random notes: the differences between horror, dark fantasy, and the grimdark

This is one of those posts. You know, the ones I write so I can just post a link rather than say the same thing over and over again and again and again ... ad nauseam.

My opinion will probably change at some point, because I'm flexible like that, but for now I'm venturing into the grimdark/horror arena for a reason. Yes, yes, I know all about Warhammer 40K "In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war ..." so if you comment about Warhammer 40K, I'm going to assume you just shot down to the comments to tell me about Warhammer 40K without reading the actual post.

I'm not trying to invalidate the Warhammer 40K definition. "In the grim darkness of the far future ..." was the beginning. Anyone who says that the grimdark was born of this statement isn't wrong; however, while Warhammer 40K might be the root of the grimdark phenomenon, the branches of that vine have extended to encompass a lot of things outside of Warhammer 40K, and so here we all are ...

What follows is my personal definition. If you need something that cites several articles, look anywhere but here, because I don't have time to chase citations right now. The quick and dirty way I differentiate horror, dark fantasy, and grimdark is simply this:

Horror is a story where the protagonist is helpless in the face of a supernatural threat. It is an ordinary person against a much more powerful supernatural adversary. The protagonist seeks to destroy the supernatural threat in order to save themselves or others, but only when they are forced into a confrontation. The horror elements in the story are culled from the protagonist's increasing helplessness in the face of overwhelming odds. 

Dark fantasy is similar to horror in that it is a story where the protagonist is helpless in the face of a supernatural threat. In some cases a dark fantasy protagonist also has supernatural powers; however the individual is still against a much more powerful supernatural adversary. The protagonist seeks to destroy the supernatural threat in order to save themselves or others. Unlike horror, dark fantasy tends to have a thread of hope running through the story. While at times being helpless, the protagonist generally wins in the end; although the cost (loss of friends/family or even their own innocence) will be great.

Grimdark is a story where the protagonist faces a supernatural threat, but s/he isn't helpless against their adversary. Rather than run from the supernatural threat, the grimdark protagonist actively seeks to subvert or control it. In grimdark, the characters exhibit amoral [read: darker] tendencies, which replace the element of helplessness as the primary focus of the dread/horror.

There are supernatural elements in all three, but they are utilized in very different ways. What separates them is the protagonist and how that individual deals with the supernatural threat.

If you've got a different definition, drop it in the comments. I'm always open to consider other viewpoints, but for now, that's how I'm defining the two.

A Kickstarter & a video of my evil henchman Macavity & me

The Kickstarter for EVIL IS A MATTER OF PERSPECTIVE: AN ANTHOLOGY OF ANTAGONISTS, is here and LIVE, staring at you from your electronic device! 

And for this Kickstarter I, the reclusive author in residence, shot a short video of me talking about Evil is a Matter of Perspective WHILE HOLDING DOWN AN ANGRY CAT! You cannot get entertainment like this on Netflix, my friends. [NOTE: the transcript of my talk, for those who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, is on the site at Youtube along with the video.]

For those who can hear: you can listen to me read from Without Light or Guide with my Southern accent, and talk about Alvaro, the antagonist/protagonist of my story for Evil is a Matter of Perspective. As of this post, one of my cohorts in evil, Bradley P. Beaulieu, talks about his involvement as well. Keep checking those updates to hear more of your favorite authors talk about the anthology and why they are involved.

As a part of the Kickstarter package, I am offering you, that's right YOU, a chance for a Tuckerization in the story! If you choose that level, you will get to pick whose side you are on and fight in the streets of Barcelona during the May Days of 1937. I will give you the power to sing your magic, and if you're really lucky, a most grisly death.

I am also offering to critique 10,000 words of a story for one--COUNT THEM: ONE--backer. So hie thee over and get to backing. Trust me, I won't be gentle, and I will make your manuscript bleed. [NOTE: This level comes with a complimentary package of tissues.]

There is a stellar lineup for Evil is a Matter of Perspective:

R. Scott Bakker (The Second Apocalypse)
Adrian Tchaikovsky (Shadows of the Apt, The Tiger and the Wolf)
Michael R. Fletcher (Manifest Delusions)
Shawn Speakman (The Annwn Cycles)
Teresa Frohock (Los Nefilim)
Kaaron Warren (The Gate Theory, Mistification)
Courtney Schafer (The Shattered Sigil)
Marc Turner (Chronicles of the Exile)
Jeff Salyards (Bloodsounder's Arc)
Mazarkis Williams (The Tower & Knife)
Deborah A. Wolf (The Dragon's Legacy)
Brian Staveley (Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne)
Alex Marshall (Crimson Empire)
Bradley P. Beaulieu (The Song of the Shattered Sands, The Lays of Anuskaya)
Matthew Ward (Shadow of the Raven, Coldharbour)

The Kickstarter is HERE, the angry cat is HERE, and I hope you'll join us as we explore evil ... it's a matter of perspective.

[guest post] Childhood Programming (a not terribly sneaky way to look at themes) by Michael R. Fletcher

I'm very happy to bring you the most amazing blog post that you almost didn't see, which is another blog post for another day.

TODAY is what is important, and Michael R. Fletcher is dropping by to entertain you while I hit the deadlines. Michael is a science fiction and fantasy author, whose novel, Beyond Redemption, just blew me away. You can read my review, or just take my word for it and buy his book.

Faith shapes the landscape, defines the laws of physics, and makes a mockery of truth. Common knowledge isn’t an axiom, it’s a force of nature. What the masses believe is. But insanity is a weapon, conviction a shield. Delusions give birth to foul new gods.

Violent and dark, the world is filled with the Geisteskranken—men and women whose delusions manifest, twisting reality. High Priest Konig seeks to create order from chaos. He defines the beliefs of his followers, leading their faith to one end: a young boy, Morgen, must Ascend to become a god. A god they can control.

But there are many who would see this would-be-god in their thrall, including the High Priest’s own Doppels, and a Slaver no one can resist. Three reprobates—The Greatest Swordsman in the World, a murderous Kleptic, and possibly the only sane man left—have their own nefarious plans for the young god.

As these forces converge on the boy, there’s one more obstacle: time is running out. When one’s delusions become more powerful, they become harder to control. The fate of the Geisteskranken is to inevitably find oneself in the Afterdeath. The question, then, is: Who will rule there?

According to Michael, the next two Manifest Delusions novels, The Mirror's Truth, and The All Consuming, are currently in various stages of editing while Michael tries to be the best husband and dad he can be.

Beyond Redemption is Michael's second novel. His début novel, 88, is a cyberpunk tale about harvesting children for their brains.

Children, brains, and delusions. I hope you see where this is going ...

CHILDHOOD PROGRAMMING

(a not terribly sneaky way to look at themes)

This will ramble because that's the way I roll. I can't plan breakfast, never mind a blog post or a novel.

I have come to realize that I spend a lot more time thinking about themes than I do plot. I know what my next book's themes are long before I know what horrendous shit happens to the characters. Take Beyond Redemption for example. I had the title before I'd written the first word.

I wanted to write a book where no one learned anything. The novel starts with a host of shitty human beings and at the end of the book I wanted the few survivors to remain shitty. It didn't quite turn out that way, but I stayed true to that vision. This grew out of a suspicion that people are basically too stupid to learn or change. What can I say, I was in a bit of a dark place. If I wrote the book today it would be different. For one thing, I've managed to learn a few things myself—who I am and how I interact with people has changed in the last year.

And if I can change, anyone can.

There was a theme there I wanted to explore, a thorn in my side I wanted to worry at like a starved wombat. Can we escape the bonds of our childhood programming? Can we get beyond who we think we are? You'll see it in Beyond Redemption; virtually every character is haunted by something in their past. They are defined by their choices and actions.

As are we.

My father was brought up by uptight stiff-upper-lip parents in the UK. Religion was pushed on him from a young age. All the proper social mores were programmed into him from birth. He knew who the right kind of people were. He knew what kind of people to avoid. He knew how a proper boy acted. He knew which fork to use when, and how to eat without making a mess. He was told his father was perfect, without flaws of any kind. They tried to make my father perfect too, whatever the fuck perfect is.

They failed. And that's probably for the best.

At some point my father made a conscious decision to toss most of his childhood programming. He screwed around at school and got funky with as many women would let him. He was and is an unrepentant letch of the first degree. He had no interest in pursuing that upper-crust school and instead drove a truck around England's southern coast, drinking and playing rugby. Much to his parent's disgust he regularly consorted with exactly the wrong kind of people. In short, he had great fun.

I remember a friend once saying, it's better to be one of those people your parents warned you about than to be afraid of them.

Skip ahead some years and this is the person who was, at least in part, responsible for raising me. He tended to be somewhat distant—he's admitted he has little interest in small children and that I only became interesting in my late teens—but he was there and he definitely had an influence. Come to think of it, I think he first really noticed me when I came home drunk during high-school and threw up all over the house. My mother told me to clean it up and I, still extremely inebriated, used the vacuum cleaner.

I grew up hearing (over and over and over) how difficult it had been for him to overcome his childhood programming and how it would be different for me.

And it was. No one pushed religion on me and to this day I don't understand the fuss. I bring the same logic and reasoning to religion that I bring to everything else.

And it wasn't. But I didn't see it until I had a child of my own.

I found myself getting angry at my daughter in the same way—and over the same things—my father used to get angry at me about. I found myself reacting in the same ways and threatening the same punishments that I was threatened with. At some point I caught my wife staring at me like I was some kind of alien who'd replaced her calm and loving husband. When I finally managed to step back and question what was going on, I realized I didn't actually care about many of the things I was reacting to. I was, in fact, reacting because I thought that was what I was supposed to do.

The first step to overcoming one's childhood programming is recognizing it. And that is more difficult that one might think.

Childhood programming. It's insidious and just as we don't realize we have it, we tend to be blind to the fact we're perpetuating it with our own children. How are you reacting to your child's forays into individuality? When they test boundaries, do you react the same way your parents did? When you play games with them do you ever let them win? Do you always let them win? Are you willing to give your child a task you know they'll fail at and still stay out of their way as they try? Do you really believe in god, or are you just going through the motions? If you haven't questioned your own faith, are you sure you want to put that on your children without at least giving it some thought? How about your relationship with your partner, how much does that mirror the relationship you saw between your own parents?

All this is a lead up to another—though definitely related—theme in Beyond Redemption: Taking responsibility for one's own choices and actions. We are all victim to childhood programming of some kind, and it's not all bad. Ideas like sharing and helping and being kind could all be considered programming. But sometimes it's a little more difficult to see.

Take anger, for example. We've all heard (and said) things like, that made me angry. But is that the truth? Are you sure you didn't decide to become angry, were you truly helpless in the angry/not angry equation? Is it possible you've merely been taught to shirk responsibility for your emotions?

Our inability to accept responsibility for our choices goes deeper than how we react to stimuli. Are you overweight, an alcoholic, depressed, having trouble sleeping? Perhaps your first response shouldn't be to seek something to blame or to reach for a chemical cure. Maybe you can accept responsibility and change whatever needs changing to rectify the situation. Responsibility is scary, but what most people miss is that it's also power. If it's my responsibility, I can change it. And before you get too angry with me, I have been and sometimes still am all of those things.

We are the result of our choices and actions. The lives we live—barring tragedies beyond our control—are the lives we deserve. Getting over the events of your childhood, be they large or small, is a choice. Perhaps it's not an easy choice, but it is within your power. Or you can be a character in my next book. 

The first step is making a decision.

* * *

Want to know more about Michael and his delusions? Check out his website, or give him a follow on Facebook, or Twitter.

Beyond Redemption by Michael R. Fletcher: A Review

Damn it. I said I wasn't going to start reviewing books again, but I had to talk about this book, because like Zachary Jernigan's Shower of Stones, Michael R. Fletcher takes the themes of gods and madness and twists it all around in such a way as to intrigue me. Any similarities between the two novels ends there.

In Jernigan's world, the mortals defied a mad god.

In Fletcher's world, the mortals seek to create a god.

And what an intriguing world it is.

The old gods were broken by wars and plagues of the mind, left reeling like the most bloodied veterans. Infected with horror at the cost of their actions, they retreated into dementia ... Seeking to free themselves, they fled to a world of delusion, a world uncorrupted by jealousies and psychoses. And yet, in the end, even this they would pollute.

While Shower of Stones was a serious story that took itself seriously, there is something very tongue-in-cheek about Fletcher's Beyond Redemption. That's not to say that it's comedy, but as I read the novel, I couldn't help but envision Fletcher winking at me from behind the scenes and saying, "It's not really real, you know ... but what if ..."

Dreams became nightmares, and nightmares became reality, stalking the earth as albtraum, manifestations of man's earliest fears given flesh.

Or maybe that was just my delusion.

Let me explain ...

"Belief defines reality," said Wichtig, as if explaining to a simpleton. "I believe I will be the Greatest Swordsman in the World."

Beyond Redemption is dark--not gory, but I would slide it to the grimdark side of the ruler, borderline horror in places--I want to make that clear from the beginning. However, if you are reading this blog, my assumption is that you have already come to the dark side, so here ... have a cookie that bites:

Faith shapes the landscape, defines the laws of physics, and makes a mockery of truth. Common knowledge isn't an axiom, it's a force of nature. What the masses believe is. But insanity is a weapon, conviction a shield. Delusions give birth to foul new gods.

Violent and dark, the world is filled with the Geisteskranken--men and women whose delusions manifest, twisting reality. High Priest Konig seeks to create order from chaos. He defines the beliefs of his followers, leading their faith to one end: a young boy, Morgen, must Ascend to become a god. A god they can control.

But there are many who would see this would-be-god in their thrall, including the High Priest's own Doppels, and a Slaver no one can resist. Three reprobates--The Greatest Swordsman in the World, a murderous Kleptic, and possibly the only sane man left--have their own nefarious plans for the young god.

As these forces converge on the boy, there's one more obstacle: time is running out. When one's delusions become more powerful, they become harder to control. The fate of the Geisteskranken is to inevitably find oneself in the Afterdeath. The question, then, is: Who will rule there?

Beyond Redemption begins with three thieves: Bedeckt, an old grizzled warrior, who prides himself on his sanity; Wichtig, a minor Gefahrgeist (Sociopath), who is determined to become the Greatest Swordsman in the World; and Stehlen, a Kleptic with some serious anger management issues.

If I ever take up cosplaying, I'm coming as Stehlen. Beware.

When faced with a Gefahrgeist, set aside your honesty. Truth will be turned against you. Today's truth will be tomorrow's lie and you will be left questioning your own sanity. This too is manipulation ... Gefahrgeist often wear the mask of sanity. This makes them dangerous. This makes them successful ...

Bedeckt, who believes he is the brains behind the operation, decides he needs one last scam to take him into retirement. It turns out that Konig, Theocrat of the Geborene Damonen and an extremely powerful Gefahrgeist (remember they're sociopaths--Konig means king in German ... see how this works?), is busy creating a god.

Konig's plan is to cultivate the populace's beliefs so that his god-child becomes reality. This god-child is being raised to be subservient to Konig, who will help the boy ascend into the Afterdeath where the god-child will serve Konig in order to prevent Konig's delusions from taking over his body.

Konig knows his time is short. Three of his emotions have taken corporeal form as the Doppels Acceptance, Trepidation, and Abandonment (think: doppelgänger and you're on track). The stronger a person's delusions, the more difficult they are to control. As Konig's power over the populace grows, so do his delusions, which become more dangerous to him and to one another.

I heard a knock, and when I answered the door, there I was. Luckily I think much faster on my feet than I do and soon had myself tied in the fruit cellar. I'd kill myself but I'm so damned useful. Sometimes, when the High Priest has texts he wants copied, I'll unchain one of my hands and get me to do some of the work. Of course I do it! I'm so damned bored down there, chained to the wall.

Bedeckt's plan is to kidnap the god-child, Morgen, and ransom him back to Konig, thereby procuring enough gold to retire. This scheme sets off a chain of events that are simultaneously hilarious and dire.

Sanity, Insanity, Genius. Rampant stupidity. Frankly, I can no longer tell them apart.

All the while, Fletcher cleverly pulls and picks at our preconceived notions of religion and belief systems, slyly winking at us from behind the scenes with selected quotes from the historians, philosophers, and kings who inhabit this twisted world. He treats the story with a light hand so that his very irreverence prevents the novel from spiraling into soullessness.

I don't see what I want to see, I see what I need to see. If you don't like it, see something else.

Fletcher's characters--Bedeckt with his desire to retire; Wichtig, who is determined to be the Greatest Swordsman in the World; Stehlen, who isn't exactly as she seems; and Konig, who is racing against his own madness in search of wholeness--are the very thing that redeems Beyond Redemption. Fletcher brings them all to vivid life and shows us their doubts and dreams and foibles with unflinching prose. Simultaneously poetic and brutal, Fletcher executes a deft balancing act between the surreal and the real and yet he never loses sight of his characters' humanity.

The novel is grimdark, and I mean very, very dark, so if you normally avoid this kind of novel, then I wouldn't recommend it to you. However if you're like me, and you enjoy looking under psychological rocks in order to see what breeds there, come along where you will see that ...

The tales are only as dark as the teller.

Highly recommended.

on the grimdark ... again

Last week I wrote a blog post on epic fantasy, and in that post, I categorized my work under the term "dark fantasy." I mentioned in a footnote that I dislike the terms "grimdark" and "gritty" in reference to genre literature; therefore I do not use them. I find both of these terms rather meaningless--a notation that my friend and colleague David Annandale noted was a "hand grenade in a footnote."

Of course, another friend, whose opinion I respect, disagreed with me. He likes the term grimdark and finds it to be a useful descriptor of novels with darker themes.

Rather than justify the terms or even defend the novels, I'm going to tell you why I'm ceasing to use either of these expressions.

Obligatory cherub on skulls, the official pic of the Grimdark. Click on the picture to Know Your Meme.

But first, the obligatory "grimdark" picture of a fat cherub reclining on skulls. No blog post on grimdark is valid without it, so here it is for your viewing pleasure: 

There.

Aren't we all glad that's over with?

Thanks to Steve for sending me the link to the Know Your Meme site. Click the picture to read their version of the history of the term grimdark if you're unfamiliar with it. I doubt you are. Most of us have been exposed to the term in one form or another.

My first encounter with the term "gritty" was through a post by Leo Grin regarding what he termed as nihilistic fantasists. He took special umbrage with Joe Abercrombie's work. Grin derided Abercrombie's novels (and to be fair, several other authors) as nihilistic, an accusation that I disagree with, but that is another post for another day. The short analysis is that when balanced against the ultimate nihilistic novel, Grendel, by John Gardner, Abercrombie's work is all unicorns, kittehs, and rainbows.

Having read Abercrombie's work, I can attest that Adam Whitehead came closest in his analysis by stating that Abercrombie's work is "gritty, violent, morally ambiguous and darkly funny fantasy with a streak of intelligent cynicism." Whitehead used the word "gritty" as an adjective, which is apropos of the work. He did not use the word to deride (there's that word again) Abercrombie's style.

I have a couple of reasons that I'm beginning to avoid the usage of gritty or grimdark to allude to a literary form, and these reasons are simply personal. For a long time, neither gritty nor grimdark bothered me until recently when I've noticed more and more that the terms are used more often as a pejorative indictment rather than as a stylistic descriptor. There is a difference between these two things. You're all literate, I don't need to explain it to you.

I don't believe that we, meaning the genre community, need to be involved in condescending critiques over which is better: non-violent or violent fantasy. People are going to read the novels that they enjoy reading, and rather than disparage one form over the other, I think we should be rather grateful that we all can find such a huge variety of work to choose from.

The second reason has more to do with the actual meaning of the word. One fine day, I was on Reddit where the discussion had turned to the grimdark and someone noted that Poe and Lovecraft were grimdark. That stopped me.

Poe wrote mysteries and horror, Lovecraft wrote horror. Grimdark was becoming a catch-all for anything with a hint of dread in the storyline and, to me, that diluted the meaning of the word.

I made a comment in my review of Abercrombie's The Blade Itself that "I couldn’t help but think that if Joseph Wambaugh decided to write fantasy, The Blade Itself is what it would look like." That does not mean that I believe Joseph Wambaugh writes grimdark. I meant that stylistically the two authors exhibit the same penchant for dark humor and sharp prose.

Joseph Wambaugh does not write grimdark. That would be like saying that Gillian Flynn writes grimdark novels. Gillian Flynn writes thrillers. Dark and luscious and haunting but thrillers--not grimdark.

Going back to the Reddit Poe/Lovecraft comment, I've always considered horror to be more of a psychological literary form whereas grimdark and all of its associations seemed to be more material. Yet as that Reddit conversation illustrates, there are some readers who consider horror grimdark.

This does not make these readers bad or wrong or terrible. I simply disagree that grimdark and horror are interchangable. If they were, why bother inventing a new word to encompass an old idea? There are subtle differences between the two styles and while I would love to do a line by line critique, I don't have time for that and time to write the stories and the blog posts and do ALL THE THINGS. Because, time.

My point, however, is this: to take a term like grimdark and apply it so universally (to thrillers and horror and any dark novel) tends to rob the word of meaning. I don't consider grimdark to be nihilistic, nor do I find it appropriate to make grimdark a universal tag for all forms of dark fiction.

You may disagree and that is certainly fine with me. I think if you enjoy novels with more intrigue than violence, then you shouldn't be shamed for disliking darker fantasies. Likewise, readers and authors who enjoy darker fictions shouldn't be castigated for reading or writing those stories.

I once asked my daughter what she thought of a particular novel she was reading at the time. She shrugged and it was very vanilla. I asked her if that was bad and she said no, sometimes she enjoyed a vanilla novel; although, she drew the line at sugar-free vanilla.

Which, in turn, made me think of ice cream and tastes. Some of us like vanilla, others need a little more flavor, so it is with our reading preferences--some of us like sweet stories, some of us enjoy the bitterness of dark chocolate. Then I couldn't stop thinking about ice cream and I had to go eat some, but that is another post for another day.

Frankly, I'd like to see us, meaning the genre community, do a lot less arguing and be more respectful of one another and our diversity. We'd be an awfully dull lot if we liked all of the same things all of the time. Discussion is good; however, let's try a little harder to disagree without being disagreeable.

If you're so inclined, leave a comment and tell me what you consider grimdark and how you define the word. Take the conversation to Facebook, Twitter, or Reddit. I'll be watching to see what you say. As always, I'm interested in your opinion.

#SFWApro