What do we want it to do?
The first—and easy—answer is: we want it to entertain us. That’s a given of fiction in general, so I won’t go further into that. What other expectations do we have of dark fiction? That it will give us the creeps, make us leave the light on when we finally manage to fall asleep? Perhaps. But, if that’s all I got from reading or writing this sub-genre, I’d be disappointed.
I expect dark fiction to make me appreciate life.
What? Horror and dark fantasy do something like that? You may ask how, or even why. There are plenty of other stories out there that are nothing but lazy Sunday afternoon fluff, taking few risks and giving the reader a happy (and uncomplicated) ending. Horror can be guilty of that too, in a similar vein: blood, guts, a few thrills, and an ending that resolves nothing. The dark fiction I’m referring to is the sort that takes risks, presses a weight down on your chest, and forces you to remember it long after you’ve read it. Not just because of gore or cheap scares, like a slasher film, but something that resonates deep within us.
Tragedies are the dark fiction of the pre-modern age. Read the Greek tragedies, or one of Shakespeare’s. Not many would classify these as dark fiction, but they certainly are: rape, incest, murder, and a tragic conclusion that people never forget. Even those who have never read Rome and Juliet, or Medea, know what happens at the end. Two lovers commit suicide; a mother kills her own children. Timeless tales that have survived the centuries. Why?
Dark fiction still explores the shadowy sides of our nature. We all know that life isn’t the clean, moral affair presented in modern advertisements, shouted about from pulpits, or ranted about from political podiums. Life can be harsh, unforgiving. For many people on this planet, it is hellish. Through dark fiction, we can explore those hells, and in so doing, discover something about ourselves. When someone else reads our work, they too might uncover personal details.
When I write dark fiction, I craft a world that is dangerous, merciless, and unfeeling. Grittiness is a must. Dirt, mildew, rust, ash…these embellish my world. I don’t shy from brutal violence or vulgar language, if I feel they serve the story. Darkness doesn’t always mean violence, though. I have to do better than that. There must a pall of hopelessness over everything. A resigned attitude among the majority, that no matter what happens, things will never change. Into this world I place my characters. I try to make them complex; I try to let them grow despite the hardships they face.
I hurt them, so that they can learn, heal, and get back up to carry on.
That inspires me. Would we survive these cruel worlds, never give up, and continue struggling? Even if we knew our efforts were in vain? These are the real questions dark fiction asks. It asks them without remorse, without compromise. Most of us who write and read these kinds of stories abhor violence, and would not want to live in these places. We don’t get off on sliced jugulars. Those things are mere set dressing. The real heart of dark fiction is our own. We want to see a character toil through hardships, undergo challenges that have no easy solutions, and still remain a good person. These stories answer the unspoken question central to all our lives: is all this worth it? Our existence? Family, writing, work, eating our veggies, getting out of bed, smiling at that stranger next to us on the sidewalk?
These are mundane concerns, while the characters in our favorite stories fight to survive, living on the edge of rationality and unfettered primal reactions. In this information age we often have the luxury of shutting out what we don’t like: different beliefs, rival sports teams, unpalatable music, and even other people. Characters in dark fiction have no luxuries. Resisting the apathy around them becomes the priority. Defending themselves and those they care about from violence, destruction, or the decay of their inner selves. Even those that give in still teach us what not to do. There is knowledge in failure.
And when our characters survive these obstacles, and are better for it, we have the answer to that unspoken question. It is worth it. No matter what happens, who we lose in life, how many scars our hearts, bodies, and minds endure—it’s worth every damn bit of it. Life exists only because it never gave up. No matter the odds, it kept going.
Out of darkness, light emerges. Without that darkness, there would be no light.