SF/F Genre Glossary

What is Dark Fantasy?

This is a continuation of the Science Fiction / Fantasy Genre Glossary Project posts. For the complete genre index click here.

The Blind Raven
The Blind Raven by Uwe R. Zimmer

What is Dark Fantasy?

Here are two definitions for dark fantasy:

  1. Fantasy that borrows elements of horror and often features dark/evil supernatural creatures. However, unlike horror, the focus of the story is not to scare the reader.
  2. Fantasy that is bleak, pessimistic, brutal, gritty, and graphic. The dark side of human nature is not off limits, and protagonists are not necessarily sympathetic.

Dark fantasy often overlaps with other subgenres of fantasy such as urban fantasy and paranormal.

Examples:

Further Reading:

Dark Fantasy as a Writing Genre: What is it anyway?

The boundaries can be muddy and confusing when it comes to books. Do you have another description for dark fantasy?

9 Comments

  1. The subgenres of speculative fiction get increasingly tricky to pin down. Dark Fantasy cross over with Gothic Fantasy and Low Fantasy startlingly often; you could argue that George R.R. Martin’s books belong in all three sub-genres. With sub-genres like Modern Fantasy, any fantastic Horror in a contemporary setting could also be Dark Fantasy. It becomes very difficult to extract Horror from Fantasy – your example of Pan’s Labyrinth is definitely Dark Fantasy, but was on a plethora of Best-Horror, Best-Children’s and Best-Fantasy lists.

    My working definition for Dark Fantasy is clearly fantastic fiction that broaches Horror themes and tropes, but where creating feelings of dread and/or fear are not the primary point. So Clive Barker’s Hellbound Heart (or the Hellraiser movies) are not Dark Fantasy because it is meant to inspire Horror-emotions. Rather, Kentaro Miura’s Berserk manga is archetypal Dark Fantasy, with its fantastic adventures in a very grim world, having darkness as a theme, but where the points are the developments of the major characters, their struggles, triumphs and failures. Of course, Berserk is also a “safe” Fantasy pick, since it relies on swords that don’t run on batteries – a classic sign that you’re still in Fantasy Town.

    1. Therein lies the rub! I’ve been finding this genre definition project a challenge for the reason you mentioned. Boundaries overlap, and fiction can be categorized in multiple (sub)genres, which is why I do not think genre labels are entirely useful. I am finding they are a good jumping point for discussion though!

      Ahh so your definition seems to blend 1 and 2 above. Yes Berserk is very dark, but it doesn’t broach horror themes, unless you count pure brutality as horror? Hmm actually that could very well be.

      Glad to hear your take on this!

  2. Lua

    I think I’ve never ready any dark fantasy books! I’m not a huge fantasy fan to begin with but occasionally, when the plot is intriguing or a friend recommends, I do read fantasy but never gothic or dark fantasy…
    I know writers are supposed to read widely and I could be just prejudice. Are there any dark fantasy books you recommend for the rookies? 🙂

    1. I’ve got no problem giving recommendations! I haven’t read too much in this area, but I think these might qualify under definitio: American Gods, and the Graveyard Book (YA) by Neil Gaiman. The first book draws heavily on mythology, the second is about a boy growing up in a graveyard. Both feature ghosts, but are not horror.

      I do enjoy reading widely and I think there’s something to be learned from every genre. I would have never thought I’d enjoy romance until a friend lent me something by Diana Gabaldon. If you want to learn how to write character tension, romance is excellent for that. I also never enjoyed sci-fi until picking up books by William Gibson, and Ursula LeGuin. I don’t think you can know for certain if you’ll like something unless you try it. 🙂

  3. Lua: I’m not sure I agree that writers should read widely for the sake of reading widely… I’m a huge fantasy fan, but I don’t recommend my favorite fantasies to just anybody, generally. A common saying I employ is “different strokes for different folks”, which basically means that different people have different tastes, and that’s okay.

    What I would agree with is that writers should read widely within the field/genre in which they write, and read occassionally outside that field/genre just to get an occassional injection of other perspectives. But reading something you just aren’t going to like is torturing yourself, and there’s no reason to do that, IMHO.

    1. Lua

      Good point Stephan… The thing is though, I do have some fantasy books I’ve enjoyed reading… I’ve never read any dark fantasy books or have anyone who reads them around me to suggest me anything so I figured, why not test the water, who knows perhaps there is a dark fantasy book I can read and like. It’s worth giving it a chance, right? 🙂

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