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The Appeal of Grimdark by C.T. Phipps, Author of ESOTERRORISM

C.T. Phipps is a lifelong student of horror, science fiction, and fantasy. An avid tabletop gamer, he discovered this passion led him to write and turned him into a lifelong geek. He is a regular blogger, reviewer for The Bookie Monster, and recently signed a deal with Ragnarok Publications to produce the urban fantasy series, The Red Room.

C.T. Phipps is also the author of The Supervillainy Saga, the first book of which, The Rules of Supervillainy, was released this June.

The Appeal of Grimdark

by C.T. Phipps

“Forget the promise of progress and understanding, for in the grim dark future there is only war.”
-Tagline for the Warhammer 40K miniatures game and originator of the term Grimdark.

My name is C.T. Phipps and I am a fan of grimdark.

Note: I would like to qualify this as not be a fan of grim fiction (though I am) nor of dark fiction (also like that too). No, I am a fan of a very specific genre which has emerged in recent decades and is mostly restricted to being read by that superior being who was often bullied in high school, the geek.

What is grimdark?

Grimdark is basically taking the darkness, tragedy, violence, terror, and horror of several different genres then putting them into a blender and hitting frape. Horror stories are, usually, something terrible and vile intruding on an otherwise normal setting to ruin it. Noir stories are cold, bleak, and empty of good but for faint flickers. Fantasy story stories often have terrible supernatural evils opposed by equally supernatural goods.

Grimdark takes away the normality and good to leave bad and bigger bad. Grimdark is spikes on spikes, ancient horrors, immense poverty, entrenched systematic cruelty, basic human selfishness, and hopelessness.

And it’s kind of awesome.

One thing, of course, which many grimdark fanboys are in denial about is the genre is inherently absurdist. You can write serious grimdark fiction but you miss the point of the genre if there’s not a little tongue in cheek. There’s a moment from Game of Thrones Season Four which summarizes the sensibility of grimdark when Arya and the Hound have finally arrived at the Eyrie. After having wandered through starving ruins, engaged in brigandry, been witness to rapes, and both having put everything on the Eyrie being their last hope–they discover Arya’s aunt Lysa died a couple of days earlier.

So Arya lets out a loud laugh.

Grimdark, thus, in my mind is actually a genre with strong undercurrents of existentialism. Albert Camus used The Myth of Sisyphus to illustrate happiness in the universe could be only be achieved by embracing a horrific situation (in his example, the fact Sipyphus was forced to roll a boulder up and down a hill for all eternity). There’s no hope in grimdark so you might as well just go with it. Ironically, there’s a certain element of Buddhist resolve in all this as if you don’t want anything from the universe, you can’t really be suffering from its absence.

On a less cerebral note, Grimdark fiction is full of terrible majesty and cool for its own sake, divorced of purpose. Warhammer 40K, the Platonic expression of Grimdark, is full of beautiful cathedral-battleships which bring death and genocide on the backs of giant fascist cyborgs in the name of a dead false god. With spikes! And guns that fire spikes! That explode! H.P. Lovecraft’s writings, problematic racial representations aside, wouldn’t be nearly so well remembered if not for the spectacular monsters he described with his purple prose.

As an author, I draw inspiration from grimdark ideas and motifs. My first novel, The Rules of Supervillainy, comes from the perspective of, essentially, “What is Gotham City like after Batman dies?” Which is to say, “pretty bad, at least until someone slightly less evil than the rest of his rogues steps up.” Likewise, my urban fantasy novel, Esoterrorism, is “What if you lived in a world so full of monsters that an Illuminati-esque conspiracy of greedy self-interested mages and their agents were the closest thing to good guys?”

The archetypal Noir hero was defined by Raymond Chandler as: “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man.” This is not the hero of grimdark fiction. Indeed, by and large, the grimdark hero is very much mean. They are products of their environment and, oftentimes, their heroism is very much a matter of relativism.

Conan the Barbarian, while a Sword and Sorcery rather than grimdark hero (related as they might be as genre), is a good example of this. He’s a brigand, pirate, warlord, thief, murderer, and usurper. We respect Conan’s joie de vivre as much as he enjoy the fact he’s usually taking from those much-much worse than himself. It is not enough the grimdark hero is better than someone, he must also be someone who derives some sense of satisfaction from a miserable world in spite of everything.

Or because of it.

Indeed, there’s an appeal to more noble heroes in a grimdark setting as well. Geralt of Rivia, star of both Andrjez Sapkowski’s Witcher novels as well as their popular video game spinoffs, is a romantic idealist stuck in a Crapsack world. He is a noble figure, he just can’t make anything more than superficial changes to the planet as well as swim against the tide determined to wash away anything but “contempt and contemptibility.” I think we’ve all felt like that at some point in our lives.

But how do we know fiction is grimdark versus simply being, well, grim or dark? Truth be told, there’s no actual answer to that question and, like much of literary criticism, is merely a matter of opinion. The Peter Jackson movies portrayed a much more darker and somber Middle Earth in order to highlight the serious of the story while the video game The Shadow of Middle Earth took place in Mordor so was appropriately more horrific. Real life, unfortunately, can outdo anything fiction has come up for horror but we still manage to derive some enjoyment out of it.

In my case, I define grimdark this way: Is the situation screwed up beyond all repair? Do your heroes fight on anyway?

Then that, my friends, is grimdark.

And may it continue forever.


4 Comments on The Appeal of Grimdark by C.T. Phipps, Author of ESOTERRORISM

  1. I’m pleased to say Esoterrorism came out on July the 6th of 2015. I hope people will pick it up for a contemporary grimdark take on urban fantasy and spy fiction plus lots of black humor.

  2. Grimdark’s really taken off as a…well, whatever it is. It seems kind of difficult to pin down at present. More a tone of writing than a specific subgenre perhaps? I think one of its advantages is it allows novels like R. Scott Bakker’s excellent series more legitimacy, rather than having them sit in the outer circles of standard fantasy. What I’m also really interested in is Grimdark SF, and how that takes shape. (In addition to Warhammer 40k.)

    • I think Grimdark fiction started as inherently absurdist with Warhammer 40K and then proceeded to move on as a substitute for the term “Dark Fantasy” to differentiate it from a lot of Paranormal Romances which emerged with that sense. Essentially, to prove its masculine street-cred so to speak. Gamers started using the term from Warhammer 40K to refer to Westeros, The Witcher, Abercrombie, and so on with the Grimdark tag and it’s taken on a life of its own. However, the common theme boils down to a single defining factor, “The world sucks and you can’t change it.” My expansion of it to include contemporary Grimdark fiction is moving the goalposts a little more but I think it still works.

      • I do like the morally ambiguous protagonist falling under the grim dark definition. Although, most interesting characters are morally ambiguous to some extent. I think dark fantasy was always closely associated with horror, and horror is predominately set in the here and now. So dark fantasy doesn’t have enough overlap with anything set in a fantastic world. Maybe. :-).

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