Readers of “dark fantasy” genre are amongst the most devout followers of current fiction. The immense popularity of Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” went “viral” before we used computers, and is still widely read, spawned role-playing games, similar literary works, and blockbuster Hollywood films. I’m not saying Tolkien stated dark fantasy, but his work led to a lot of what we see today.
What makes a story “dark fantasy?” The answers are generally vague. Usually the genre involves the “good guys” and the “bad guys” each or all as something beyond human; for example, the long time popularity of vampires in stories. Werewolves, zombies, ghosts also are frequent antagonists, with elves, dwarves, and human characters often as protagonists. Dragons tend to be longstanding favorites of medieval dark fantasy, and remain an interesting mythical creature as these monsters are seen in so many historic cultures.
Dark fantasy is often thought of as a medieval story with royalty housed in a castle, knights wielding great swords, and wizards weaving magical spells to either good or bad intentions. This type of world doesn’t define dark fantasy; for example, the hugely popular Harry Potter and Twilight series use similar characters in modern society. What is light to some is dark to others. I’ve seen LOTR quoted directly by a high profile minister, and I’ve known people that believe Harry Potter is the root of evil. “Twilight” is embraced by young popular culture and is a favorite of mothers because the platonic, romantic concept overrides the vampires and werewolves as potential dangers to society.
What draws readers and writers to dark fantasy stories? I believe the concept of good vs. evil by use of historic culture and mythical creatures stand out intensely and powerful in our minds. Even if we’re not experts in world history, most readers know the dark ages were a historic time of immense danger and bravery. Non-human creatures are parts of nursery rhymes and fairy tales that play into our imagination as we mature. To marginalize the real and un-real is what fantasy gives us, a break away from daily routine and immerses our minds into something completely different than the world we live in. The idea of danger without actually experiencing it yields mental stimulation by witnessing conflict and bravery that we read in books, graphic novels, and films.
Dark fantasy is “dark” because of the endangerment of innocence and presence of evil. I like to think of it like I do gangster films. When someone suggested gangster stories “glorify” crooks and murderers, I asked, “How often does it work out for the gangster?” In dark fantasy, how often does it work out for any evil creature; be it vampire, werewolf, wizard, or dragon? The good guys always win, often at great cost. It’s the cost that brings us back to reality and appreciation of what we actually have in this world.