As an author with a horror and dark fiction background, it isn’t surprising to most people when they find that the majority of my fiction (even that which could be considered anything ‘but’ horror) has this sort of dark, creeping suspense that tends to gradually build until the climax–where, at the crucial point in the story, things explode, or a revelation is unveiled that twists the reader about in the narrative. When I made the subtle transition to fantasy, I decided to incorporate this same kind of style within my fiction, along with the fantastical elements (prose, setting, etc.) that fantasy is famed for.
The biggest question I get asked is which writers have inspired me. The question that isn’t often asked is which writers inspired my style.
If we go back to the very beginning (to my teenage years, when fantasy fiction consumed much of my reading life,) my first true experience with fiction of a darker edge was that written by Garth Nix. An Australian author with a background in English, he penned novels such as The Ragwitch (which I have yet to read) and The Seventh Tower series (which I read in its entirety.) He also wrote a series called The Keys to the Kingdom, and while I only read the first two, that wasn’t the series that inspired me. No. The Abhorsen Trilogy was.
The Abhorsen Trilogy tells the story of a line of anti-necromancers whose jobs are to keep the dead down instead of actually resurrecting them. The first book, Sabriel, opens with our heroine reviving a schoolmate’s dead rabbit from the River of Death by pulling its spirit back from what is essentially the Underworld. Eventually, the story follows Sabriel as she is given her missing father’s bell set (the Abhorsen’s magical objects to tame and fight the dead) and is sent on a journey to the Old Kingdom—which, beyond the nineteenth-century-esque Wall, is filled with undead and magical entities in what could be considered a medieval-styled setting.
Nix writes with a dark melancholy that gradually builds up and then, at various climax points, heightens for tension, but it always seems to fall back into place to create that moody, somber tone that I think inspired me so much as a teenager.
Other authors have done the same thing.
In his less intense moments, wherein he builds up tension, Stephen King tends to use the same effect. Classic moments of these techniques are used in novels Bag of Bones, in which the main character, who is living in his lake house, is slowly being haunted by the ghost that lives on the property, and in Rose Madder, where our main character is slowly being pursued by her crazed, abusive husband. Billy Martin (formerly known as Poppy Z. Brite before he began his gender transition) used the same technique in a similar manner, though in a much sparser way. His writing style relied heavily on stark and shocking imagery in order to create an overall picture for the reader to see, but that usually came after the one thing I admire most about dark fiction writers–that slow, creeping buildup. One of his most disturbing books (and which has been coined in some circles as ‘the most disturbing book ever written’) is his novel Exquisite Corpse, which is based loosely on the Jeffrey Dahmer killings and follows not only the story of the killer, but a young man and his estranged ex-lover.
Here’s the deal: if you open any of these books (or any book by these authors, now that I think about it,) you’ll notice one thing that is extremely similar about their writing. It won’t be the style, it won’t be the word choices; it won’t even be the scenarios. It will, instead, be the mood—which, as I’ve said before, begins with a soft dark spot that eventually twists and transforms into something so malevolent you find yourself unsure as to just what it is you are reading.
My style has been highly influenced by those who write horror, not fantasy. To bridge those two genres and create something that could be considered dark or ‘horrific’ fantasy isn’t a new thing, but it’s something that I personally haven’t seen a lot of epic fantasy writers do. Of course, there are always elements of suspense and scare in fantasy works, but true horror is often hard to find. I try to make that prevalent in my work.