“Dark” as a descriptive term for literature has as many connotations as interpretations. To some it means a story that is scary, horrifying, thrilling, grotesque, disquieting, or perhaps demented or depraved. Some say “dark” to convey a novel bereft of humor, or characters devoid of goodness, while to others the term equals a hundred-thousand-plus words of a protagonist in imminent danger and no happily-ever-after. “Dark humor” has been used to label someone who laughs at the macabre, but it also implies a person lacking in fundamental human compassion.
I like the idea of “dark” as a term to describe a book which fails to find further classification, one that doesn’t fit solidly into any one category—suspense, horror, fantasy, et al—though it could essentially span several.
The first truly dark work I experienced came at the age of thirteen when I checked out The Satanic Mill by Otfried Preussler from my school library. Translated from the original Russian, the name is something of a misnomer, for the mill has little to do with Satan. Rather, this is a story that explores the terrible attraction of evil and demonstrates how evil as a compelling force has an ability to enslave the minds and will of men, regardless of their innocence or lack thereof. It is one of the creepiest stories I’ve ever read—but especially when experienced at thirteen. I recall only snippets of the story itself, so many years later, but I still shudder at the sense of ill the story left veiled around me.
Anyone who has read anything by Edgar Allen Poe will likely agree with using “dark” to describe his work. Few authors are as accomplished at crafting stories as intensely unsettling as Poe’s. The Tell-tale Heart, The Fall of the House of Usher, the terrifying yet captivating The Raven—each story takes you to a precipice where hope is lost. Yet Poe’s tales are so delicately told, they can hardly be classified as horror in the modern sense. Poe’s elegant mastery of the written word demonstrates how a story can be horrifying without assaulting our senses.
Another novel that fits our dark description is Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour. This is the story of a vengeful spirit who, over the course of several centuries, corrupts and manipulates a family of witches into becoming a vessel for his being. The tale is fraught with darkness woven in Rice’s unique, elegant style—from the dappled bougainvillea, where the spirit named Lasher often appears as a handsome man, to the simmering shadows within the Mayfair manor which hide the witches’ tormented pasts. To Lasher himself, a coldly calculating yet compellingly handsome ghost, who seduces and bedazzles and oxidizes each witch’s innocence into something unrecognizable.
Finally, we come to Stephen King’s The Stand. King’s masterwork depicts an America without 99% of its population, where a second wave of deaths would follow in the wake of a national plague as men and women unequipped to endure an apocalyptic existence took their own or each others lives. Upon this battered tapestry the real story plays out. It’s a struggle for domination over the survivors, a battle between good and evil as represented by the old woman Mother Abigail and the dark man Randall Flag, respectively. King mixes an amalgam of the best of suspense, horror and fantasy in this epic tale, which “dark” barely begins to describe.
About the Author
Melissa McPhail is a classically trained pianist, violinist and composer, a Vinyasa yoga instructor, and an avid Fantasy reader. A long-time student of philosophy, she is passionate about the Fantasy genre because of its inherent philosophical explorations.
Ms. McPhail lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband, their twin daughters and two very large cats. Cephrael's Hand, the first novel in her series, "A Pattern of Shadow & Light," won Best Fiction and Best SF/F from the Written Arts Awards and was a ForeWord Book of the Year Finalist. The second novel in the series, The Dagger of Adendigaeth, will be released this fall.