A Grim And Dark Debate
What Is Grimdark?
In the dark depths of internet comment sections and writer’s groups, there has been a discussion going on. It may have passed beneath your notice as you scroll in search of the next great read, the next great author and the anticipated release of author X’s brand new book, but rest assured that the debate is there somewhere if you move in certain circles. I warn you: the subject is quite contentious and can become fairly heated … but I’m not scared. I’m here to explore the question, to have a look at its history and see if we can’t answer the question. That, or just provide a good article to read and maybe introduce you to a genre of fiction you may be unaware of … or unaware you were unaware perhaps …
So, what the hell is Grimdark??
This is the contentious question at hand, the one which has readers all over the world in a lather trying to definitively answer it once and for all. The problem is that it’s such a movable feast. Like horror, there are many different takes on what makes it what it is and why. People do seem to be very precious about these things, don’t they?
The difficulty is that Grimdark is an amalgam of a few different things. It often takes in elements of sci-fi, fantasy, dystopian fiction, apocalyptic fiction and urban fantasy. Broadly, it’s considered a subgenre of fantasy, but it is far more than that. Intrigued? Well, let me tell you some more …
The term “grimdark,” as far as I’m aware, was first coined to describe the Warhammer 40k stories which came to light in the early 90’s. These books, charting the history of the legendary Space Marines, were a companion to the popular tabletop games sold in Games Workshop stores all over the world. In a far future, Earth is ruled by the Emperor of Mankind, policed by his experimental, superhuman Space Marines. During the events of the 40k stories, the Emperor’s favourite son, Horus, is corrupted by evil, demon forces and forms the Chaos Marines. Following the Siege Of Terra, the Universe is plunged into a perpetual war against the forces of Chaos, travelling to far-flung worlds to purge their influence.
Black Library, the publishing wing of Games Workshop, has published a plethora of books in this universe, with writers like Dan Abnett, Adam Demsky-Boden and William King contributing series, individual books and short stories. Their online magazine, Hammer and Bolter, gave new writers a pathway into the publishing world and a way to become involved in the 40k universe themselves. They branched out too, creating the Warhammer Fantasy and, latterly, Warhammer Horror strands of books in recent years.
So, mystery solved. It all started with Warhammer, and that’s what grimdark is, right? Right?
Well, no. The debate rages on. Warhammer must’ve been inspired by something. Grimdark didn’t just start with Warhammer. What came before? Where is the genesis of this subgenre?
I guess it helps to examine what characterises grimdark, wouldn’t it? In itself, that isn’t easy because it takes from a lot of areas. It can lean heavily into scifi, but it doesn’t always. It leans heavily into fantasy, but not always. It can be both, but not always. There are some hallmarks which do generally ring throughout the books regarded as grimdark though. Firstly, as the epithet would suggest, they are grim, dark stories. They’re often gory, and eschew the usually nice and colourful worlds often displayed in fantasy. They also don’t make a lot of use of magical tropes, and if they do, there is often a very rational explanation for the magic. Unlike fantasy, the characters are not archetypes of how we’d like to view ourselves, nor are there avatars for pure evil. Generally, the characters are very relatable, very real people who are capable of doing both good and bad things. The situations these characters are thrown into are often very bleak, with little hope of salvation. They are from broken worlds, or are broken themselves. The endings are very seldom happy ones, but entirely make sense for the characters portrayed in the stories.
So, in a nutshell, that’s what grimdark seems to be … except when it isn’t, I suppose. The above is what I’ve seen most of, and does appear to be the main traits of the genre. I’m sure we can all think of many writers and works which would fit the description, and ones which were published long before Games Workshop created Warhammer back in 1989.
Although it could be argued that Robert E. Howard began the movement in the 30’s, with the Conan series, it was generally classified as “swords and sorcery” and dismissed. It would take 40 years for Michael Moorcock and Stephen Donaldson to make another break from the usual fantasy tropes and create a darker, more gritty version of the genre long before grimdark was ever invented as a term. Elric of Melnibone holds all the hallmarks, as does the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant series. Both examples bookended the 70’s, and foreshadowed a direction for fantasy into the 80’s and 90’s. Did they spawn the movement which was to become grimdark? Perhaps …
Glen Cook took up the mantle for the darker edge of fantasy with his Black Company series from 1984 onwards.
The 90’s was when grimdark really began to take hold, with more writers than ever taking the path of the darkest, grittiest fantasy. Names like C.S Friedman, Robin Hobb, Andrzej Sapkowski emerged to further the cause, as well as the aforementioned Warhammer rise to prominence. As the 90’s progressed, George RR Martin began the Song of Ice and Fire cycle, which has quickly become one of the blueprints for grimdark and given rise to arguably the most successful fantasy series of all time, spawning a long running TV series and spin off series in the works.
Which brings us to today, and the argument about what grimdark is, who writes it and who “owns” the term. Honestly, I find those arguments a little tedious in the 21st century, generally held by people who want to gatekeep the kool gang for the kool kids. Grimdark is, for me, the edgier side of scifi and fantasy, marrying horror to the dreamscapes we create. In my eyes, some Clive Barker could be described as grimdark (The Great and Secret Show, Everville, Imajica,) as could some Stephen King works (The Talisman, The Dark Tower Series.) Alongside those names, we have writers like Brian McClellan, Brian Staveley, David Anthony Durham, Scott Oden carrying the torch. Joe Abercrombie, has risen to prominence as the master of the genre with his First Law and Great Leveller trilogies. It’s a burgeoning scene, with scope for more to be added to it as writers begin to recognise the possibilities within it. Grimdark is often frowned upon, as the horror genre has been throughout its history. It’s where the subversives hang out and play, where the dark light is cast on humanity and we show it for what it truly is. It’s not comfortable, and why the hell should it be?
So, what is grimdark? It’s possibly the most exciting genre outside horror, and I’m loving it.
Banner Image: John Blanche
Paul Flewitt is a horror and dark fantasy writer from Sheffield, UK, where he lives with his wife and two children.
Paul began publishing in 2012, beginning with the flash fiction story, Smoke, for OzHorrorCon’s Book of the Tribes anthology. He went on to pen further short stories, including Paradise Park, Climbing Out, Apartment 16c and Always Beneath.
In 2012, he also published his first novel, Poor Jeffrey, which was received to much critical acclaim.
Paul cites writers such as Clive Barker, Stephen King, James Herbert and JRR Tolkien as inspirations on his own writing.
Paul continues to write, contributing to Matt Shaw’s The Many Deaths of Edgar Allan Poe anthology in 2020 with The Last Horror of Dear Eddie. He also began releasing free short stories and fanfiction on his Wattpad account for fun.
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