dark fantasy


Okay, maybe not the best idea I’ve had. But it combines a couple of hot movies of the year, G-Force and (coming in October) Zombieland.

Anyhow (segue!) . . . There’s a good LiveJournal discussion group called Fangs, Fur, & Fey, for writers of urban & paranormal/dark fantasy featuring fur (werewolves), fangs (vampires), or fey powers (dangerous fairies). And variants thereof.

On that site, I saw this great post by author Jennifer Lynn Barnes, evaluating the relative appeal, fictionwise, for those dark choices.

Ms. Barnes is the author of several books of urban supernatural fantasy for teen (and up) readers, such as Tattoo (2007), with this review from Publishers Weekly, via Amazon.com:

Barnes’s book about four friends who get special powers from their temporary tattoos has some fun moments, despite the far-out premise. [. . .] Delia [one of the four] also delivers the book’s best line when facing off against evil Alecca: “You think you’re bad?… I’m on the cheerleading squad; I know what real evil looks like.”

Here’s a bit from that Fangs, Fur, & Fey post by Barnes, “On Hotness”

I’ll freely admit that typical vamps have their drawbacks. Personally, were I given a choice, I’d prefer the heart in my guy’s chest to be beating, and normally, I go for more of a healthily tanned skin tone than the whole Creature of the Night thing. That said, there’s something about vampires that just seems tragic and strong and too, too dangerous in a really Forbidden Love kind of way.

When I think of werewolves, I automatically think of intense emotions – joy, rage, love, and the like, but I see vampires as more naturally stand-offish. They’re colder, more calculating. They’re often solitary. They distance themselves from people. But here’s the thing: I think it’s a million times hotter when a character’s human emotions come as a surprise or seem somehow discordant with their supernatural nature than when they don’t. When a vampire falls in love, it’s not just romantic. It’s a miracle. It’s eternal, and in a lot of universes, the odds seem so stacked against it that any tenderness I see from Mr. Fangy makes me go totally weak at the knees.

Interesting authorial thoughts . . . going to the question of why authors chose particular types of supernatural beings, given all the choices, to populate their fantasy stories.

In the world of genre fiction (prone to stereotypes), how do engaging characters come to life?

When it works, it’s that blend of (a) ancient archetype, plus (b) a fresh story and individual personality of a specific character . . . building a tale that merges classical and very personal forms of thrills and challenges and changes that throws fuel on the story’s fire.

Check out the Fangs, Fur, & Fey site if you’re interested in the hip, fun, and very popular field of urban & paranormal fantasy today.

(Blog post on the Creeping Past Dragons blog by Philip Martin, director of Great Lakes Literary and author of A Guide to Fantasy Literature.)

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Some people think that the Twilight series isn’t great literature. (That would be an understatement.)

However, I’ll just quote Mickey Spillane:

“Those big-shot writers never could dig the fact that there are more salted peanuts consumed than caviar.”

That said, I thought this was a funny post about Twilight and author Stephenie Meyer on the blog Not Overburdened With Subject: “I want to beat Edward Cullen with a stick.”

Okay, the author of that blog (“27-year-old associate editor who works mainly with fiction”) pokes fun at Stephenie Meyer’s writing, quoting lines like:

He lay perfectly still in the grass, his shirt open over his sculpted, incandescent chest, his scintillating arms bare.

And adds a little irreverent textual analysis, like noting the number of “References to Edward’s Beauty: 165.” In a book of 498 pages, that’s about every three pages. A bit excessive.

Here’s another negative review of Twilight, by Michele Catalano, from the blog Heretical Ideas: A Journal of Unorthodox Opinion.

But to better understand the issue, I love reading the many (and all over the board) comments to Catalano’s post, that really tell the story, like “Caitlyn’s”:

I’m 17 and last year all my friends were reading twilight and I got it as a christmas present. I read it and loved it. I devoured each book one right after the other. And when I finished the fourth and final book I went right back to start reading the original Twilight novel and couldn’t believe how idiotic and mindless I had become over it. I don’t understand what the hell made me think it was a good book. Bella Swan is the Mary Sue of all Mary Sues. I think the reason I became so attached is because everyone else was so in love with it and I wanted to be in love with it too, not to mention the word vampire instantly attracts me ( I was born into a family of Buffy addicts). But after rereading Twilight again, I honestly wonder how this can be considered a classic love saga.

Or, this comment that hits the nail on the head, by “Molly”:

Yes, it is poorly written. (. . .)

But really? No one is forcing you to read the book. So you don’t like it no one else really cares what you think.

It’s a fun book for teenage girls to imagine and talk about the hot guys in the movie. No one actually believes that a vampire and werewolf are going to swipe them off their feet and fall in love with them. (. . .)

So shut up.

Let’s face it, the book is a success not because of its literary merit, but because of its flat-out zeal for storytelling, with all its repetition and plots full of holes easily ignored. As romance author Jane Porter wrote on Harlequin’s Paranormal Romance Blog:

A week ago I attended a book club in Woodinville, Washington and every woman there but one had read one or more of the Twilight series. I was so impressed! These weren’t teenage readers, either, but women between 40 and 60, all neighbors and friends, many with teenage kids who turned their moms onto the series. (. . . )

For me, the charm is in the wonderful characterization, and Stephenie’s skill in making me believe this could happen, or want it to happen. I loved her very small town setting of Forks, Washington and her family dynamics of a teenage daughter living with her loving, but a little crusty, father. It’s storytelling at its best, which transcends genres and just becomes great reading . . . reading that tugs on your heart and captures your imagination.

Pass the salted nuts, please.

(Blog post on the Creeping Past Dragons blog by Philip Martin, director of Great Lakes Literary and author of A Guide to Fantasy Literature.)

Is Harry Potter a decent person?

Okay, we all know that the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling has been the subject of Christian concern, some criticism, and occasional outright attempts at banning by certain factions.

On that subject, I enjoyed reading and recommend to you this article:

Harry Potter vs. Gandalf: An in-depth analysis of the literary use of magic in the works of J. K. Rowling, J. R. R. Tolkien, and C. S. Lewis
A booklet-length essay by Steven D. Greydanus

The piece is posted on DecentFilms.com, a site of “film appreciation, information, and criticism informed by Christian faith.” It’s run by Mr. Greydanus, film critic for the National Catholic Register. He also writes for Christianity Today Movies and Our Sunday Visitor.

The (long) article compares Harry Potter to C.S Lewis, Tolkien, and modern occult-based stories like the Buffy series, The Craft, etc.

What, then, defines morally acceptable use of good magic in fiction? Where, and how, do we draw the line? How do we distinguish the truly worthwhile (Tolkien and Lewis), the basically harmless (Glinda, Cinderella’s fairy godmother), and the problematic or objectionable (“Buffy,” The Craft)? And where on this continuum does Harry Potter really fall?

The article is fascinating, well-informed, and well-nuanced. Worth reading!

It’s particularly interesting as Greydanus looks at the cautionary limits to magic (what he calls “Seven Hedges”) that Tolkien and C.S. Lewis implanted in their works, as essentially Christian writers. These “hedges” are:

seven specific literary characteristics common to Tolkien’s and Lewis’s fiction — above and beyond the fantasy nature of the magic itself — that have the net effect of limiting and restricting the role of magic in their fantasy worlds, essentially acting as barricades or hedges between magic and the reader, in effect saying: “Magic is not for the likes of us.”

The “hedges” that Greydanus outlines and then examines are things like how open or secret the magic is (more secret in Rowling’s fictional world, less in Tolkien’s or Lewis’s); how central the role of magic is to the main events; how dangerous or corrupting to the users; how much the acquisition of magic is portrayed as a practical process rather than a mysterious one; and so on.

It’s an interesting look at the use of magic in fantasy fiction. I don’t agree with all his assumptions about which is better or worse, but I found the analysis interesting.

Greydanus concludes fairly reasonably that Potter books have fewer “hedges,” and could be “potentially problematic”  . . . but probably aren’t. “The key,” he says rather fairly, “in my judgment, is balance and context. ”

. . . [It isn’t necessary to rewrite who God is in order to imagine a world, like Narnia or Middle-earth, in which the order of creation includes powerful forces, good or neutral in themselves, that some inhabitants of that world are able to engage or control by means of such paraphernalia as incantations or wands — some using this power for good, lawfully, while others for ill, unlawfully.

And this is in fact what’s going on in Tolkien and Lewis, not to mention The Wizard of Oz, Cinderella . . . and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter stories.

While the article is well-nuanced, I don’t agree in particular with his view of dark fantasy. He tends to object to the dark fantasy of works like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or The Craft as bad because they are realistic enough to possibly encourage young readers to consider dabbling in actual occult practice. He differentiates between “séances vs. flying broomsticks” (with the latter, or similar magic found in Hogwarts, Narnia, and Middle-earth, being so imaginary as to be impossible and unrewarding to try to implement in real life.)

As I discuss in my own book, A Guide to Fantasy Literature: Thoughts on Stories of Wonder and Enchantment, in a chapter titled “Types of Fantasy: Five Rings of Tradition,” dark fantasy and high fantasy are to great degree just different styles of a common genre, with their own interests and approaches. That doesn’t mean that they necessarily believe in different standards of good and evil.

Although some may not see it, dark fantasy doesn’t embrace evil things as good; they are more often just cautionary, scary, often humorous tales. Yes, they focus on those dark powers – their allure and sheer power to scare and grab us . . . physically, emotionally, psychically – and our primal fears of all things dark and different. (Of course, the best dark-fantasy authors do that with more more insight than the hacks in the field . . . as is also true of high fantasy and its weaker vs. stronger works.)

And yes, for fictional power, dark fantasy typically adopts a realistic setting, which high fantasy doesn’t as often.

With dark fantasy, you need to understand the humor and practical catharsis (literally, a purging) implicit in the genre. Stephen King isn’t an evil person. And the Twilight Saga examines issues of real significance (romance, physical attraction, morality, abstinence), in an interesting, fictional way.

And I’ll point out that a blind swallowing of all aspects of high fantasy can lead to a weakness of insight about how easy it is to split the world into black and white, and how goodness will always triumph through conviction and pluckiness and persistence.

In his article, Greydanus concludes:

For my part, I don’t see any one hard and fast answer: no one line in the sand, no one litmus test capable of distinguishing all acceptable uses of good magic in fiction from all unacceptable ones.

I agree with that statement!

(Blog post on the Creeping Past Dragons blog by Philip Martin, director of Great Lakes Literary and author of A Guide to Fantasy Literature.)

Frederic S. Durbin’s novel Dragonfly (Arkham House hardcover 1999, Ace Fantasy paperback 2005) has a wonderful sense of place, deeply rooted in the central Illinois town Durbin grew up in.

In that dark fantasy novel, 10-year-old Bridget Ann (nicknamed “Dragonfly”) lives in her Uncle Henry’s small-town funeral parlor. As Hallowe’en approaches, strange things are happening, and Uncle Henry summons a mysterious friend, Mothkin, to investigate. Together, Dragonfly and Mothkin discover a doorway in the basement to the spooky underground world of “Harvest Moon.”

Dragonfly begins:

Bad things were starting to happen again in Uncle Henry’s basement. These were things that had happened before, when the wind swung round, when the trees all felt the blood rush to their leaves after the exertion of August and the idling of September; when the chuckle-dark harvest moon shaped pumpkins in its own image, brought its secret wine flush to the scarecrows’ cheeks; when the rich bounties of the land lay plump for the taking and the light left them alone for longer and longer at a time.

In an interview by Nicholas Ozment, Durbin talked about the Midwestern sense of place so present in Dragonfly:

One delightful thing about the rural Midwest is that we have the sunny, upper surface of things—big sky, open fields, honest horizons keeping their polite distance. But then we’ve got these secret spaces: old farmhouses with attics and basements, barns, whispery hedgerows, and the creeks cutting across the land, overshadowed by thick, dark timber. Three steps out of the field, and you’re in this hidden world of shadows. The land itself is like a perfect model for a story.

The novel reminds me of Ray Bradbury, another son of small-town Illinois. And in the Ozment interview, Durbin confirmed he was naturally inspired by Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Mr. Cougar and Mr. Dark’s carnival [in Something Wicked] is a whole lot like my Harvest Moon bunch—and the bad guys even fly around in a balloon! Several people have told me my style reminds them of Ray Bradbury’s. Our “way of moving the camera is the same,” as one friend puts it. I suppose it’s natural, since we’re both Illinois boys from small towns. We seem to think a lot of the same things are numinous.

Here are a few more lines from Dragonfly:

I always marvel at October, how it can be so full of opposites. It’s as if, since the leaves are doing something so dramatic and carefree in changing all those colors, the Earth thinks it can get away with anything.  . . . Take that smoky smell: you don’t see all that many people actually burning things, but that smell is everywhere, drifting behind the rarity of the air like hidden darkness pooling behind the light, like Earth makes it somewhere in secret and slips it into the scheme of things, thinking no one will notice.

Durbin also writes for Cricket (for children), and Cicada (for young adults). Here’s some of his insightful thoughts on the topic of dark fantasy, or horror stories, for young readers, again from the Ozment interview.

Ozment: You mentioned that you grew up reading Grimm’s fairy tales—the real stuff, not the expurgated versions. Do you think a dose of terror is healthy for young imaginations?

Durbin: We have to be very careful how we define “terror.” It is most definitely not healthy to expose children to the cruelty, gore, and sickness that run so rampant today in the horror genre. A friend of mine says, “It matters what images we put into our minds, because we’ll never, ever get them out.” That’s true for adults, and it’s even truer for minds that are young, impressionable, and in full absorption mode.
That having been said, it’s also true that no one can shelter kids from scary ideas. Kids will encounter horror. On the one hand, they have life experiences: pets die, relatives die, people get hurt, and you always hear things. On the other hand, kids seek out horror. There’s a monster in the basement, they know, because they’ve got their ears pressed to the basement door, they’ve opened it a crack, they’ve tiptoed down to the third, squeaky step. Kids will find things to be terrified of. I was so scared of a moss troll doll that my mom had to hide it in a drawer. Every year or so I’d beg her to get it out again, and she’d finally oblige, and I’d be so scared she’d have to hide it again. See? It’s the moth to the flame. Kids passionately want to be scared in a safe environment.

That environment is the key. If a child is happy and secure, with parents who behave like parents, he or she has a sense of perspective. There’s a line between real life and the Dark Woods. In that situation, yes, fictional horror can be a delight and, like any good story, can help kids grow. But I make a distinction here between scary stories and the sick, disturbing stories of cruelty—those aren’t good for anyone. And I can only pray God help the children who don’t have a healthy, safe environment. As fantasists, with our stories of dedication, love, and the triumph of goodness, we try to throw those kids a lifeline.

For the rest of that excellent interview, visit Ozment’s blog, Ozmentality. Nicholas Ozment teaches English at Winona State University, and also writes speculative fiction: fantasy, horror, and magic realism, and reviews horror movies at http://www.downinthecellar.com. His essay “Gandalf’s Staff, Prospero’s Books: The Ethics of Magic in Tolkien and Shakespeare” appears in Tolkien and Shakespeare: Essays on Shared Themes and Language (McFarland Press, 2007).

At the time of the 2008 interview, Frederic S. Durbin had been living in Japan for more than a decade, teaching English at Niigata University.