Fear and Shadows: The Line Between Horror and Dark Fantasy

Fear and Shadows: The Line Between Horror and Dark Fantasy

Characters deal with horrid things: Lois McMaster Bujold puts Miles Vorkosigan’s brother through hell in her novel Mirror Dance. In Crystal Rain Tobias Buckell has “Azteca” warriors sacrifice people to bloodthirsty alien “gods.” C.J. Cherryh subjects a character to sexual abuse in the name of technological immortality, in Cyteen. Joe Haldeman (in “For White Hill”) lets aliens cause the stars to age prematurely in every human–inhabited system. Horrid things, really. Does skinning someone, killing all of humanity, sexual abuse of children make it horror? No, for in the end Mile’s brother makes peace with himself and finds a family, Cherryh’s young Justin Warrick breaks free of his conditioning, the Azteca are beaten back, and even in Haldeman’s piece the art and the beauty humanity created lives on.

So, abusing your character does not make it horror. Dark, perhaps, but not horror.

J.R.R. Tolkien once said that all the years when things go well don’t make for good tales. He’s right.

Let’s be honest: A lack of tension is boring. If the character has something to lose, and fights to keep it and fears loss… well, in a good story we are swept along with that character. We feel his fear. If the character is adeptly drawn we want her desperately to succeed. Of course in a happy ending, our character gets what they want. That’s obviously not horror. In a bittersweet story there are gains and losses. Something good comes out of it, if you will. But then does a, “Sorry, you lose” ending make a story horror? Not necessarily. What if losing something was the honorable thing to do?

Well, then, what of horror tropes? Ghosts, death, decay, withering loss… Abyss & Apex has them all. And there’s not a horror story in the lot.

Jim Van Pelt says that, to him, horror means ripping back the veil that nothing but horror underlies all the kind assumptions we make about life having meaning and making sense. It’s an “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,” sort of grand revelation that all is destined to end in ruin and nothing matters. This sort of story is not an Abyss & Apex story.

Dawn always follows night? In Abyss & Apex it does. Even if it’s a cloudy dawn and the mood of the new day is bittersweet.