Monday, March 23, 2015

Dark Fantasy and Francis Stevens-Part Two

Thankfully, in his introduction to The Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy by Francis Stevens (2004), editor Gary Hoppenstand defines dark fantasy, at least for the purposes of his essay:
Dark fantasy is defined as a type of horror story (possibly containing science fiction and fantasy elements) in which humanity is threatened with destruction by hostile cosmic forces beyond the normal ken of mortals.
Mr. Hoppenstand adds a second sentence to his definition, but the first seems to get to the heart of things. Anyway, here is the second sentence:
Within the larger genre of horror fiction, dark fantasy expresses a macabre existential variant, one that envisions a desperately weak worldview in which stereotyped notions of courage and heroism fail when confronted by the overwhelming presence of ancient and unfathomable evils. (p. ix)
There's a fair amount of academic gobbledygook in that sentence. Nonetheless, it expands a little on the preceding one.

The two sentences quoted above are near the beginning of Dr. Hoppenstand's essay. Here is more from near the end:
[Dark fantasy was] a new type of horror and fantasy story that evolved out of the apocalyptic calamity of World War I, one that posits the danger of forbidden knowledge and an ultimate lack of human understanding (and control) over such banal concepts as "good" and "evil." Dark fantasy is nihilistic fiction in its prediction (directly or indirectly) of a terrible end to our world that we inhabit in blissful ignorance. (p. xxiv)
That last phrase--"blissful ignorance"--echoes the sentiment in the opening paragraph of "The Call of Cthulhu" by H.P. Lovecraft:
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
So we have a workable definition: "Dark fantasy . . . is a type of horror story in which humanity is threatened with destruction by hostile cosmic forces beyond the normal ken of mortals." That sounds like the devil to me, but as Fritz Leiber, Jr., pointed out, Satan and his hosts have lost prestige in the face of a "decline of at least naive belief in Christian theology." (1) That's why I added that part from near the end of Mr. Hoppenstand's introduction, for it seems to me that an essential part of the definition of dark fantasy is this: "Dark fantasy is nihilistic fiction . . . ." As such, it is well suited to our age and to the writers and readers of our age, so many of whom seem to have lost their way, their faith, and their sense of place in the universe. As a result, they have adopted a nihilistic worldview.

If those things are true, it should come as no surprise that dark fantasy is a new genre--not new as in World-War-I-new, but new as in the last-decade-or-two-new. And it's no wonder that there is disagreement over who created it. Another reason I added that part near the end of the introduction of The Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy is that it mentions World War I. That war--the war to end all wars--was without a doubt a calamity, an utter disaster for Western civilization and for Christendom, and the event that ushered in this past century of disasters and horrors. Depending on your interpretation, the war was a culmination, an ultimate expression, or a kind of beginning of European decadence in the extreme. There are reasons to believe that we now live in a time of extreme decadence as well and that we could be on the verge of further disasters. Again, it's no surprise that dark fantasy--if there is such a thing--would have come from the World War I years, that it would have been named and described only recently, and that it should prove so popular today.

To be continued . . . 

Notes
(1) See yesterday's article.

Original text copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley

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