When I was a kid, I had an extremely irrational, and frankly, quite annoying fear of the dark. My mum and older brother who, admittedly made some very bad (good) parenting choices when raising me, kind of had a “he can handle most things” attitude. We watched the entirety of Blade 2 with Wesley Snipes when I was just 3 years old, which promptly made me release the contents of my stomach onto the living room floor after the movie ended. I’m guessing my mum thought nothing of it, because for the next few years, I was exposed to significantly more mature and dark movies, including the horrific Grudge, which gave me extreme anxiety and sleepless nights for a few weeks even though I only watched the very end of it. My worst memory was watching Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban right after it was released to video. I begged my parents to buy it, but after reading a certain Tintin book and then watching the movie, I woke up that same night, having experienced my first wave of night terrors, delusional and feverish. I carried an irrational fear of werewolves for at least a decade after that. Needless to say, my mum never allowed me near Harry Potter again, and she monitored me as best as a mother working 5-7 on a normal day could. Thus began the censorship of my childhood, leading to the banning of many things including Avatar the Last Airbender, Courage the Cowardly Dog and the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. My older brother on the other hand, couldn’t care less, and we indulged in whatever suited our fancies as long as it contained no nudity or sex. However, by the time I was 8, I could barely sleep in a lit room. My fear had also manifested into extreme anxiety and I was afraid of what I thought hid behind every post and beyond my vision.
So after this, you’d think that I would become an absolute pussy, afraid of every bump in the night with an aversion to anything remotely frightening…no. As I’ve said before, two of my favourite genres of all time are Dark Fantasy, and Grimdark. Two genres not at all for the faint of heart, with themes of excessive violence, hatred, and hopelessness. Even from as early as 11, only a year or so after the end of (most) my night terrors and sleepless nights, I was staying up until 1 AM, reaching Level 35 in CoD Black Ops Zombies with my childhood friend. Not a year later, my friends and I would usually be huddled around a laptop playing Dead Space in the darkest hours of the night. What could illicit such a prompt recovery? Well, firstly, Dark Fantasy and Grimdark are extremely unique. They are a subgenre, and when these works of fiction reach the ears of the mainstream audience, they are extremely good. That’s because the best Grimdark authors, are extremely good writers, and they need to be in order to sell to the more tame people. There’s a reason A Song of Ice and Fire is so popular, or that Dredd 3D managed to gather some success at least, or that The Witcher series achieved widespread recognition and get turned into an incredibly popular video game series. And its not just these examples, Grimdark and Dark Fantasy pop up wherever you look, because their fan base is both loyal, and a little crazy.
Even if you don’t like them, never played, watched or read them, you’ll have heard of them and the widespread fame they illicit from their fan bases. Look at Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, Kentaro Miura’s manga Berserk, easily one of my favourite manga, and of course, the hellish Dark Souls trilogy, and my personal favourite, Bloodborne, its spiritual successor. They’re famous, and extremely good because they do something that most works of fiction don’t do. They portray a painfully realistic, depressing and morbid world, whether it is one that bears a likeness to the past, or one that hints towards a future so evil that people today would slit their throats before living one day there. I mean, admit it, you’d think twice before even considering to be a Stark in Westeros. But, in all these works, there’s an element of reality in them. Both Kentaro Miura and George R.R. Martin take inspiration from historical settings. Warhammer 40K, which has lore that stretches back to the 80s I think, paints a dark future, which, while incredibly fantastical, paints a picture of the future that is very realistic when one comes to think about it. Not the Psykers and Daemons of the Warp, but the rampant xenophobia against alien races, the fanatic worship of a man as god far surpassing zealotry, and the extermination of “heretics”. Of course, to be fair I’d hate Chaos Cultists as well…moving on.
These factors are extremely important in attracting an audience that is more mature, slightly darker, and who are not phased by portrayals of violence, or sex, or religion that are totally unacceptable in today’s society, even if they are completely true or semi-accurate. And when theses curious minds begin to immerse themselves in these genres, they are poised with important, but highly philosophical questions of morality, “truth”, and even love. If you were to read Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire Trilogyy, which is arguably on the same level, or even better than A Song of Ice and Fire, you could clearly see the similarities, as well as things that set it apart in some places, even above its rival work of fiction. These are works of fiction that portray the world with the same level of disillusionment most people get as they grow older. An Anti-Tolkien sentiment where morality is painted in monochrome shades much like it is in today’s world to those who have seen enough of the world to realise this simple fact. That life is cruel, and that to stay sane, or survive, people cling onto whatever idealogy, creed or way of life they can to justify their encroaching death at whatever time it comes. And in some ways, Grimdark helps people come to terms with that reality in a disturbing, often bloody way. That life is short, and often times unfair, and that as bad as the world truly is, we are granted some peace and amenities from which we can truly live in our own way, with our own choices, and our own repercussions.
Whatever your preferences are, Grimdark and Dark Fantasy will continue to exist so long as human malice does, which I should think, is forever. But it is a reminder of what we were, what we could be, but also, what we can prevent from happening.
Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.
–Imperial Guard Tactical Manual