My Happy Place of Darkness Rising

The long weekend in Canberra is fantastic for two reasons;

  1. Umm. . . long weekend? Of course it’s fantastic?
  2. Conflux! The Canberra Speculative Fiction Convention for writers!

And I promise that at some point this will talk specifically about Conflux. BUT –  there is not a world that exists in which the renowned Jane Friedman was going to blog about the ‘surprising’ success of darker narratives, and I wasn’t going to jump on that like a frustrated, angry demon onto the unsuspecting soul of they who summoned (and hence controls) it the second the chance arose.

Now, the specific example used in the article is the posthumously published memoir When Breath Becomes Air. I haven’t read it, but from the Friedman article, it has a dark narrative and the reader knows the result from the outset (‘posthumously published’ kind of gives it away). Yet the book was a success. Why? According to the panel Friedman was quoting:

  1. It was immersive
  2. It gave a unique perspective most won’t be able to appreciate (hopefully) in their normal lives

Even though my world is firmly on the fiction side of things, this actually sounded very similar to some of the expressions of ‘dark’ fiction at Conflux earlier this month (see? Told you I’d get back to Conflux!)

One thing I want to make clear though is that dark does not equal grimdark. When I say I write dark fantasy, there is often the assumption I mean grimdark, but as much as I enjoy reading some of it, it isn’t the limitation of ‘dark’ reading, as demonstrated by the memoir. In fact, defining ‘dark’ is something that came up on the panel and in following conversations quite a bit.

But first – which panel? Who was on it? What am I talking about?!

Well, as implied it was a panel on Dark Fiction. What it is, why people read it, and other pretty general ideas of dark fiction. It was my first panel I’ve moderated for or been on, so naturally I was a little excited (and intimidated) to have Kaaron Warron, Aaron Dries, Paul Mannering and Joseph Ashley Smith on the panel. All award winning authors, and to paraphrase Aaron’s tagline – nice people, writing about bad, bad things.

But back to definitions. Dark is tough. Is it an add on to other genres? Dark fantasy, a dark memoir, a dark take on an old favorite – they’re all an add-in. But then we’ve already discussed grimdark, and horror is certainly within the realm of ‘dark’.

It’s tough, and not something I can probably nut out in one session and a blog post. But the general idea was that for something to be ‘dark’, there has to be an element of taking people out of their comfort zone with no promise to return. Maybe there is a happy-ish ending, but it’s not exactly a happily ever after. Or maybe the bad guy wins, or the hero becomes a villain in their own right, and there is either no-one left to save the world – or no-one left to save. It isn’t definitive, and is probably a bit too narrow in focus and broad in application, but it works as a starting point. Throughout the story, if there is a genuine belief the story will not turn out happy – genuine belief, not suspension of belief while knowing full well the ending has to turn out fine – then maybe that’s enough to call it ‘dark’.

One thing I found really interesting though, and that relates very much with the comments on When Breath Becomes Air was what makes ‘dark’ work.

There were two answers that seemed to be agreed upon. The first was that dark works when it’s explored as part of the whole spectrum of a character. As in, no-one likes a purely evil bad guy – they generally want a bad guy they can relate to or understand. Writing dark doesn’t necessarily mean horrible people doing horrible things because all they know is horrible. To get people invested, it was important to have rounded characters exploring, and getting sucked into, their darker traits, and immersing readers in that experience. Just like the memoir, the immersion was the critical part in making it work, not just the ‘how dark can you go’ aspect.

The other part was looking at things from a different perspective, and getting people to still relate to it. It isn’t uncommon for the real word to describe doing things that would usually be frowned upon as indulging ourselves. Well, characters in dark fiction definitely indulge in things they probably shouldn’t. Or at least, they experience the world with a different perspective to the average person. That’s where on a technical level, there are key differences between When Breath Becomes Air and dark fiction. There is no indulgence when it comes to the horribleness brings the darkness to the memoir – lung cancer. But it is still a unique perspective that most don’t experience, and certainly most don’t want to. Dark fiction does a similar thing except instead of following tragedy, it looks more at the ‘what if’. What if something went wrong? What if someone gave in to the indulgences? What if someone took a calculated risk, and it all went pear shaped beyond recovery? Looking at the perspective of the character that screwed up, the one who thinks they’re just misunderstood, and doesn’t realise they are destroying everything they touch? Or they do realise it, but are so emotionally invested in what they do that it becomes purposeful? Or, one of my favourites, they make assumptions that are perfectly reasonable, but ultimately wrong with disastrous consequences?

That’s the perspectives that we don’t always see in other stories. Sure, we do sometimes, but I think this was the biggest point I got from the panel – ‘dark’ isn’t about being shocking or horrible (though the elements are certainly welcome in some stories and sub-genres). Its about immersing the reader in the exploration of another aspect of the spectrum of identity. Its about giving a perspective that might not otherwise be shared, and in that respect I have a theory; that dark stories are there to teach us in a way that nothing does anymore.

Now, bear with me here and I’ll go into more detail in a later post. One of the reasons I wanted to run the dark fiction panel was to help with my university studies. I have a creative artefact and exegesis to write next year and if all goes well, a PhD to start the year after that. And I want to start looking closer at dark fiction and its role in the world. My theory, which I want to question and test in various ways to find my focus for the research years, is that there is a hole where fairy tales and folklore used to be. I remember as a kid listening to First Nations Elders coming and telling us stories of the Dreaming – stories that taught, and stories about consequences. Some had happy endings. Others had consequences and punishments that lasted an eternity. Similarly, fairy tales used to have mixed endings before Disney. I’m sure I don’t need to go into detail about some of the darker narratives they used to have, used to teach children what not to do. Folklore from all cultures followed a remarkably similar trend.

And that trend often leads to a unique perspective, an immersive experience, and a lesson of what not to do. The immersion and perspective makes it real to the reader/listener. The consequences are therefore just as real to them, and guide them away from the Big Bad Wolf or the Vengeful Witch.

I think that role has been diminished, and there is a bit of a vacuum. Not entirely on either front, but enough that something needs to fill the gap of cautionary tales. Now, dark narratives in non-fiction don’t do that. When a dark narrative occurs in real life, as it did with When Breath Becomes Air, it is nothing short of a tragedy. For fiction however, a narrative is an imagination; a possibility or a metaphor. It immerses us in that character and tell us about what we still have control over. If we are greedy, if we are willfully ignorant, if we indulge in the darker parts of our identities, then this is a what might happen.

There is certainly a place for dark fiction that doesn’t take the cautionary approach. Splattergore or just adrenaline-filled action with a speculative twist – these have their place (and according to Freidman, high concepts aren’t the selling point they used to be, with straight-forward entertainment proving a winner when it comes to sales), but this is what really takes me to my happy place. Dark stories that explore dark indulgences. Willful ignorance, characters caught unawares by their own assumptions and prejudices, or simply taking a different perspective and smashing it together with the ‘normal’ world. They’re the dark narratives I like, and the ones I hope are rising along with the rest. They are my happy place, and they are where (if all goes well), I’ll be spending a lot of time over the next few years.

~Nathan

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