Dark fantasy is more popular than ever. Game of Thrones is rocking our TV sets. Tons of authors have moved to the genre. We're obsessed with bloody tales of morally gray people and supernatural forces. But where does dark fantasy come from? And how did it become so huge? Here's a brief history of dark fantasy's greatest moments.
Top image: Battle of the Blackwater by Hariyarti/Deviant Art
The Odyssey (8th Century BC)
The Odyssey is about a dude who went to war, and now he wants to get home to see his wife. Zeus decides to be a dick and try to block him at every path. Despite Zeus's dickishness, Odysseus eventually does get home, where all these guys who want to sleep with his wife are hanging out and have been hanging out for years. Pissed, Odysseus kills them all, plus any of his maids that slept with them.
The Odyssey is full of mythical creatures. Witches, sirens, and a six-headed beast are all staples of fantasy fiction. And one could argue that The Odyssey has influenced pretty much all of Western literature since its creation. However, if we look at the narrative tone of the story, one where everything seems absolutely hopeless, as obstacles get worse and worse for Odysseus as Zeus throws everything he's got at him, we can definitely see the hallmarks of dark fantasy taking shape.
Beowulf (8th-early 11th century)
Beowulf is the story of a warrior who volunteers to kill Grendel, a monster who is terrorizing a local kingdom. He does so, and for good measure decides to kill Grendel's mother, too.
For a long time, Beowulf was looked upon primarily as a historical artifact — but this changed when Tolkien wrote the book on the critical analysis of Beowulf as a poem, not as an artifact. This book is used to this day as a resource for scholars of Beowulf. The biggest impact of this short epic poem was in its influence on Tolkien when writing his own books. Tolkien stated, "Beowulf is among my most valued sources ..." This cements Beowulf as one of the greatest contributors to not just the fantasy genre. But its bloodthirsty themes also make it a key influence on dark fantasy.
Dante Alighieri's The Divine Comedy (circa 1308)
Basically, a man is guided through Hell and Purgatory by the poet Virgil, and Heaven by the idealized woman Beatrice.
This is first and foremost a religious allegory — but the important thing to recognize here is the scale in which Dante built three worlds. While the worlds are based, intrinsically on folklore, Dante devised a logic to them all. This book is recognized one of the most important book of not only Italy but also Western Civilization. So as with the Odyssey, no list of modern dark fantasy influences would be complete without it.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (14th Century)
One day a Green Knight shows up in King Arthur's court and says that anyone who is strong enough may strike him with an axe — with the caveat that in a year's time he can return the favor. Just when King Arthur is about to volunteer, the youngest member of the court, Sir Gawain, raises his hand. He then chops off the Green Knight's head. The Green Knight stands up and picks up his head, reminding Sir Gawain of his oath. The Green Knight spends the next year looking for The Green Knight's castle, so that he may honor his debt.
Impact: The Arthurian myths live on until today. But when it was written, this epic continued the tradition of The Odyssey in a way. The narrative included a doomed man struggling to fulfill a duty with little to no hope of surviving the fulfillment of his contract. And he's tempted sexually by the Green Knight's wife, in a way that feels very reminiscent of the sexiness of modern-day dark fantasies.
Edgar Allen Poe's The Raven (1809-1849)
The Raven is a narrative poem about a man who is reading stories of forgotten lore. He is doing this order to forget about his beloved Lenore, which a talking Raven is pretty keen that he should never do.
Poe's work has influenced legions of horror and mystery writers — but his tormented protagonists and scary twist endings have also had a huge impact on tons of fantasy writers. His mastery of psychological terror is a huge influence on writers from H.P. Lovecraft to George R.R. Martin — and we do see ravens cropping up quite a bit in the latter's work.
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818)
This epistolary novel, tells the story of a man who creates life through the study of meta-physics very early in the novel. The Dr. Frankenstein spends the rest of it lamenting his creation, as the monster takes revenge on his creator, after questioning why he was created only to live a miserable life.
Frankenstein's monster pops up all over popular culture today, but in Stephen King's Danse Macabre, King calls Frankenstein's Monster an archetype for countless other literary creations. This book was a huge hit when it was released, and it's morbid and foreboding tone influenced just as many writers as the Monster itself. The invention of an undead creature who walks the earth, no doubt, influenced orcs and zombies alike.
Elias Lönnrot's Kalevala (1858)
Inspired by Homer's Illiad and Beowulf, Elias Lönnrot compiled Finnish folklore in order to save it from being lost in history. It has been credited as a major source of the Finnish national identity.
Regarded as the national epic of Finland, this poem was a major influence on Tolkien's The Silmarillion and The Children of Húrin. It also inspired authors like Emil Petaja, Ian Watson, and the creation of Michael Moorcock's anti-hero Elric of Melniboné.
Richard MacDonald's Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women (1858)
This book takes German Romanticism as a major source of inspiration. It follows Anodos, who finds himself woken up in a mysterious fantasy world, where he looks for a woman who is his idealization of beauty. When he fails to realize his goals, he gives up, and awakens at home.
This sounds an awful lot like Donaldson's Lord Foul's Bane — minus the anti-heroic nastiness, of course. We can almost see a direct correlation between these two books. This book also expanse on the ever-present trope of a character who wakes up in a strange new world.
James De Mille's A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder (1888)
This book serves to link Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and H.P. Lovecraft together, in a way. It's an epistolary novel, which has a way of creating a surreal not-sure-if-the-author-is-crazy-or-this-shit-really-happened way of framing a narrative. Epistolary novels were sort of the "found footage horror" of the 18th and 19th centuries. A message is found in a cylinder, which describes an undiscovered land here on Earth.
This book is credited with anticipating the "lost world" genre of fantasy. While this is not a specific quality of dark fantasy, the notion of a survivor of an expedition reporting back on a lost continent had a huge impact on the genre.
William Morris' The Well at the World's End (1896)
This tale follows the adventures of the son of a king, who is seeking a well that provides near-immortality. As he, and his lover (a woman who has drank from the well) fight slave traders, fellow travelers, and corrupt leaders. His lover is killed, but he continues on with the help of another maiden, and an ancient recluse who has also drank from well. Upon returning home Ralph feels restless and wonders if he can ever be happy with a "normal" life.
This book has been cited as a major influence on both Tolkien and C.S. Lewis alike. Which as we know have both done a lot to further dark fantasy.
Arthur Machen's The Hill of Dreams (1907)
This is only one of many novels that inspired many dark fantasy writers. It follows a man in Wales who has strange visions of the past in the present.
Lovecraft, one of many admirers, pretty much took what he liked from Machen's worked and put it in his own. He also influenced many notable modern fantasy and horror writers, such as Peter Straub, Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell, Karl Edward Wagner, Joanna Russ, Graham Joyce, Simon Clark, Tim Lebbon, Mark Samuels, and T. E. D. Klein, to name but a few.
Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis (1915)
This is a famous story of a bureaucrat who wakes up one day to find that he is transforming into a bug.
Often cited as surrealist literature, this has inspired many writers to get weirder and weirder. Gabriel García Márquez has stated, "I never again slept with my former serenity. The book was Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis...that determined a new direction for my life from its first line, which today is one of the great devices in world literature: 'As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.'...When I finished reading The Metamorphosis I felt an irresistible longing to live in that alien paradise. The day found me at the portable typewriter...attempting to write something that would resemble Kafka's poor bureaucrat changed into an enormous cockroach." Image: Artist unknown.
Der Orchideengarten (First issue published 1919)
This magazine is largely recognized the first fantasy magazine, and tended to skew more toward horror fantasy, thus being a huge contributor to the success to dark fantasy as a genre. Notable writers include: Voltaire, Charles Nodier, Guy de Maupassant, Théophile Gautier, Victor Hugo, Villiers de l'Isle-Adam and Guillaume Apollinaire. Apuleius, Charles Dickens, Pushkin, Edgar Allan Poe, Washington Irving, Amelia Edwards, Nathaniel Hawthorne, H. G. Wells, Valery Bryusov and Karel and Josef Capek.
Weird Tales (First Issue published 1923)
One can argue that this where modern dark fantasy really coalesced. This magazine had to push the limits of the genre in order to shock readers. While the public was often outraged at the perverse nature of the stories, this actually drove sales up (in fact just one mention of necrophilia saved the company from bankruptcy). If your business model is the weirder and darker you get, the more money comes in, things are going to get dark pretty damn fast. Notable writers include Robert Bloch, Robert E. Howard (Conan the Barbarian), H.P. Lovecraft, Norman Spinrad, and Michael Moorcock, to name a few.
H.P. Lovecraft's The Call of Cthulhu (1928)
An epistolary novel (Much like Shelley's Frankenstein), Call of Cthulhu follows the uncovering of a vast conspiracy to summon the cosmic entity Cthulhu — because why not?
Cultural impact – First it must be said that The Call of Cthulhu owes a big debt to Tennyson's sonnet Kraken. Still, this story went on to inspire almost countless short stories, novels, songs, and other media, most notably Pratchett's Discworld series as well as the dramatic parallels seen in Silent Hill and, well, the survival horror genre in general, which in a way could be categorized as dark fantasy. Artwork from Fantasy Flight's "Call of Cthulhu" game.
J.R.R. Tolkien's The Children of Húrin, Lord of the Rings (1930s, 2007)
We all know the story of Lord of the Rings: Frodo, with the help of some friends, goes to Mordor to destroy a magic ring. The Children of Húrin actually both predates and post-dates Tolkien's most famous works. Originally written in 1910, it went through a few drafts until Tolkien died, his son Christopher then edited it and published it. This dark fantasy novel revolves around one of the first human families in Middle Earth.
While the Lord of the Rings inspired pretty much all of modern fantasy (everything from games, comic books, movies, and of course literature) it created a sandbox for writers of every ilk to play in. Jeremy Marshal of The times said, "It is worthy of a readership beyond Tolkien devotees," and continued with "In The Children of Húrin we could at last have the successor to The Lord of the Rings that was so earnestly and hopelessly sought by Tolkien's publishers in the late 1950s." With over 900,000 copies sold, this work of dark fantasy is inspiring a new generation of writers. Image: The Death of Belog by Alan Lee.
The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (First published 1949)
The reason that this magazine was published was to allow Fantasy and Science fiction novels to gain a footing as literary endeavors. At first stories were published without illustrations and were published in single column format in order to appear like a literary journal. This lent an air of legitimacy to a genre that was generally regarded as pulp at the time. Image by Cory and Catska Ench
Norman Spinrad's The Iron Dream (1972)
This work of meta-dark fantasy introduces us to a world in which Hitler never leads the Third Reich. Instead, after a failed career as a painter, he immigrates to New York and becomes a fantasy/science-fiction writer. This is the book that the alternate Hitler would have written.
Taking place in a fantasy world where humans battle genetically inferior mutants, this book is terrible. It espouses the use of eugenics. It's sexist, homophobic, and racist. Everything a novel by Hitler would have been.
Ursula K. Le Guin wrote, "We are forced, insofar as we can continue to read the book seriously, to think, not about Adolf Hitler and his historic crimes—Hitler is simply the distancing medium—but to think about ourselves: our moral assumptions, our ideas of heroism, our desires to, lead or to be led, our righteous wars. What Spinrad is trying to tell us is that it is happening here."
Michael Moorcock's Elric of Melniboné (1973)
This book is the first novel length introduction to The Eternal Champion. This character shifts forms from book to book in Moorcock's vast sprawl of world-building fantasy novels. The Eternal Champion is a noted anti-hero, who can be both heroic and cruel.
Of course Moorcock's work goes beyond this character — as the A.V. Club put it, "while the editor of the groundbreaking magazine New Worlds, Moorcock was an architect of science fiction's game-changing New Wave in the '60s and '70s. Since then he's influenced everyone from Alan Moore to Neil Gaiman to Michael Chabon. Moorcock is rarely spoken of in a tone other than abject awe, and that cult-like aura can be off-putting to a newcomer. That said, getting lost in Moorcock's work is one of its many joys; rather than being a puzzle to solve, it's a fractal enigma that only grows more deliriously mysterious the closer it's examined." Image by Robert Goulde.
Stephan R. Donaldson's Lord Foul's Bane (1977)
A man gets leprosy, and despite his best efforts he is not cured. Upon returning home from the Leprosarium, his wife has gone and he is ostracized from the community (apparently nobody wants to get leprosy.) He goes to town to find himself confronted with a cryptic beggar, who refuses his generosity. He is then hit by an ambulance and knocked unconscious. He wakes up in a world of fantasy, where he joins the good in their fight against evil. Out of penance for raping the woman who helps him.
James Nicoll noted that Donaldson would win the lifetime achievement award for creating the most unlikable-supposed-to-be-sympathetic character of all time. Another opinion is that Donaldson gave the reader something that every dark fantasy needs, "Firstly, Covenant is one of literature's great anti-heroes, which means more sensitive readers will be repulsed by his actions. Readers open to the context Donaldson is placing him will, however, empathize with the story and be curious how it develops." This has surely impacted every dark fantasy that has come since, that is, no more perfectly good do-gooders, now most all books have that character with a shade of gray.
Stephen King's The Dark Tower (1982-2012)
Synopsis: A Gunslinger wants to get to the titular dark tower. It takes him about 4,000 pages to get there.
Best Fantasy Blog said, "The genre-defying elements within the book are overwhelming at times. In one moment, you envision Clint Eastwood drawing his 1860 New Army Model Remington, but by the time he fires, he has already become Sir Lancelot swinging a sword. An enemy moves from cattle baron to Al Capone to demon in an effortless flow of characterization and image that leaves the reader breathless. The reader walks with Roland through the Old West only to discover he's on Middle Earth. There is no author alive today who can paint a rich and detailed picture the way King can. Nobody can develop characters in a visceral and living way as he can. I defy anyone to read this series and avoid empathically identifying with those King wants him to. There is nothing we can do but to be drawn into the world, the characters, the settings, and the events. King is simply wonderful at what he does."
We see a lot more genre bending in today's dark fantasy literature. Look at all the character cross overs we see today. Look no further than Grimm or Once Upon a Time. We've also seen the rise of gritty Westerns, possibly popularized by this epic series.
Neil Gaiman's landmark comics series is about the capture or Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams, and subsequent realization that everything must change.
Glen Weldon of NPR said, "[Sandman], which ran for 75 issues, helped establish and grow the marketplace for comics aimed at adults, and remains one of the most literate, imaginative and intricately plotted accomplishments in long-form comics storytelling out there." So yes, this series is basically the reason why we have so many comic books, many of which are dark fantasy books, for adult readers.
A Song of Ice And Fire by George R.R. Martin (1996-present)
It's hard to understate the importance of this series, which begins with a book in which the most noble character meets an ignominious end. Martin uses real history to show how bloody and revolting a war in a Medieval society could be, and his fantasy elements only serve to increase the sense of dread and revulsion. Notably, Martin innovated the idea of treating magic and the supernatural as a backdrop, rather than the foreground, of his storytelling.
The cultural impact of Martin's books is basically incalculable at this point.
Joe Ambercrombie's The First Law Trilogy (2006-2008)
The title of the first book in this series is actually a paraphrase of Homer. Referencing The Odyssey, "The Blade itself incites to deeds of violence." This series defies convention and harkens back to MacDonaldson's anti-hero heavy prose while set in a Tolkien-esque fantasy world. Set in the "Union" it follows a gang of soldiers as they battle for control.
Forbes' Erik Kain said, "Abercrombie's characters are marvelous and full of depth, and you're never quite sure what they'll do precisely because he makes them all so human. There are no clear villains, no clear heroes, no clear friends or enemies. Not only do we as readers puzzle over them, Abercrombie does a surprisingly good job at having each character see the rest through entirely different lenses. So while one character may be despised by all his old comrades, he's viewed as "the best man I know" by someone he met later in his life, in another place and time."
So... what did we leave out?