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Writing: What is Dark Fantasy?

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.

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Cougars and Other Wildcats of the City

In this wacky new age of changing everything into acronyms, such as WTF, OMG and KFC, there is also the penchant of labelling and categorizing things. I’ve talked already about the whole genre categorization of fiction. But it goes farther than that.

These days, everyone from your friends to the government want to catalogue and categorize you by demographics, whether it’s age, gender, religion, financial affluence, education, gender preference, geographic region, favorite vegetable or any of a number of esoteric specifics. Labelling serves the purpose of saying we need this much of these resources for this many people. But it can also be used to ostracize and cage a group.

The gay community has long lived with tags, many of them from those who were outside of the lifestyle. However, I have several gay friends and they are just as likely to call themselves rice queens (men who like Asian men), potatoes (men who like white guys) and other variations on the theme more than others. I’ve known Asian people as well who call or label themselves as “banana.” White on the inside but yellow on the outside.

So perhaps it’s only natural that women had to get another name besides wife, mother and ho; that of cougar. Although there have been strong and independent women throughout history, more started appearing during the second world war when they took on the jobs of men who were in the war or in some cases, jobs such as mechanics in the army. Every able-bodied man was required on the front so women were trained for all the jobs traditionally worked by men. My mother worked in a hat making factory, running the machines. When an inspector came by he found she was being paid women’s wages for a man’s job and they had to adjust her wage.

So yes, independent women; not a surprise. Once we moved out of the 60s people started to re-examine the traditional roles. Men had been breadwinners, women, homemakers and mothers who often didn’t work. But women started to work more and more. Economy and inflation of home prices added to this, as well as many women decided they didn’t want children or wanted to keep their careers. Although some women took what were seen as traditional roles (nurses, teachers, librarians, seamstresses, etc.) others started to go into men’s fields: engineers, lawyers, doctors, mechanics, etc.

This movement into the workforce was seen as a threat by some men, that the status quo was being upset. Men have been the strong ones, the breadwinners, the head of the house. With some men, wives and children were status symbols like cars and TVs, showing their wealth and virility and their power. So when women started working men’s jobs they were made fun of, ridiculed and generally paid less for the same jobs. A female politician might be described or noted for the clothes she wore (not her work) whereas a male politician’s clothes were never mentioned. Gender bias has happened in many places and many jobs. Media people are trained these days in ways to avoid gender stereotyping but it is very insidious.

Even with a more broadened awareness there is the need to label women over fortyas cougars. This often stands for a woman who is independent, strong and confident but may also date younger men. Its negative aspects depict a woman grabbing at youth and hunting younger men for sex toys. Our society, in certain areas, felt the need to single these women out, to stereotype them, to ridicule them. What better way to try and lessen a woman’s power but to laugh at her and not take her seriously. Make a caricature to keep women in their place.

You might think I’m going over the top but if in fact women were treated equally in all circumstances, then we would not have the subjugation of women in Afghanistan where the only good woman is one in a burka. Well, that’s different; that’s a different country. Okay, what about the fact that most domestic violence occurs against women and that more women die than men, and are usually killed by men in such situations? What about all the women who are raped?  Until those crimes are eliminated women won’t get a truly fair shake.

But back to cougars, or pumas or tigers (which I have no clue whether they’re real terminology for further categorizing women’s taste in men)…why does our society take such glee in these names? Because it’s all right for a man twenty years a woman’s senior to chase her down and maybe marry her. Hello, Hugh Hefner. It’s all right for a men twenty-thirty years older to play the love interest to a twenty-something in the movies but the other way around and Hollywood wants a much shorter age range, if they’ll do it at all. Though there have been movies such as Harold and Maude and one that I don’t know the name of that had Susan Sarandon as an older love interest.

Yes, the attitude is changing…slowly. However women are made laughed at for what men have always done. In the end, who cares who is sexually attracted to who? As long as everyone is of legal age, it’s up to those people to work out their relationship. Maturity and compatibility should matter more than chronological years.

But as terms go at least a cougar is a sleek, beautiful, powerful animal. Much better to be compared to a feline than to a worm or a snake or a cow. And if you want to look at one term for older men that has a pretty negative connotation, well I’d take cougar over “old goat” any day.

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