Grimdark

Grimdark TMNT from 1d4chan. Artist unknown.

A tweet caught my attention Friday and I thought about responding, but it was a topic that would fill a lot more than a couple tweets and I was looking for something to write about anyway.

The gist: Why do people keep making that icky grimdark stuff? Nobody likes that crap!

My first thought was a somewhat defensive, “Well, I like it.”

Then my followup thought was a more pragmatic, capitalistic, “People probably keep making grimdark because other people keep buying it.”

Then my third thought was, “I’m not sure I could describe exactly what grimdark even is.”

When prompted to describe grimdark, @Runesael suggested shows like American Horror Story, True Detective, and Breaking Bad. I wouldn’t have described any of those shows as “grimdark.” Amercian Horror Story is, well, horror. True Detective is a police procedural drama, and Breaking Bad is … I don’t know … drama I guess? If I had to lump those three shows together I would just call them serious dramas. (Although personally, I thought Breaking Bad had a ton of laugh-out-loud funny moments mixed in with the seriousness. I mean, the very premise of the show is absurd.)

When I think of grimdark I think of settings like the one in Dark Souls. A place where death is fairly common, and maybe even UN-death is common. Places of dark magic and ritualistic sacrifice, where people struggle to survive. Places where the society and culture and civilization that we know has broken down or never got started.

Now let me look up how Wikipedia describes grimdark:

Grimdark is a subgenre or a way to describe the tone, style or setting of speculative fiction (especially fantasy) that is, depending on the definition used, markedly dystopian or amoral, or particularly violent or realistic.

How delightfully vague and unhelpful. I guess I was close. Upon further reflection, my definition above is probably more in the area of “dark fantasy” and/or “sword and sorcery” than “grimdark.” Among the many different competing definitions of grimdark, one common thread seems to be realism, which sort of precludes dark magic and the undead. And yet magic and undead are obviously allowed in grimdark because George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is often held up as the progenitor of the grimdark movement (or at least, the first commercial success).

Anyway, for myself, I never felt ASOIAF or Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series were abnormally dark or excessively violent. They are unremittingly realistic though, at least in terms of portraying a medieval society and how real, flawed people might behave in stressful medieval-like situations. I suppose they also share common traits of eschewing the idealism of high fantasy (and, I guess, old westerns), where the heroes wear white and the villains wear black and good triumphs over evil.

Now I want to see if I can answer the question, “Real life is already so grim, why add to it?”

First and most amusingly, that sounds disturbingly similar to a comment my mom made about one of my earliest short stories, way back in high school.

Secondly, everyone has a different view of life. All of us live in a world where I daresay most other people are not like us. (This is something I wish more people could wrap their heads around, particularly since the 2016 elections.) Your world might be grim and horrible, and if it is I’m truly sorry, and I completely understand wanting to avoid grim stories.

But my world right now is fairly banal and uneventful. During the course of my average day, there’s very little drama; I don’t have to make any life or death decisions, there is no difficulty finding food and water, there are no monsters trying to drink my blood (except ticks). I get up, go to work, sit in a cubicle all day, come home, and repeat the next day. The most exciting part of my day is turning left onto a busy highway each morning (I suppose you might call that a life or death decision). By the standards of most of history and the world, I live in a Utopian paradise like a king. (Lately it has become a bit grim, though, to be honest, but it’s mostly my own perception.) The point is, from my perspective, a grimdark story is just as much of an escapist fantasy as a fairy tale about frolicking pixies and prancing unicorns banishing evil with chocolate milk and love. (That was the most anti-grimdark thing I could think of.)

I don’t like grimdark stuff all the time, and I don’t like all grimdark. Grimdark just for grimdark’s sake is not enough to capture my imagination. Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns is a good example of how not to do grimdark–I don’t particularly like it because I can’t care about the main character’s vengeance unless I care about the character first. I don’t like ASOIAF because it’s grimdark, I like it because it’s a compelling story about compelling characters, written well.

Here’s a thought I just had: I wonder if “regular” fantasy consumers have an aversion to grimdark because of a lack of exposure to the horror genre. I started with science fiction and fantasy books, then sort of went exclusively into horror books for a long time, and then opened up to a broader range after that. Reading one of these so-called “grimdark” books is not too different from reading a horror book for me. They share some traits, like flawed characters and a grounding in reality.

Well, I’ve lost my train of thought now and don’t know where else to go. Let’s just pretend that I’ve made a great point and eloquently summed it up here.

One thought on “Grimdark”

  1. I like grimdark too, so you’re not the only one. Though my definition of it might be a little different than yours. I think of grimdark as mostly Warhammer 40k, the trope definer, where there is rarely any happy ending, all roads eventually lead to death, suffering, war or chaos and more importantly, good and bad isn’t black and white but all mixed up into a giant mess of grey morality, or not-very-good versus just plain worse.

    For the first, I enjoy the narrative drama inherent in the “fated” aspect of the unhappy ending. It makes the small good deeds various characters do in their life on the page even more poignant, in a way.

    For the second, I think shades of grey morality reflect real life a little more, as opposed to say, the escapist fantasy of Star Wars where Light and Dark oppose each other with capital letters. It’s a preference, I like the Iron Age of comics much more than the Golden or Silver age, for instance. I just feel that when morality is more grey, it’s more interesting story-wise when characters make the choice to do the right thing, or do the right thing for the wrong reasons or vice versa. The palette of drama is more limited when your good guys have to be white knight good and compassionate and the whole shebang, while your bad guys laugh maniacally and take their strategy out of the Evil Overlord’s playbook…

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