Dark fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy literary, artistic, and cinematic works that incorporate darker and frightening themes of fantasy. It also often combines fantasy with elements of horror or has a gloomy, dark (or grimdark) atmosphere, or a sense of horror and dread.
A strict definition for dark fantasy is difficult to pin down. Gertrude Barrows Bennett has been called "the woman who invented dark fantasy". Both Charles L. Grant and Karl Edward Wagner are credited with having coined the term "dark fantasy"—although both authors were describing different styles of fiction. Brian Stableford argues "dark fantasy" can be usefully defined as subgenre of stories that attempt to "incorporate elements of horror fiction" into the standard formulae of fantasy stories. Stableford also suggests that supernatural horror set primarily in the real world is a form of "contemporary fantasy", whereas supernatural horror set partly or wholly in "secondary worlds" should be described as "dark fantasy".
Additionally, other authors, critics, and publishers have adopted dark fantasy to describe various other works. However, these stories rarely share universal similarities beyond supernatural occurrences and a dark, often brooding, tone. As a result, dark fantasy cannot be solidly connected to a defining set of tropes. The term itself may refer collectively to tales that are either horror-based or fantasy-based.
Charles L. Grant is often cited as having coined the term "dark fantasy". Grant defined his brand of dark fantasy as "a type of horror story in which humanity is threatened by forces beyond human understanding". He often used dark fantasy as an alternative to horror, as horror was increasingly associated with more visceral works.
Dark fantasy is sometimes also used to describe stories told from a monster's point of view, or that present a more sympathetic view of supernatural beings usually associated with horror. Anne Rice's The Vampire Chronicles, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's Saint-Germain, and Neil Gaiman's The Sandman are early examples of this style of dark fantasy. This is in contrast to the traditional horror model, which focuses more on the victims and survivors.
In a more general sense, dark fantasy is occasionally used as a synonym for supernatural horror, to distinguish horror stories that contain elements of the supernatural from those that do not. For example, a story about a werewolf or vampire could be described as dark fantasy, while a story about a serial killer would simply be horror.
Stableford suggests that the type of horror conveyed by fantasy stories such as William Beckford's Vathek and Edgar Allan Poe's The Masque of the Red Death "is more aesthetic than visceral or existential", and that such stories should be considered "dark fantasies" rather than the "supernaturalized thrillers" of conventional horror fiction.
Karl Edward Wagner is often credited for creating the term "dark fantasy" when used in a more fantasy-based context. Wagner used it to describe his fiction about the Gothic warrior Kane. Since then, "dark fantasy" has sometimes been applied to sword and sorcery and high fantasy fiction that features anti-heroic or morally ambiguous protagonists. Another good example under this definition of dark fantasy is Michael Moorcock's saga of the albino swordsman Elric.
The fantasy work of H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith and their imitators have been specified as "dark fantasy", since the imaginary worlds they depicted contain a large number of horror elements.
Dark fantasy is occasionally used to describe fantasy works by authors that the public primarily associates with the horror genre. Examples of this would be Stephen King's The Dark Tower series, Peter Straub's Shadowland and Clive Barker's Weaveworld. Alternatively, dark fantasy is sometimes used for "darker" fiction written by authors best known for other styles of fantasy; Raymond Feist's Faerie Tale and Charles de Lint's novels written as Samuel M. Key would fit here.
In other media
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The Spain-Mexico co-production Pan's Labyrinth, is a dark fantasy film.
Fantasy video games that feature graphic gore and "dark" or "mature" themes dealing with sexuality, suicide, depression, fear, anger, greed, lust and other adult topics are often billed as dark fantasy.
The Dragon Age series is frequently advertised as dark fantasy, although it is typically classified as high fantasy with mature themes; it is possible for the player to win a "happy ending" in Dragon Age whereas such endings are typically not possible or prevented from occurring in dark fantasy works.
Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain and its subsequent sequels are set in a dark fantasy setting, where the "protagonist" is a vampire cursed by a fatalistic and inescapable fate, starting a blood-soaked quest for vengeance against many antagonists for different, yet compelling reasons.
The Demon's Souls and Dark Souls series are notable examples of dark fantasy role-playing action games that feature an undead protagonist character; gigantic and malicious enemies; overarching themes of suicide, murder and war; morally ambiguous actions undertaken by both NPCs and the player; and depressing storylines set in post-apocalyptic kingdoms.
Bloodborne, a spiritual sequel to Demons' Souls, is an example of dark fantasy which heavily borrows its storyline, characterizations and themes from Cthulhu Mythos thus successfully mixing dark fantasy with Lovecraftian horror and Gothic horror.
Darkest Dungeon, a rogue-lite by indie developer Red Hook Studios, is a dark fantasy game that pits a group of treasure hunting adventurers based in an ancient hamlet against a diverse cast of Lovecraftian creatures, occult zealots and supernatural beasts. Darkest Dungeon explores and capitalizes on the psychological effects of fighting horrors and monsters; the player's characters undergo stress and fatigue, develop bad habits, and must be constantly monitored and cared for in order for the player to win.
- Stableford, Brian, "Dark Fantasy", in The A to Z of Fantasy Literature,(p. 97) , Scarecrow Press,Plymouth. 2005. ISBN 0-8108-6829-6
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- Stableford, Brian, "Horror", in The A to Z of Fantasy Literature,(p. 204), Scarecrow Press, Plymouth. 2005. ISBN 0-8108-6829-6
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