Another old wise man once said that there is nothing new under the sun. So is dark fantasy really new? I'm not so sure. Here is Gary Hoppenstand's two-part definition of the genre (or sub-genre, or sub-sub-genre):
"Dark fantasy . . . is a a type of horror story in which humanity is threatened with destruction by hostile cosmic forces beyond the normal ken of mortals."
"Dark fantasy is nihilistic fiction . . . ."
I should point out that the words are his but their juxtaposition here is mine.
If you accept just the first part, then it seems to me that there have been tales of dark fantasy since the beginning of time, for we have always been "threatened with destruction from hostile cosmic forces beyond the normal ken of mortals." The most obvious example is of the gods, devils, demons, and supernatural monsters of mythology, organized religion, and folklore, more specifically, Satan his bad self. In fact, I would say that "destruction by hostile cosmic forces beyond the normal ken of mortals" is one possible definition of evil. But if God is dead and there is no such thing as evil--in other words, if nihilism is just one of many reasonable ways of looking at the world--then maybe dark fantasy is something new after all, for God's death is a recent phenomenon, probably dating from--you guessed it--the nineteenth century.
On the other hand, if dark fantasy arose as Christian belief declined, then could there not have been tales of dark fantasy from the pre-Christian era, either before Christ or before Europe was Christianized? My first thought is of the epic Beowulf, written down in the Christian era but told of pre-Christian days. My second is of ancient Greek myths couched in stoicism. Also, if dark fantasy arose as a result of the disaster of World War I, could there not have been tales of dark fantasy from other disastrous times in European history, when God seemed to have withdrawn from involvement in human affairs and the universe to have become incomprehensible? The time of the Black Plague would seem an obvious example of that.
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Again the question: Is dark fantasy a new genre? If so, who created it? It seems to me that if you're creating something, you might know that you're creating it. By that measure, Francis Stevens may not have been the creator. But then we'll never know, as we don't have anything from her outside her own stories (or nothing that I'm aware of anyway). In that case, H.P. Lovecraft presents himself as the more likely creator. However, that assumes that all creation is a conscious process. You won't go very far with an assumption like that. I think the thing to do is to look at the stories of Francis Stevens and see what pops up. That's next in this series.
Original text copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley