I write dark. I write about the dark soul of man. The darkest of the darkest blood, blood blood, her blood, his blood, blood as red as the scarlet in his fucking eyes, wooo. Bad jokes aside, this is something I’ve studied in various author blogs, flamewars, and other avenues for the genre’s fierce debate over grimdark the past decade. Most published authors have chimed in on this in the industry (Mark Lawrence, Kameron Hurley, Big Daddy Grimdark Joe “The Butcher” Abercrombie, and all the other hot authors post Anita Blake thong songs.) For me, I enjoy it all.
But the question is this: What the fuck is the difference?
And this is the key essence of why labeling is efficient when trying to sell stocks, bonds, and other financial vehicles to Mr and Mr. Leo and Damien Lebowski for their new shared account after getting married in Providence Town during a hellstorm typhon! But it’s not always efficient when trying to give context to a novel’s tone, atmosphere, and other aesthetics.
Case in point, Vampire Hunter D is wicked dark. It’s got mutilation, a dude with a magic wind eating hand, cyborg counts, Camillaesque vampire ladies going “Come here, girl. All I need a drink of your sweet blood”, and a prettyboy wearing a dope long hat. But its tone and presentation-while bleak and gritty-doesn’t veer into the territory of a WWI Verdun corpse line. VHD is still firmly not at the Grimdark level.
Which brings us to the American/Western perspective on dark. I blame the visual language of 80s action flicks for this kind of pinball violence and presentation. I do not mean that in a bad way but I would say the visual impact of Rambo, Terminator, Aliens, Roundhouse, Manos and the Hand of Fate, created a stark imagery within a collective consciousness in Western society.
The big mother of modern dark fantasy in terms of style was and still is Vampire the Masquerade and it’s subsequent fluff and splatlines. Ask anyone who lived in that time period, White Wolf’s gothic modern fantasy practically created the visual language of urban fantasy. It also had some of the most imaginative world-building that reached levels of self-parody at the end of the Old Line. Underworld, Twilight, Harry Dresden, most of these stories have a similar tapestery to that 1990 game line about the immortal soul of the damned. And VTM is fucking BLEAK. That world is one of the most bleak you can get. Seriously, some of the lore in the fluff pieces makes me go, “What was this guy/gal smoking when they wrote up the Sabbat? Some 200 year old vampire making meat puppets out of himself and his victims?” And they’re not even the worst.
But the days of White Wolf are long gone. We’ve reached a critical mass in terms of urban fantasy and as others have discussed/pointed out, new genres are emerging. But getting back to the point, what separates the three labels? Again, this is entirely my subjective opinion. It’s not just the appeal to the Dung Ages myth that certainly existed to a point in medieval Europe, Middle East, and Asia, it’s the tone and visual language within novels that separates them.
The litmus test? Warhammer mutherfucking 40k. I’ve always used W40k as the benchmark for comparison sake. “How dark is this compared to an Imperial census recorder killing 100,000 people on a hive world through a rounding error in the tech-priest’s machine system?” Which, while silly, ultimately reaches the point of self-parody and becomes so idiotic, you start to laugh at the absurdity of it. I’ll continue this in further parts, but wanted to give some space for others to breathe.