Dark Fantasy as a Writing Genre: What is it anyway?

This is a guest post from Alan Baxter as part of his blog book tour for Realmshift and MageSign.

realmshiftMy novels RealmShift and MageSign are classified as a dark fantasy novels. They are also thrillers and action adventure stories, but primarily, by genre, dark fantasy. Subsequently I often get asked, What is dark fantasy exactly?

That’s actually a very difficult thing to define accurately. The truth is that any kind of genre definition can be hazy, but that’s especially true of the whole speculative fiction genre.

Where do you draw the line between fantasy and science fiction, for example? Star Wars is a prime candidate for that issue as it carries strong elements of both. It deals with ideas of magic (The Force), religion (Jedi Knights) and is also very much a science fiction movie with laser guns, space battles and clear cut heroes and villains. Generally people ignore the fantasy nature of it and concentrate on the science fiction. Arguably, it’s the fantasy elements of Star Wars that are the most important and engaging. But that’s another discussion altogether. My point is that any genre definition can be hard, and dark fantasy is perhaps the hardest of all to define.

Some people consider dark fantasy to be horror, which I disagree with. My books are often classified as horror and I’ve seen them on horror shelves, which is fine. But I don’t think of them as pure horror. Someone I spoke to once defined horror as being something designed to scare, and that’s a good definition. If something is fantasical or paranormal and deals with the darker side of life, darker emotions and psychological stresses, but doesn’t have, as its primary intention, the desire to scare readers, then it isn’t horror but would certainly qualify as dark fantasy.

Both RealmShift and MageSign are contemporary, set in the world we know and in our own time, but with many elements of magic, gods, demons and various other paranormal creatures and situations. They are often quite unpleasant in their characters and the things those people do. If I were to call these books fantasy, people would think first of swords and sorcery, which would be very inaccurate. If I were to call them horror, people would expect scary stories, which they (on the whole) aren’t. So perhaps dark fantasy is more a description of what something is not, rather than what it is.

Sometimes a definition can be clarified with comparisons. Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy is considered fantasy. I would call that dark fantasy as it deals with the darkness inside people and the black that follows the character of Ged. I would also call Neil Gaiman’s work dark fantasy, even though that is far removed from something like Earthsea. Interestingly, the fact that Gaiman’s novel American Gods won three major awards, one recognised as primarily a horror award, one recognised as a sci-fi award and one recognised as a fantasy award, goes some way to demonstrating how hard a time people had categorising that novel. I think dark fantasy is the perfect category for it. I read American Gods after people started drawing comparisons between it and RealmShift. I’d only previously read his Sandman comics (which, incidentally, I would also classify as dark fantasy).

I think a lot of Stephen King’s and Dean Koontz’s books would also be better classified as dark fantasy rather than horror, but they are both authors that certainly blur the lines between those two genres. More recently I read Brent Weeks’ Night Angel Trilogy and that would be dark fantasy as well in my mind.

What about films? The movie Dark City would be a good example. It’s certainly fantastical, it’s often scary, but it’s not a horror film. The movie The Prophecy would fit in there too, for the same reasons.

So, to me, a work is dark fantasy if it deals with any elements of fantasy and/or the paranormal in a way that studies the dark and frightening side of our nature, psychology and the weird, sublime and uncanny. If it doesn’t shy away from the gore and horror of its own darkness, yet doesn’t primarily aim to spook. If it has heroes that are not knights in shining armour, but people that sometimes have to do unsavoury things. If it has villains that aren’t necessarily all bad as well as villains that really are all bad. If it’s dark and twisted and delves into the depths of speculative fiction, without primarily aiming to scare or gross out its readers, then it’s dark fantasy.

It is definitely a very hard thing to pin down with a single definition, but it is far and away the best definition for many things that don’t quite fit within the generally accepted genres of fantasy or horror. And I certainly don’t claim to be the final authority. I’m wide open to any other comments people might have on the subject.


Alan BaxterAlan Baxter is the author of the dark fantasy thrillers RealmShift and MageSign. RealmShift has been described as “inventive”, “action-packed”, “thought provoking”, “a novel I am loathe to put down”, “fast paced and full of vibrancy”.

MageSign has been called “a fast-paced ride through a visceral reality which holds a mirror up to today’s apathetic society”, “a fast paced supernatural adventure that will leave readers rethinking how they view the Cosmos”, “…a gritty tale of blood rituals, mystery, and mysticism… grabs hold of the reader and doesn’t let go.”

Both books are available from indie publisher Blade Red Press in multiple formats at multiple locations.

Print editions from Amazon.com



Kindle editions from Amazon.com



Multiple format ebooks from Smashwords.com

RealmShift – https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/376

MageSign – https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/1072

You can also contact the publisher directly at http://www.blade-red.com

Learn all about the author, read Alan’s blog and read lots of free short fiction, a novella and the first three chapters of both RealmShift and MageSign at Alan’s website: http://www.alanbaxteronline.com

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  1. says

    Hi Jo

    Thanks for your support on the blog book tour! If anyone has anything they want to add to the article – thoughts, disagreements, further examples, etc. – please chime in. I’ll try to check in at least daily.

    • says

      As a philosopher (historian and metaphysician) I can follow your argument without any effort. What you are hinting at is condensed in two notions: (1) idealized heroes and villains (2) realistic heroes and villains. See, it’s about realism and idealism – much is about that, not just in literature and in philosophy. I want to have my Seventh Son of a Seventh Son trilogy dark, and exactly in the sense you described, Alan! Dark and Celtic, and yet – I want real LOVE to be the idealistic element in it, even if this may sound paradoxical to some.

  2. says

    Interesting post and I tend to agree that the genre straddles between horror and fantasy.

    One person I kind of define in the genre is China Mieville. Would you say so?

  3. says

    Hi Ben

    Interesting comment – I recently picked up Perdido Street Station after having Mieville repeatedly recommended to me. I haven’t got around to reading it yet, but I’m even more interested to do so now!

  4. says

    Hi :)
    Alan Baxter’s books are on my ToBeRead pile.
    Dark Fantasy. A lot of the books I love are in that category. I am drawn to it.
    Thanks for sharing.
    A great blog post.

  5. says

    Hi Rob

    Thanks for the kind words. Great to hear that you’re planning to read the books. Be sure to let me know what you think when you get around to reading them. You can find my email on my website – always happy to hear reader responses.

  6. says

    So perhaps dark fantasy is more a description of what something is not, rather than what it is.

    I like this.

    Interesting post and perspective, Alan. My TBR pile has grown again!

  7. says

    Hi Stephanie

    Thanks very much! Sorry to increase your TBR pile (I know that my own scares me sometimes) but I hope it’s worth it. Let me know.

  8. says

    Hi all, sorry to be late to the party, been unusually hectic.

    Dark fantasy: I find any mention of the word fantasy tends to confuse readers as to the content.

    I’m a big fan of dark speculative fiction, but then most readers have no idea what constitutes speculative when labelling genres.

    Saying something is dark automatically has readers leaning toward horror.

    So I think we need to re-educate readers so they no longer associate the dark genres with the slasher/gore fests of the 1980s.

    Dark writings equal disturbing reading, i.e. The author has set out to expose the reader to the darker side of life with the aim of provoking an emotional response.

    I think this is a topic which will be debated for a long time to come. Nice article.

  9. says

    Hi BT. I like this bit: “The author has set out to expose the reader to the darker side of life with the aim of provoking an emotional response.” That’s a good dscription.

    I always prefer speculative fiction over fantasy, sci fi or horror, as it’s a less constricting genre definition. Dark speculative fiction, or even just dark fiction, is a good good term but one that may confuse potential readers as much as dark fantasy.

    I think you’re dead right when you suggest that this is something that will be debated for a long time!

  10. says

    Hey Alan!

    Great article. I love that we have dark fantasy as a genre. I often straddle the line between fantasy and horror in my own writing but didn’t realize this was a thing until someone told me my book scared the bejeezus out of them.
    A melding of horror and fantasy seems to me to be the perfect mix of darkness and hope that one can find.


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