In the world of speculative fiction there are many genres and sub-genres and son of sub-genres. In fact, it seems every two years someone comes up with a new term whether it’s slipstream, horror, dark fantasy, metafiction, mundane SF, dark fiction, hyperfiction, splatterpunk, steampunk or the next new catchphrase.
Dark fantasy is indeed like fantasy but came about, you could say, when the term “horror” fell out of favor. Publishers quit printing horror because the books weren’t selling. You’re probably thinking, “What about Stephen King?” Well, for one he’s a mega star so he could write a shopping list and it would sell. Some of his writing is considered…other, maybe science fiction or thriller, though really most of it falls under horror or dark fantasy.
So what, you ask, is the difference between dark fantasy and horror? Besides DF being the more acceptable term for publishers, dark fantasy may not be as horrific as horror. It might be disturbing, it might have intonations of darkness and it might have an unhappy ending. Remember, many of these terms really are shades of gray under the greater genre umbrella that is often called speculative fiction. But even that is a sub-genre of fiction. Under the horror fiction umbrella lurks dark fiction, psychological horror, dark fantasy, splatterpunk, thrillers (sometimes) and bizarro, again sometimes. Dark fantasy of course needs an element of otherness, something fantastical and strange. It will be less in your face gore and terror and more under the skin, crawl into your mind disturbing.
Is dark fantasy faeries and elves? Yes, if they’re gutting each other and stealing your mind. Yes, Lord of the Rings is dark fantasy. In fact LOTR is so epic it falls into many categories. It’s partly why I’ve used it as an example. However a story about a girl who finds a bright red lollipop that influences her to commit monstrous deeds is also dark fantasy. It is also psychological horror. While terms can define a story, there is great overlap.
Is it a chickpea or a garbanzo, a hazelnut or a filbert? Like food items that may have more than one term so do the genres that overlap and cozy up to each other, sometimes sharing the same bed. It all depends on how a publisher believes they can market the story. A reader who likes psychological terror may not pick up something labeled dark fantasy, or may prefer dark fantasy over horror. A story by any other name is still a story but it might have the slightest tinge that leads you down a different path. Dark fantasy is definitely not for the light of heart…unless they need some balance.