It Is Darkest Before the Grimdark

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There’s been a lot of talk about “grimdark” of late in the old blogosphere. Assertions, contentions, defamation, an inability to agree on a definition, all over the map really. Some folks describe grimdark as any fantasy that exhibits rampant nihilism, a miserable setting overflowing with depravity, gratuitous violence, gleeful misogyny, filled with characters that are twelve shades of villain or possibly anti-hero, but no shades of decent human being or “good guy.” Others subscribe to the idea that it’s just a natural counterpoint to over-sanitized high or heroic fantasy—grittier, dirtier, more “real” (whatever the hell that means), and unafraid to explore the ugly side of humanity, but not necessarily gutted and hopeless. I’m sure there are probably other theories besides.


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But regardless of how you define grimdark or whether you think it is cathartic, irredeemable, honest, or monstrous—that kind of storytelling isn’t anything radically new. Tales of horror, xenophobia, misery, woe and wrath, vengeance and terror, cynicism and calamity have enjoyed stretches of popularity since the dawn of storytelling.  


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There are plenty of stories in the Bible that are more gruesome than anything I’ve read in the last twenty years. It’s chock full of genocide, fratricide, rape, mass extinction, fun stuff like that. Leave it to Lego to capture some of the heavy hitters, but that obviously doesn’t do real justice to just how awful and terrifying a lot of biblical stories are. Adam and Eve mucked everything up, begetting Cain and Abel and some other guy, and Cain brained his brother just to show, yep, we’re all damaged goods. There is a whole lot more begetting in there, and some sunshine now and again, but the lesson learned over and over is that humanity excels at sucking and dooming itself, no matter how many chances it gets.


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And the grumpy Old Testament God might have been the original grimdark author, but inspired plenty more. Greek tragedies don’t get as much play nowadays as they used to, but there is a very good reason “tragedy” is part of that descriptor, as they cover chilling and lurid events that inspired countless authors and storytellers ever since (well, the depraved ones, of course): there is no shortage of mutilations, mistaken identities leading to awful and brutal murders, dismembered corpses, cannibalism, the Fates grinding down men to bloody stumps, and yes, reference to (gasp!) vulgar language. And it’s not just the wicked getting punished and beat down—there is collateral damage out the wazoo. Sure, plenty happened off stage in original productions, but that doesn’t lessen the lesson of doom.


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Fast forwarding a couple of millennia, and wouldn’t you know it, tragedies are still in vogue. There were plenty of playwrights cranking them out, and some bloke named Billy Shakespeare penned a fair number of them, but few as grotesquely violent as Titus Andronicus, with horrific happenings that make Abercrombie and Lawrence look like Jane Austen—a raped woman has her tongue and hands cut off and has to write a message about her rapists in the dirt with a stick in her bloody mouth; a man feeds the bodies of his enemy’s sons to him in pies and then revels in that revelation; more limbs get lopped off; innocents are slain; someone is buried to the neck and left to die of starvation; and there is so much perverse bloodletting the stage crew must have been stained red head to toe.


While nihilism is a fairly modern term, before that they just called it tragedy. Worlds where loyalty, lust, love, hope, treachery, hatred, and ambition are mixed in a blender by the Chorus or Fates or Just Shitty Luck and served to the audience like bloody marys, who slurp it down in delight/transfixed horror, watching the protagonists, antagonists, and unlucky passerbys get offed in obscenely graphic fashion. You think the Red Wedding is bad? That looks like a preschool graduation ceremony compared to Titus.


But that dark spirit pervades storytelling right on up the line. . . Grimm’s fairy tales (before Disney scrubbed them clean and threw glitter on them), gory operas like Elektra that harken back to the Greek roots or invent brand new stories of wretchedness, 20th century fantasists like Howard and Moorcock that excelled at depicting antiheroes, film noir, tons of dystopian science fiction, and finally, most recently, those naughty, naughty “grimdark” authors.


It’s shortsighted or neglectful of narrative history to think of any recent offerings as somehow more hopeless or unconscionable or extreme than everything that has preceded them. There was darker and grimmer stuff long before “grimdark” became so bloody popular.


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