The Elements of Dark Fantasy

January 4, 2004

The Elements of Dark Fantasy

American Military University

HM214, Science Fiction and Fantasy

by James Landrith

Dark fantasy is a segment of fiction that features plots and themes involving fear, horror, supernatural or psychologically based elements (Roberts 31). Authors of dark fantasy span the field from nineteenth century writers like Elizabeth Gaskell and Edgar Allen Poe to twentieth century authors Shirley Jackson and Dean R. Koontz. Dark fantasy elements can be found in books, poetry and short stories. Additionally, radio, movie and television formats have also featured such themes.

The plots of dark fantasy often feature dramatic struggles against impending doom or a character battling against himself for control of his own sanity. These stories are differentiated from other forms of fantasy by their prominent lack of the high fantasy element of a happy ending or the ultimate triumph of good over evil. For instance, many of Edgar Allen Poe’s nineteenth century works involved elements of insanity, horror and intense psychological turmoil. The Tell-Tale Heart and The Raven are examples of Poe’s mastery of the psychological thriller in this realm of fiction. An early twentieth century example of such work would also be H.P. Lovecraft’s frightening story, The Picture in the House.

Another element of dark fantasy features storylines containing supernatural or mythological characterizations. Many early examples of dark fantasy featured ghosts and demons. Popular nineteenth century authors of dark fantasy often included such elements as legitimate characters, interacting with, or terrorizing the living.

Some usage of such characterizations can also occur as implied plot devices, leaving the reader to decide if such creatures are truly real entities or figments of the imaginations of living characters. One example is the story The Ghost in the Cap’n Brown House by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Mythological or supernatural creatures such as vampires, werewolves or the walking dead can also be found in the work of authors like Bram Stoker and Ambrose Bierce. Recent examples of dark fantasy containing supernatural or mythological creatures can also be found in the works of twentieth century greats Clive Barker, Stephen King and Anne Rice. Many of their books have also been brought to film and television, exposing dark fantasy to a much larger audience than it would enjoy in print alone.

Examples of Dark Fantasy in Short Story Form

Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell was a well-known nineteenth century novelist, in addition to writing a highly regarded biography of Emily Bronte (Parke 20). Using the vehicle of a ghost story, she weaved a tale of contrasts between extreme loyalty and devotion in the midst of tragic betrayal and rejection in The Old Nurse’s Story. This story also includes elements of the supernatural through the inclusion of the ghosts of Lord Furnivall, Miss Maude and her daughter. The elements of the haunting by vengeful spirits and the psychological drama played out via horrific past events, place this story firmly in the realm of dark fantasy.

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s The Ghost in the Cap’n Brown House was an excellent exercise in imagination run amok. This short story focuses on the twin themes of gossip and fear of the unknown. Cinthy Pendleton, a guest in the home of the mysterious Captain Brown, sets the action in motion by relaying her tale of a ghost sighting in Brown’s home to the townsfolk. As word of this ghost sighting spreads, the story soon evolves and grows as it travels across the village. In the end, we are left unsure as to the existence of this ghost. Was the ghost a figment of Pendleton and the townsfolk’s imaginations, or was there something more to the story? The use of a supernatural character, combined with the rampant speculation of the townspeople regarding the unknown, place this story in the area of dark fantasy.

The Three Marked Pennies, a short story by Mary Elizabeth Counselman incorporates two popular elements of dark fantasy. Fear and greed feature prominently in this perverse tale of choice and chance. As manifested via a mysterious coin contest, the citizens of Branton are confronted with an unreasonable choice between a small fortune, the trip of a lifetime or sudden death. The fear of the unknown as symbolized by the nameless, faceless sponsor of this coin contest when combined with the real possibility of death as a result of reckless greed, place this excellent story in the dark fantasy catalogue.

Adventure novelist Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Body Snatchers is another example of nineteenth century dark fantasy. This story presents an old theme through the use of doctors, considered to be among the most ethical of people, succumbing to the temptations of greed, dishonesty and violence. The educated and exalted falling prey to such primitive emotion alludes to the monster lurking within us all. In the end, we are left with the impression that if such elite individuals can lose their humanity and civility, then anyone can. Such dark messages are common in horror and dark fantasy themes.

The strange tale of The Damned Thing centered on the fear of the unknown and unseen. By focusing on these common fears, Ambrose Bierce was able to impart an atmosphere of dread and loathing to the reader by means of an invisible threat. Further, a sense of hopelessness and insanity are compounded through the tragedy that befalls Hugh Morgan in the end. These factors combined to create a dark fantasy utilizing psychological element of fear and supernatural ingredient of a killer monster.

Bram Stoker has created an exercise of supernatural terror and mystery through Dracula’s Guest. This story, through its use of darkness, supernatural monsters and the foreshadowing of impending doom creates an eerie environment for its unnamed protagonist. This story is a classic representation of our own fear of the dark and monsters that go bump in the night. As far as dark fantasy is concerned, this story has those elements through its use of supernatural characterizations and psychological drama.

To Serve Man is a twisted tale about letting our guard down and ignoring our better instincts. Through the use of supposedly benevolent aliens and an all too trusting populace, Damon Knight has effectively combined dark fantasy and science fiction in one short story. Knight has deployed the popular device of the mysterious stranger, as represented by the alien Kanamit race. By taking these visiting strangers at face value, instead of exercising instinctive caution, humanity falls prey to a horrific plot. This tale subtly reminds us that there is no such thing as a free lunch and that a healthy fear of strangers isn’t always a bad thing. By incorporating the classic devious stranger and a treacherous secret plot leading to ultimate doom, this story has earned its place in the category of dark fantasy.

Many of the short stories mentioned above were written by female authors, specifically The Old Nurse’s Story by Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell, The Ghost in the Cap’n Brown House by Harriet Beecher Stowe and The Three Marked Pennies by Mary Elizabeth Counselman. While the stores by Harriet Beecher Stowe and Mary Elizabeth Counselman were similar to those written by the male authors written above, Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell incorporated a bit extra into her story. In addition to the dark fantasy elements, Gaskell presented a subtle social message highlighting the inferior status of nineteenth century women. This message was communicated through the rejection and substandard treatment of Miss Maude by her father, Lord Furnivall. In addition, she reminded readers of the medical risks that women endured in that period through the death of Miss Rosamond’s mother during childbirth. This piece doubles as a ghost story and social commentary.

In closing, I am reminded of Stephen King’s thoughts on the topic of horror and dark fantasy writing, as repeated by Stephen J. Spignesi (85):

“I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find I that I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out. I’m not proud.”

This Stephen King quote clearly demonstrates to me that the path a particular dark fantasy may take can vary, so long as the end result is the same. As I’ve learned from the assigned readings and my new understanding of dark fantasy, this realm of writing is quite diverse in method of storytelling, characterization, and setting. It is my opinion that literature as a whole is better as a result of such diversity. Prior to enrolling in the Science Fiction and Fantasy course at American Military University, my understanding and appreciation of fantasy was limited by my misinterpretation of what was and was not considered fantasy. Through further readings on the subject of fantasy, I have reached a better understanding of the range of writings that can be considered fantasy (Rabkin 161).

Over the last fifteen years, I have read and enjoyed more dark fantasy than I realized. I now understand that many of my prized Anne Rice novels, several of the best Ray Bradbury stories and novellas and much of Stephen King’s work fall in the realm of dark fantasy. Much of the work I previously considered horror or science fiction are also dark fantasy tales.

Such tales provide a necessary, if disturbing, glimpse into the primitive depths of the human experience. From the psychological terrors of Edgar Allen Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, to the ghost stories of the nineteenth century, to modern masters like Stephen King and Anne Rice, dark fantasy gives the reader and viewer much to enjoy and celebrate.

Annotated Bibliography and Works Cited

Bierce, Ambrose. “The Damned Thing.” The Prentice Hall Anthology of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Ed. Garyn G. Roberts. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001. 80-86.

This nineteenth century short story incorporates several dark fantasy themes, including fear of death, psychological turmoil and monster characterization.

Counselman, M.E. “The Three Marked Pennies.” The Prentice Hall Anthology of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Ed. Garyn G. Roberts. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001. 120-125.

This short story presents dark fantasy themes via its incorporation of the mysterious stranger, temptation of greed and risk of death.

Gaskell, Elizabeth Cleghorn. “The Old Nurse’s Story.” The Prentice Hall Anthology of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Ed. Garyn G. Roberts. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001. 41-53.

This ghost story covers both dark fantasy themes and social commentary on the inferior status of nineteenth century women.

Knight, Damon. “To Serve Man.” The Prentice Hall Anthology of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Ed. Garyn G. Roberts. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001. 140-145.

This short story incorporates dark fantasy and science fiction through its use of the mysterious stranger, hidden motive and impending doom themes.

Lovecraft, H. P. “The Picture in the House.” Fantastic Worlds: Myths, Tales and Stories. Ed. Eric S. Rabkin. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979. 257-265.

Lovecraft’s short story centers around a dark, gloomy house and mysterious owner. The tale demonstrates several themes in dark fantasy: the mysterious stranger, gloomy surroundings and impending doom.

Parke, Catherine N. Biography: Writing Lives. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996.

Parke’s book discusses the art of biography and identifies key biographers and their impact on literature.

Rabkin, Eric S. Fantastic Worlds: Myths, Tales and Stories. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Rabkin’s anthology presents a wide-ranging review of fantasy writing through examples from assorted authors and short essays discussing the genre.

Roberts, Garyn G. The Prentice Hall Anthology of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001. 80-86.

This anthology presents an overview of the history of science fiction and fantasy. The genre is explored through essays, summaries and bibliographies. Further many classic examples of the genre are demonstrated through the inclusion of dozens of short stories.

Spignesi, Stephen J. The Essential Stephen King. Franklin Lakes, NJ: New Page Books, 2001.

Spignesi’s book reviews the literary contributions of Stephen King. The book provides summaries of each of King’s novels and major writing, along with rankings and observations regarding the impact of each writing on its genre.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. “The Body Snatcher.” The Prentice Hall Anthology of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Ed. Garyn G. Roberts. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001. 69-80.

A short story that demonstrates the fallibility of human beings of any stature through the use of temptation, greed and violence.

Stoker, Bram. “Dracula’s Guest.” The Prentice Hall Anthology of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Ed. Garyn G. Roberts. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001. 86-94.

This tale incorporates supernatural characterizations, fear of the dark and the mysterious stranger theme into its dark fantasy plotline.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. “The Ghost in the Cap’n Brown House.” The Prentice Hall Anthology of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Ed. Garyn G. Roberts. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001. 62-68.

A ghost story that presents a dark fantasy storyline through its use of the supernatural and the mysterious activities in the home of Captain Brown.


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