How Dark is Dark Fantasy? Or – Feel the Fear

Being one of the few in the collective who is a horror writer as a well as a fantasy writer, I get very excited around Halloween. October means as much to me as December means to a Christmas fanatic. I wanted this post to offer a Halloween theme, but still focus on my fantasy work. Of course, my darker fantasy work often treads a fine line between fantasy and horror, but sometimes that line blurs and occasionally spills over completely. I’ve written two books I consider cross-genre, both dark fantasy and horror, not firmly one or the other. My dystopian series and my YA trilogy also come awfully close to horror at times, or as my real-life muse would say “Stephen-King-ish”.

For today’s post, with Halloween in mind, I first considered an article that presented my villains, or possibly a montage relating to one particularly heinous villain in my fantasy series. I saw two problems with this. My worst villains, for the most part, are in books I have yet to publish, the Lady Finesse being an exception. Damon Ramorran, the subject in my montage does not appear until the fifth book of my fantasy series, and as of this moment the third book is waiting on a release that is likely to be at least a couple of months down the road. I prefer to talk about work I have that’s already out there in the cold, cruel world.

Secondly, the montage is viciously dark, so heavy that I don’t think it would be appropriate for a fantasy-related posting. We’re not talking someone who doesn’t separate his recycling or leaves the toilet seat up (although he probably does those things too.) This man is evil incarnate – a true monster of the human kind…no supernatural involved. He’s the type of monster who does things that might make even make the stomachs of my toughest readers turn (hint…he collects body parts for fun.).

Instead, I’m going to discuss fear in fantasy. Heroes are often faced with huge challenges and great danger, but we rarely see a hero cringing, screaming like a little girl, or running away to hide. The fact is, if you want realistic characters, most will have something they fear, to the point they may not be willing to face it even if they stand up to other risks. It shouldn’t be unheard of for a protagonist to suffer from a phobia. I can think of two instances of main characters I have who are afflicted in such a way. My character, Dee Aaronsod, introduced in Casualties of War, suffers from a fear of heights. Her fear shows itself first in this instance (it makes an appearance several more times in the series):

While the stairs were wide, they were very winding and had no railing to prevent a fall. Most of the group didn’t find this disconcerting, but Dee pressed herself to the rock wall as she climbed, as far away from the edge as she could manage. Her fear showed clearly on her face and her hands trembled as she slid them across the stone surface.

“And here I was thinking you weren’t scared of anything,” Nolan teased. “You didn’t seem scared of heights when we were climbing the cliffs.”

“That was different,” Dee huffed. “We had ropes to support us if we fell, and I had something to hold onto. I grew up on a farm, and the highest I ever climbed was up to the hay loft.” She gazed at the distance to the bottom of the stairway, and gritted her teeth as she was overtaken by a moment of vertigo.

In an uncharacteristic display of compassion, Nolan offered her his hand. “Something to hold onto,” he said.

Warily, Dee took the offered hand. She relaxed immediately. They continued their climb together.

In my unpublished novel, Elements of Genocide, one main character, Andreyelle, is very much at ease when it comes to heights. Her problem is claustrophobia:

Zane returned his attention to his travelling companions. Valeria was examining the rock there, wearing a frown that looked completely out of place on her typically contented face. Volgis had located one of the lanterns and was trying to figure out exactly how it worked. Andreyelle had not moved from the spot where she had stopped upon their arrival at the base of the stairs and was staring into the depths of the tunnel, trembling. Zane reached over to grab one of the furs that Osiric had referred to, the mantle having been removed from one of the bags during Volgis’s search for the lantern.

“Here,” Zane said, tapping the pearly skinned woman on the shoulder. “This should help.” She glanced at the fur in his hand and shook her head.

“I don’t need it. I’m not cold,” she claimed, her eyes returning to focus on the dark hole.

“Then why are you shaking? You don’t need to be stoic. Once we start descending it will only get…”

Andreyelle interrupted him, taking two very unsteady steps backwards and shaking her head more vigorously this time. Her voice was panicky.

“I can’t go down there. I can’t.”

She had never been in any fully enclosed spaces. Everything in her city was bright and airy. The buildings were built with many windows and were well-lit. All of them had easy access to their rooftops, and Andreyelle had spent the better part of her time out on her windsurfer, by choice. She found herself suddenly possessed by severe claustrophobia, a panic that was trying to strangle the air from her chest.

Working a phobia into a character’s persona is another one of those ways to avoid cookie-cutter protagonists. It also gives you plenty of material to work into the story. Something to think about when it comes to dark fantasy – it only makes sense that somebody might be feeling the fear.