Shock is Overrated: What is Dark Fiction, and What Boundaries Apply?

Dark fiction is fiction that contains dark elements. It deals with pain and death. Sometimes it elicits fear. Other times, it evokes despair. Dark fiction takes an unflinching look at the things that make us uncomfortable and doesn’t sugarcoat them.

You could say dark fiction is pessimistic fiction. The glass is always half empty and even if things work out okay, there will be a lot of suffering along the way. Dark fiction classified as noir will have an unhappy ending, but it is possible to write dark fiction with a mixed conclusion or even a satisfying ending. 

Dark fiction, by its definition, can encompass multiple genres and subgenres, including fantasy, science fiction, horror, and crime fiction. Noir isn’t the only subgenre within dark fiction, however, and it’s easy to confuse genres and subgenres. For example, while most people associate the works of H.P. Lovecraft with cosmic horror, others associate it with dark fantasy

If there’s confusion over how to classify Lovecraft, it should come as no surprise that there seems to be some confusion about what makes a story dark, and where the limits of some genres end and other pseudo-genres begin.

I’ve been commonly associated with the crime fiction genre for over 15 years. During this time, the rise of self-publishing, the ease of e-publishing, and social media have changed the publishing landscape. 

It’s now possible for anyone with a few bucks and the skills required to start a blog to launch a publication. While this can benefit readers and writers by increasing opportunities and eliminating traditional gatekeepers to ensure a wider range of content is published, it also means that genre and subgenre definitions have expanded.

In some cases, people are using existing genres and subgenres to shoehorn in content that should have a separate classification.

I may simply be unaware of this problem within sci fi and fantasy, but I will address it within the scope of the horror and crime genres because that’s where I’ve observed this issue.

Every genre has range, which is why there are subgenres. There’s a considerable difference between Chills by Mary SanGiovanni and Benny Rose, The Cannibal King by Hailey Piper. One focuses on an occult crime specialist who uses her knowledge to figure out which ancient gods are threatening mankind and how to stop them. The other centers on an urban legend come to life, the evil Benny King, who is determined to kill on the one night of the year he rises from his grave. Chills has an investigative component, while Benny Rose, The Cannibal King is a slasher story focused on a group of teens as they fight for survival. Other horror stories deal with ghosts, vampires, werewolves, or body horror. It’s a rich, diverse genre, and not every book is filled with blood, guts, and gore. In fact, many aren’t. 

Horror does have what could be called extreme elements, however. Many people who don’t read bizarro know about Chandler Morrison’s controversial performance at BizzaroCon, where he “simulating sex with an aborted fetus” on stage. 

I’m not a bizarro reader. Perhaps I’d actually find work within this pseudo-genre that I like if I checked out some titles, but word of Morrison’s performance is enough to make me steer clear. I know myself and I know my comfort levels. I may be pro choice, but that’s not because I celebrate abortion, and there’s something about the notion of fucking a fetus that cuts far too close to pedophilia for my comfort zone. The sexualization of children is a problem in our society. We’ve witnessed this with young celebrities, such as Millie Bobby Brown. Under no circumstances is it okay for adults to oogle young girls or boys and indulge sexual fantasies about them. The notion of anyone sexualizing a baby is abhorrent, and fucking an aborted baby is too close to that line. The potential symbolism (screwing over an aborted baby denied their chance at life) of the act is irrelevant when a performance is designed specifically to shock and repulse the audience. If your audience can’t get past their repulsion to engage in critical analysis and take away any alleged deeper meaning, you’ve failed to communicate effectively.

There are some people who decry censorship and feel anything should be published (and likely were unhappy about the consequences of the aforementioned BizarroCon event). That’s a separate discussion for another time. However, as someone who started one of the most successful ezines of the last two decades, a publication that was downloaded over 100,000 times per issue when it was in its prime, I fear that some self-appointed publishers fail to understand the significance of genre classifications, and subgenres.

Genres are used to categorize works with similar content or themes. Genre classifications help writers find appropriate publishers and they help readers find material they’re interested in consuming. Someone who’s a Stephen King fan may not be interested in sweet love stories. Someone who’s a fan of romance may not want to read about alien invasions. 

When readers can locate works that appeal to them they increase their chances of enjoying a satisfying read.

When readers end up with a book they don’t like or, worse, a work that disgusts them, they’re less likely to pick up another book from that publisher or genre. Some may not even want to read another book any time soon. Once bitten, twice shy. Years ago, a family member got a stomach bug that kicked in shortly after they’d eaten Spaghettios, and to this day, more than ten years later, they won’t eat Spaghettios. For me, it was these brownies I got from a grocery store in Alberta. I got sick to my stomach afterwards, and I refused to ever eat that brand again.

People can have the same response to art, and it can have a lasting impression. If your first experience with horror leads to sleepless nights and anxiety, you might not be willing to even try reading or viewing horror stories again.

When publications throw the doors open wide without content restrictions there are two potential reasons for this. One is their failure to understand their audience and what will appeal to their audience or deter their audience.

The other possibility is that they think shocking content is the same as compelling art.

Both possibilities raise several issues.

Publications that fail to identify their potential audience will always be at risk of losing their audience or failing to attract an audience for the works they produce. It should be evident that a person looking for a book like Anne of Green Gables is not searching for a book about a serial killer who murders people and eats them. It should also be evident that trying to sell a work with a significantly different tone will not likely produce a favorable response. 

To deliberately try to foist shocking or potentially offensive content on people who do not seek that type of content out is actually a form of both mental and emotional abuse. This conduct will likely provoke strong emotional responses from people and cause them emotional distress.

In some cases, the content may cause trauma, particularly if the people exposed to the art have had traumatic experiences related to the content.

One simple example has to do with sexual exploitation and misogyny. 

Anyone who’s been the victim of sexual harassment or sexual assault may be traumatized by content that features sexual harassment or rape. For some people, this content may be too painful to consume. 

Women who’ve been subjected to sexism may be highly sensitive to misogynistic content. Misogyny is “hatred of, aversion to, or prejudice against women” and it presents in multiple ways. You don’t have to beat a woman to death to be misogynistic. You may even be married to a woman. Hell, you could be a woman, and still qualify as misogynistic. Anyone who thinks it’s okay to treat women differently just because they’re women is displaying a misogynistic attitude. Paying women less for doing the same job, dismissing women as emotional, or denying women opportunities all qualify as misogyny. 

Women experience misogyny every single day. 

And women are exploited in fiction every single day.

I’ve written stories that have dealt with difficult issues, including sexual assault. I’ve touched on racism and sexism. How does this differ from misogynistic works? Well, the emphasis. When women are exploited for your gratification, when they’re only presented as objects to be fucked or harmed, when they’re reduced to stereotypes, the work is misogynistic. It isn’t art. It’s recycling attitudes from decades ago that have no business in the 21st century, and if your work isn’t highlighting the problems with those attitudes and portrayals, it’s endorsing them.

There are times that compelling art is shocking, but shocking content isn’t always compelling art.

While there are those out there that celebrate content designed to shock people, it’s unfortunate that many overlook other critical components of great art, such as the quality of the writing and the nature of its impact on the audience.

I’ve seen some graphic movies, including American Psycho and I recently watched Alice in Borderlands. I consume art with violence, but I look for more than just violence. This is why movies such as the later Nightmare on Elm Street entries failed to appeal to me. The point was simply terrorizing people until they got killed in a gruesome fashion. While the first movie had symbolism and depth that gave the film depth, most of the later entries had no deeper meaning and were forgettable.

Significant works of art entertain and inspire. They cause the audience to connect with the characters. They leave a mark on your heart and prompt you to reflect or empathize. 

The trouble with too many contemporary novels is that they are full of people not worth knowing. The characters slide in and out of the mind with hardly a ripple. They levy no tax on the memory; they make little claim on the connecting power of identification. They make only the skimpiest contribution to an understanding of the human situation. They leave you cold.

Norman Cousins  

What sets art apart is its ability to enable the audience to identify with it and add to our understanding of ourselves, of others, of the world. Art is work you couldn’t forget if you tried. It’s Gwendolyn Kiste’s The Rust Maidens, burrowing into your soul and conveying such a profound sense of loss and regret intertwined with hope. It’s Alicia Elliott’s A Mind Spread Out on the Ground cutting your heart open and prompting you to examine yourself, your attitudes, your fears, and your failures. And it’s works like Allan Guthrie’s Savage Night that make you ask just how far you’d go to get revenge on people who hurt you or the ones you love.

Everyone sets their own boundaries for dark fiction, and as someone who writes, publishes, and reviews dark fiction, this is something I have to keep in mind. I will publish works that address misogyny and include violence, but I won’t publish works that glorify misogyny or violence. I will not simply put something on the page to disgust readers, whether I wrote it or whether someone else did.

And if I’m dealing with content that could be traumatic, I’ll use content warnings to alert potential readers so they can make an informed decision.

As a publisher, a writer, and a reviewer, I feel it is my responsibility to provide readers with enough information to make sound decisions about what they consume and to protect their emotional and mental health.

For those planning to submit fiction for future open calls, I’m looking for dark fiction within the fantasy, sci fi, crime, and horror genres, but I’m not looking for works that exploit children or women for sexual gratification. I’m not interested in publishing works that support misogynistic attitudes. If your work supports racism, sexist, or bigotry it won’t be a good fit here.

Dark does not mean hopeless. It doesn’t mean violent, although it can include violence. 

Want an example? My Name is Priscilla is a short story Spinetingler published years ago that continues to haunt me. It’s a story that exposes how parental bias can be destructive. Still unsure? Read pretty much anything Patti Abbott, Gwendolyn Kiste, Laurel Hightower, and Hailey Piper have written.

No short story publisher should try to be all things to all people. This is a place for people who want compelling, thought-provoking, entertaining stories that can fill their hearts with fear and hope. It’s a place for people who want stories that will fuel your imagination, stories with characters who live and breathe.

Dark Dispatch is inclusive, and my goal is to ensure that this is a safe space for readers and writers to share their love of dark fiction. 

One comment

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed your article on dark fiction; my own is dark urban fantasy, exploring themes of inclusion/exclusion, and acceptance (both self- and group-) of differences. Your clear explanations of how impactful the decisions by writers of what to include in their work will certainly influence mine.
    Thank you for such an erudite piece.


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