from the neck, cry pitifully, begging him for help.  And he finally faces his enemy, Alain, who explains that he will not give up the children.  Young virgin blood is all that can bring a vampire back to youth, and he, unfortunately, was cut off from it for too long...

And so they must fight to the death.

Or...

Version two, dark fantasy: Holmes opens the door to the warehouse and there he finds a couple dozen children.  Several are watching TV, a few playing games in the corner, and three of the youngest are sitting at Alain's feet while he reads them The Tales of Beatrix Potter.  He invites Dave in and they discuss the problem. Alain has saved the children from his darker cousins, but also from worse.  He was sorry he had to kill, but he could not stand by and watch the businessman rape yet another child.  And what about the children taken from their homes?  Perhaps Dave should investigate what their lives had been like, and why the parents are so frantic when the police ask them questions...

Ah, but Alain, even in version two, is still a vampire. He still has to feed.  Does he live on rat's blood?  Kill drug dealers -- or maybe the abusive parents?  Where is the line drawn between him being a hero or a monster?

In the first version, all the vampires are evil, murdering creatures, and there can be no hope for anyone caught by them.  In version two, a person could hope to meet Alain in a dark alley and discuss the problems of the world for a while.

There is no absolute clear line between the two types of story, and in fact that is part of the draw of dark fantasy. The hero still has the link to the other brethren, and there is always the possibility that something will drive Alain over the edge and turn him back into a monster again. For those of you familiar with the series, Angel from Buffy the Vampire Slayer is an excellent example of the dark hero standing on the edge -- and sometimes slipping over it.

Dark fantasy heroes have been popular for many years.  Lee Killough's wonderful trilogy about a police detective who unexpectedly found himself turned into a vampire is a great example.  Blood Hunt, Bloodlinks, and Blood Games followed the man's change from human to vampire.  While the body changed quickly, the mind did not.  Garreth Mikaelian found himself staying young while the world changed around him, and he had to deal with problems others cannot even imagine.  Killough's new book, Wilding Nights, introduces a new female detective who happens to be a werewolf.  Clearly, these are not monsters, even though they have some of the attributes of traditional monsters.  However, in reading the books, we come to understand the humanity behind these characters, and we can connect with their lives and understand them.

But what about a story where the non-humans are not quite as altruistic as Killough's detectives?  How about the fallen angels of Storm Constantine's books, starting with Stalking Tender Prey?  In this case supernatural beings, thrown out from heaven, are making a comeback, and it is not entirely to the good of humanity. The heroes of the story are the Grigori, and we are pulled into their wants and needs, which are not horrorific in their eyes, nor in the eyes of the readers.

There are also the three Diana Tregarde books by Mercedes Lackey --  Burning Water, Children of the Night, and Jinx High.  In these books Diana deals with both the good and the bad side of dark creatures.  She can see both sides, but  there is a definite underlying note of horror in much of this series.

And, of course, there is the very popular Laurell K Hamilton series about Anita Blake.  Not only are her vampires walking the thin line between good and evil (and many crossing the wrong way), but Anita is actually dating a werewolf at some points, and a vampire at others.  There are monsters in her books, and sometimes they are of the same makeup as the vampires and werewolves.  However, the creatures are not so totally beyond the ken of understanding that the mere mention of the word lycanthrope will immediately  bring the word monster to mind.

Horror has monsters.  Dark Fantasy has dark heroes. Vampires, werewolves, and creatures that walk the world and prey on man or help man -- it is all in the telling. What of ghosts? They have been used in every type of story, and perhaps do more to cross the threshold than any other magical being, despite the modern surge of vampire-hero novels.

In fact, the following passage, appearing in something decidedly not horror, frightened me more than any deliberate horror book ever has, mainly because -- already three chapters into the book -- it was totally unexpected: 

... I heard distinctly the gusty wind, and the driving of the snow; I heard, also, the fir bough repeat its teasing sound, and ascribed it to the right cause: but it annoyed me so much, that I resolved to--silence it, if possible; and, I thought, I rose and endeavored to unhasp the casement. The hook was soldered into the staple: a circumstance observed by me when awake, but forgotten. `I must stop it, nevertheless!' I muttered, knocking my knuckles through the glass, and stretching an arm out to seize the importunate branch; instead of which, my fingers closed on the fingers of a little, ice-cold hand! The intense horror of nightmare came over me: I tried to draw back my arm, but the hand clung to it, and a most melancholy voice sobbed, `Let me in--let me in!' -- Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte

There is always going to be a thin line between genres, but those designations are more than just marketing ploys thought up by bookstores.  They are a way to reach the greatest number of potential readers who are interested in the material you are writing.  There is no reason some of them can't be considered both.  But whatever it is you write, be sure to let your proper audience know what it is -- that's what marketing is about, after all. And you want to reach the largest number of readers. So if your story fits, don't be afraid to embrace the dark fantasy tag.  You'll find many loyal readers there, just waiting for the next unlikely hero to step out of the shadows.