This isn’t the first time I’ve discussed the grimdark. I keep worrying the subject, like a bad hangnail. Part of it is because whenever a discussion arises about grimdark, I am asked to participate. I’ve noticed some readers tend to see an overlap between grimdark and horror. While there are numerous similarities between the two, grimdark and horror are not the same.
Since I don’t write grimdark—I write dark fantasy (what Charles L. Grant called “quiet horror”)—I wanted to discover the characteristics that sets horror apart from grimdark. However, before I could understand the differences between the two, I had to begin with clear definitions as to what constitutes horror and grimdark.
Horror is defined as literature which is written with the intention of inflicting the emotions of fear or terror. Not many will disagree with that definition. Horror can then be divided into two very broad camps of either supernatural horror or psychological thrillers. Since psychological thrillers tend to have no fantastical elements, I’m confining my discussion to the differences between supernatural horror and grimdark.
Unlike horror, grimdark doesn’t fall neatly into one clean definition. Whenever people are asked to define grimdark, the discussion frequently rolls around words like “gritty,” “nihilistic,” “realistic,” before finally descending into the classic pornography/obscenity argument: “I know it when I see it.”
I did discover two often cited definitions for grimdark—though I consider both of these definitions to be flawed.
The first comes from the Urban Dictionary, which defines grimdark as:
“An adjective taken from the root words of grim and darkness, both of which are featured in the tagline for Warhammer 40,000: ‘In the grim darkness of the far future there is only war.’ It is usually used to describe a setting that would equal poor living conditions and life expectancies for those actually living in it.”
Of course, “… a setting that would equal poor living conditions and life expectancies for those actually living in it …” also describes just about every YA dystopian novel that’s been released since The Hunger Games.
However, none of us would actually classify YA dystopias as grimdark. These books generally tend to focus on young people bringing light out of darkness by having the courage to change the world around them. That is the precise opposite of the nihilism experienced in most grimdark novels. Therefore, the Urban Dictionary misses the mark for being overly broad.
The Wikipedia definition attempts to narrow the field somewhat with:
“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.”
That is closer to the mark. I would have liked that definition better if the author had stopped at “violent.” I dislike the word “realistic” being attributed to grimdark fiction. Frankly, grimdark is no more realistic than supernatural horror. The difference between the two genres revolves not around realism, but around the use of the supernatural forces in the story.
No one argues that grimdark literature cannot feature fantastical elements such as magic. Joe Abercrombie has wizards and an entire hierarchy of Magi; Mark Lawrence gives us a Dead King, who is a necromancer; Michael R. Fletcher has delusions manifesting as living, breathing creatures. If I dig around some more, I’ll find others.
After reading several grimdark novels, and one most excellent supernatural horror novel that can stand up to the comparison, I realized something very important: what separates grimdark from horror is the agency given to the supernatural.
In most grimdark literature, the supernatural is a passive force controlled by humans, whereas in horror, the supernatural becomes an active entity with agency.
A good contrast is Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself, or Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns against Christopher Buehlman’s Between Two Fires. Abercrombie’s and Lawrence’s works are grimdark while Buehlman’s novel is clearly horror.
In both The Blade Itself and Prince of Thorns the antagonists are all quite mortal. Realism is negated by fantastical elements such as the commonplace acceptance of magic. However, in both novels, the magic is a passive force manipulated by the mortals.
A superficial examination of Between Two Fires might lead one to think of Buehlman’s novel as grimdark. It has some of the hallmarks of grimdark literature: a dystopian environment in the form of the plague blazing through France in 1348; a fallen knight; amoral people are everywhere, looking to take advantage of others.
The story satisfies the “realistic” aspect of the definition, in that the bubonic plague existed, fallen knights turned to marauding in order to survive, and a dystopian society began feeding on itself. Yet Between Two Fires is clearly horror, because the supernatural forces in Between Two Fires have agency.
The very first chapter describes the angels—not the humans—and these angels are not passive. They are actively attempting to destroy human beings in order to provoke God. Uzziel brings the rains down in order to drown the crops; Beliel rises up and blows pride into the mouth of a king, thereby starting a war; then Lucifer shows up and all hell breaks loose. The angels and their machinations remain an active force, independent of mortal interference, throughout the novel.
Having humans as the story’s focal points does not necessarily make the story more realistic. I mean, let’s face it—Buehlman’s Thomas is just as mortal as Abercrombie’s Logen Ninefingers or Lawrence’s Jorg. It is not the realism of their respective stories that separates them—it is the usage of the supernatural forces within these stories.
Perhaps a better definition of grimdark would be:
“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 graphic in its depiction of violence. In most grimdark literature the supernatural is a passive force, controlled by humans—unlike supernatural horror where the preternatural forces are most often an active entity with agency.”
This would eliminate that niggling word “realistic” from the equation, and also establish the distinguishing traits between grimdark and horror. In the long run, a clearer definition helps grimdark to stand out as its own literary form. Once we know how to describe grimdark, we can then discuss the stories on their own merits, without confusing them with horror.
T. Frohock has turned her love of dark fantasy and horror into tales of deliciously creepy fiction. She is the author of the Los Nefilim series: In Midnight’s Silence and most recently Without Light or Guide. She currently lives in North Carolina where she has long been accused of telling stories, which is a southern colloquialism for lying.