The mysterious popularity of dark fiction

March 6, 2011 § 7 Comments

Darkly beautiful: fantasy art by Ron Crabb

I have, at long last, developed something of a taste for short fiction, under the right circumstances. I particularly enjoy it when I am busy and I don’t have time or energy to get into a long novel.

There are, however, a few problems with my attempts to read more of it. And also with my attempts to write more of it.

One: I like to read historical fiction, but nobody writes (or nobody publishes) short fiction in this genre.

Two: I like to read fantasy fiction, but 90% of short spec fic magazines focus entirely on the darkest of the dark. And in fact, the few examples of short historical fiction I’ve been able to find have been pretty depressing too.

I can definitely get the importance of ‘dark’ literature and I enjoy it. It’s powerful stuff when it’s done well. Very often, though, I find it merely depressing.

What I really like is good, clever, witty humour. Nice and dry. Not farcical.  But I get the feeling I’m in the minority. This is a definite obstacle both for my reading and my writing.

I can’t be entirely alone in this, surely? I know there are some great short fiction collections, or magazines, that are at least open to light-hearted fiction. There have to be some hiding somewhere. I’m so heartily tired of seeing the same ‘dark fantasy, dark sci-fi, horror’ label on everything I pick up that I’m running out of patience to keep looking. Especially since, when I try out some of these magazines, I’m usually bored senseless by the stories.

I’m not sure why it’s so universally popular. Are these magazines responding to an overwhelming preference among readers? If so, why are readers so taken with the darkest of the dark? Why do we want to spend our reading hours wallowing in misery, and anxiety, and danger and shadow? Is it because it makes the real world seem brighter in comparison? Frankly my inner world is dark enough as it is: I like to be laughed out of it rather than descend even further in.

This is a trend visible in other genres, of course. There’s a perpetually raging debate about literary fiction and the tendency to focus exclusively on life’s downs. Any theories on why this is the case? Do you like to read a lot of dark fiction? Why does it attract so much attention?

I did find a very, very good collection of short fantasy fiction which has a wonderful blend of the dark, the humorous and many stories in between: that’s The Dragon Book, edited by Gardner Dozois and Jack Dann. I strongly recommend this to any regular fantasy reader, but particularly to anyone who’s enjoyed books by Tamora Pierce, Kage Baker, Diana Wynne Jones, Tad Williams and Liz Williams. Some of the stories are set in the same worlds as previous novels by these authors, which adds an extra dimension of fun.

What I haven’t found is a regularly-published magazine which offers a decent range of good fantasy or historical fiction – i.e. NOT just darkness and horror. I’d also like more short fiction collections like the one above: lively, entertaining and colourful, which will make me laugh at least as often as they make me cry. And I don’t care that much about the genre if they meet these requirements. I’m decidedly open to recommendations if anyone has anything to suggest!

PS When searching for an image for this post, I stumbled over a page full of glorious fantasy art wallpapers for desktop (here). The above example is only one of thirty of them. They’re delicious – check them out!

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