The Line between Horror
and Dark Fantasy
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
So what is the
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...
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
And so they must fight
to the death.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.