Dark Fantasy

The foremost writer of dark fantasy in this century is H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937), whose stories remain in print (even though some were written as much as fifty years ago) and enjoy regular, cyclic bursts of extraordinary popularity. With stories like "Pickman's Model," which deals with a painter who fashions portraits of monsters that, the narrator learns, are not imaginary, as they first seemed, "The Rats in the Walls."

"The Dunwich Horror," and dozens of others (The Dunwich Horror and The Colour Out of Space are two excellent paperback collections from Lancer Books), Lovecraft created the ghastliest, most horrifying non-humans ever to shamble across the pages of fantastic literature—not the plastic fright-wig monsters of cheap scare movies, but believable and sinister creatures that can frighten an adult as easily as a child. Because of Lovecraft and other fantasy masters before and of his time—August Derleth for his many stories, Bram Stoker for his immensely powerful Dracula and other weird tales—the conditions of the dark fantasy have been established, providing certain things the readers expect. To be successful at this sub-type, one must be familiar with these early masters and with the perimeters they established.

First of all, dark fantasy—unlike all other fantasies-most often takes place against a normal contemporary or recognizable historical setting. Though it could be placed in pre-history, in the far future of Earth, or in another imaginary world altogether, it seems to work best if its supernatural elements can be put in contrast with an otherwise common background.

For example, William Peter Blatty's enormously popular The Exorcist, which is the story of the demonic possession of a pre-teen girl, is set in the present-day environs of Washington, D.C. Its cast of characters is typically American: a moderately popular movie actress, her director, her servants, her child, a clever police detective, a priest troubled by doubts of his calling and his religion, a lady occultist, and assorted minor characters. The day-to-day lives of the characters are full of problems we've all known and can identify with: busy work schedules, concern over a dying mother, and grief at the loss of friends. The only things at all out of the ordinary are the wild, careening changes in the child as she is in stages possessed by a demon, her fits of physical, emotional, sexual rage. Because all else is ordinary, the girl's condition is as moving, terrifying, and fascinating as it could possibly be for the reader.

Likewise, in Ira Levin's best-selling Rosemary's Baby, the fantastic element is the only "impossibility" in the story. The hero and heroine are a nice New York couple, with a bright future, newly married. When they move into an enormous old brownstone apartment house, the husband's career seems to move less quickly than it once did. In frustration, and unknown to his wife Rosemary, the husband makes a deal with an older couple in the same building, an older couple who are Satanists: for his own success, he will allow Satan to have a son by Rosemary. By the end of the book, this comes to pass, and the anti-Christ has arrived. This fantastic plot is developed in such a levelheaded manner, with so many references to "normal" life—Rosemary's morning sickness, going to an obstetrician, buying playpens and baby toys—that the impact of the fantasy element is optimal.

In a fantasy world of miracles and magic, one cannot really fear the villain, because of the hero's superhuman powers. The reader knows the protagonist can handle anything, meet any danger, and that he doesn't deserve much concern. When the setting is work-a-day, however, the hero plainly mortal, the terror blooms and is genuine, for the hero might die, be maimed, tortured, go mad, or lose his soul.

Indeed, a second requirement of dark fantasy is that at least one and perhaps all of these gruesome possibilities do transpire. Since the theme of dark fantasy, stated or implied, is "there are things in this life men were not meant to know," and since the hero often pokes deeper and deeper into a curious circumstance in order to learn what's behind it, it follows that more of these tales must end pessimistically than optimistically. In fact, if your protagonist is destined to die, the circumstances of his passing should be as hideous as you can make them, in order to reinforce the theme and provide the reader with the thrill of horror he is seeking. For instance, one of your characters might die by crashing through a window, wrestling with the insubstantial form of Satan, falling to the street below where he ends up with his head twisted clear around on his shoulders, so it's staring behind him (Blatty's The Exorcist).

This presents a major problem for the writer: whether to show the hero's final disaster on or off stage. If, being cornered by the foul-breathed and grave-rank vampire, the hero must clearly die, should the bloody bite and bloodsucking be viewed by the reader in gory detail, or subtly suggested? The answer: subtly suggested, more often than not. Having spent pages to build the reader into a frenzy of suspense—and dark fantasy relies on anticipation of the encounter between hero and villain, rather than the actual physical encounter itself—it is nearly always impossible to make the climactic confrontation between good and evil as terrifying as the reader, himself, has imagined it. The understatement, here, is more valuable than anywhere else in category fiction.

It is less effective to write:

And then there was no more room to run. The great banquet hall lay behind the vampire, the double doors back there where Roger could not get to them without first running the fanged gauntlet. He had but a corner, a cubby of cold stone, with no weapon, no hope. The Count approached, grinning, his two longest teeth protruding over his lips, his eyes aflame, both hands raised with his cloak flowing out around him like a piece of the darkest night. As he touched Roger, Roger seemed terrorized into immobility by those white, icy fingers. Then, the Count pushed the man's head to the side and went quickly for the jugular, his razored teeth slashing flesh, drawing blood which ceased to flow as his hollowed fangs sucked it down. The sound of this inhuman feast—obscenely loud, slobbering—was the only sound in the banquet hall-other than the feeble, guttural whimpers Roger managed to give out with.

than it is to write:

And then there was no more room to run. The great banquet hall lay behind the vampire, the double doors back there where Roger could not get to them without first running the fanged gauntlet. He had but a corner now, a cubby of cold stone, with no weapon, no hope. Mesmerized by the Count's inhuman stare, his bloodshot eyes, Roger thought he should lower his gaze, should look out for those wicked teeth. But he could not. He couldn't look at them until it was too late, until they glistened with his own blood.

When selecting a non-human creature that will serve as the antagonist within your story—be it vampire, werewolf, ancient god, demon, ghost, ghoul, or monster of your own creation—you must apply the same conscientious thought to him as you would to a human character. Furthermore, if your beast is not of your own manufacture, you should research its history as well as you can. This will not prove easy, but there are two ways you can learn the mythos of, say, the vampire. First, you can haunt a couple of libraries, perusing as many books on the occult and the history of myths as you can find. Second, and far easier, you can read other novels which concern vampires. For example, once you have read Stoker's Dracula you will know that vampires avoid sunlight because it can kill them, are otherwise immortal unless a wooden stake is driven through their hearts, are repelled by crucifixes, have a great revulsion to garlic and wild onion, and hundreds of other details.

Last of all, in dark fantasy (as against other fantasy), even if your hero does not perish, even if the supernatural creature is destroyed, a mood of still-existent evil must fill the last scene, a sense of undying forces waiting for their next chance to do evil. In this manner, a reader is left satisfied with the solution of the immediate story but aware that an ultimate victory has not been won. Readers of dark fantasy enjoy this lingering uneasiness, as is evidenced by The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby. In the first, though the child is no longer possessed in the end, the ultimate war against Hell is yet to be waged. In the second, though Rosemary's terror is abated after the baby's birth and after she accepts her role as the anti-Madonna, the evil is very, very much alive.

Considering the consequences of the dark fantasy story—a horrible death for someone and maybe for the hero himself; confrontation with pure evil; lingering evil in the end, so that no one triumphs completely—you might wonder what would motivate a character to become involved with this sort of thing in the first place. I believe you can use all the motivations mentioned in Chapter One, except Duty, to involve the hero in occult or religious experimentation to get your plot moving: He loves a particular woman and wants to enchant her so she'll love him, and he thereby gets mixed up with the Dark Powers; or he wants to become rich and seeks Satanic help towards this end; he seeks a more horrible revenge on an enemy than society could ever take; his own world is not as he wants it, and either to preserve his emotional-mental state or to preserve his physical state, he deals with the Dark Powers; or he is simply curious, without realizing the dangers involved in consorting with demons (as in James Blish's Black Easter), And, of course, as in The Exorcist or Dracula, he may find himself the victim of supernatural beings, without generating the situation himself.

As for characterizing your supernatural villain, just remember that he must be deeply evil, that his every goal should be connected with death or pain or eternal damnation. He is motivated, always, by a supernatural drive, a lust for blood or death, that a man could never quite understand. He may, at times, rue his own fate—he may, on rare occasion, have a fleeting thought that he is trapped in a hellish role—but he can never disavow that role.

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