Dark Fantasy vs. Horror—Where’s the Line?
By Gail Z. Martin
Several years ago, there was a commercial for a chocolate/peanut butter product where a man eating peanut butter out of a jar bumped into a man eating a chocolate bar. “You got peanut butter on my chocolate!” exclaimed one man. “You got chocolate in my peanut butter!” said the other.
Every time I end up on a panel at a convention about the line between dark fantasy and horror, I think of that commercial. “You got horror in my fantasy! You got fantasy in my horror!”
I write dark epic fantasy. At least, that’s what I’m told. Everyone puts their lines in slightly different places. “High” fantasy, so some say, has to have dwarves and elves, while “epic” just has to play out on a big scale with kings and queens and big, world war action. “Dark” seems to apply to the size of the body count and how much of the mayhem occurs “on screen” vs. “off screen.” If we read descriptions of blood flowing and heads rolling, as opposed to just being told “lots of people died,” that seems to be the threshold.
So with all that blood, what’s the difference between horror and dark fantasy? I’m going to go out on a limb here (no pun intended) and give you where I draw my line, for what it’s worth. I think it depends on whether the adventure is primary and the blood and horrific elements are secondary, or whether the focus is on suspense and fear, and no small amount of blood.
In other words, “You got blood on my adventure!” vs. “Your adventure is detracting from my sense of pervasive fear!”
There are definitely horrific elements in my books. There’s a fair amount of realistic battle violence with eviscerations, beheadings, impalements and severed limbs. People get burned alive, trampled by horses, bled dry by vampires, ripped limb from limb, and get savaged by beasts. Supernatural elements include nasty vampires and hungry shapeshifters, sadistic warlords and bloodthirsty necromancers, ghosts and barrow wights and ghouls that eat the dead, vengeful goddesses from the underworld with a taste for blood, animated corpses, menacing shadows and magicked monsters with rows of razor-sharp teeth. Stolen souls and possession by spirits of the dead….I could go on, but you get the picture. In Ice Forged, you get a look at what MWMD (Magical Weapons of Mass Destruction) can do, in a Doomsday weapon scenario played out on multi-continental level of cataclysm.
BUT, and for me, this is the issue, the adventure is always the focus. All of the aforementioned horrific elements happen in service to the adventure. Evoking fear and suspense are not the end goal. There’s more at stake (again, pardon the pun) than seeing who gets out alive.
For example, in my new book Ice Forged, there is plenty of murder and mayhem, blood and death, and dark supernatural elements. But for me, the adventure is always the primary focus.
Now doubtless others will have differing ideas on where the line is drawn, and I’d welcome comments. But for me, as I think through my books, that’s how I see it.
Most importantly, I want readers to have a thrilling ride. I want my books to be the roller coaster you get off, pale and shaky but grinning from ear to ear, the one that makes you say, “That was fun—let’s do it again!”
Gail Z. Martin’s newest book, Ice Forged: Book One in the Ascendant Kingdoms Saga (Orbit Books), launched in January 2013. Gail is also the author of the Chronicles of the Necromancer series (Solaris Books) and The Fallen Kings Cycle (Orbit Books). For more about Gail’s books and short stories, visit www.AscendantKingdoms.com. Be sure to “like” Gail’s Winter Kingdoms Facebook page, follow her on Twitter @GailZMartin, and join her for frequent discussions on Goodreads.