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FANTASY, HORROR, AND EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN

Recently, I had the good fortune to see my novel The Claw of Craving reviewed over on Monster Librarian. The fantastic reviewer, Murray Samuelson, opened the review with a really profound and intriguing observation:

Some of the best horror novels of the 80s and 90s weren’t really horror at all. They were, at heart, fantasy books with a dark core, with James Herbert’s Once, Clive Barker’s Weaveworld, and Ronald Kelly’s Fear being standout examples.”

In my view, he is absolutely right, and has hit upon a truth that leads us to thought-provoking questions about our contemporary and genre-obsessed era. In my view, it’s undoubted that some of the best “horror” novels of the twentieth century were, in fact, epic, sprawling fantasies that contained dark or horrifying scenes. But more than that, I would argue the connection between fantasy and horror has existed for a much longer time. We need only think of the nineteenth century gothic novels, with their dazzling supernaturalism and magic alongside scenes of cannibalism and terror (I’m thinking of Melmoth The Wanderer here), to realise that horror and fantasy are inextricably linked despite occupying separate shelves in Waterstones (or Barnes & Noble, if you are a friend from across the Atlantic!).

If we consider the conceptual nature of “fantasy” and “horror” this connection becomes not only more interesting but also self-explanatory. A “fantasy” is something we dream of, something that carries with it positive connotations of hope, magic, and illumination. There is also a sexual and desirous undertone, which is where the danger comes in, for a fantasy is often something taboo in society, something we must confine to the realms of dream lest it be enacted in reality at terrible cost… As you can see, we’re already veering into the territory of horror. What is horror but the nightmare to fantasy’s dream? Horror is the unveiling of that which lies in the subconscious psyche of its readers. The early gothic masterpieces, despite predating the establishment of psychological theory by some way, have an undeniably psychological bent to them, an inherent understanding that ghosts, whilst they may be literal, truly stand for the aberrances of our memory, the hauntings of guilt and shame and regret and love lost that manifest in a tangible way in our livesin ways that feel like horrible magic. But are we not now veering back into fantasy?

Horror and fantasy might be seen as two sides of the same coin, though I think it is more accurate to say they are a yin-yang, a ceaseless dance of “opposites” that in reality form a oneness. Desire creates fear creates desire creates fear in an endless cycle that leads us deeper into the mysteries of the human soul.

So, when did this bifurcation occur? When did we decide that horror and fantasy were separate entities, and that too much of one “spoiled” the other?

The honest answer is, of course, no one knows for certain. I am sure that an academic could research and reason out a fairly probable conclusion. But no answer can reflect the great complexity of forces that shapes human thought over decades or centuries. Tolstoy wrote despairingly about the folly of attempting to do such a thing, so I will not try. The truth is, over time, things change, and one thing that changed was that around the mid-twentieth century, fantasy began to acquire a new aesthetic and identity that was more aligned with the bright and colourful covers of Dungeons & Dragons modules than with the magic-strewn brutality of The Nibelungenlied. Our image of what fantasy is became altogether more aligned with Tolkien’s The Hobbit. That isn’t to say writers weren’t writing dark fantasy—they always have been and always will—but the fantasy in the public eye, and what critics and readers considered fantasy, was becoming dragons, treasure hoards, elves, dwarves, and heroic battles.

Let me be clear, I love all of those things with unapologetic and childlike abandon.

But I also have a darker side. As an eighteen year old, who knew he wanted to be a writer but didn’t know how, I remember reading Stephen King’s The Stand and meeting Randall Flagg for the first time, and having my tiny mind blown, realising that the mythic grandeur of old tales could still be told upon a modern canvas. I was awed equally by the dark magic that lived in the hands of this leather-jacket wearing madman, and by the cruelty of which he was capable; the gloves were off. No cutaways or convenient concealed armour. Here, I had a taste of fantasy and horror meeting in the middle. But it wasn’t until I was much older, in my late twenties, that I would experience Clive Barker for the first time, and realise what was truly possible when fantasy and horror collided.

Fantasy and horror complete each other. Fantasy without horror feels trite and shallow (and also highly predictable), whereas horror without fantasy feels nihilistic and obscene. Some people do enjoy books about relentless torture without hope, but I think they are in the minority. For most of us, the horror of someone’s skull being kerb-stomped into smithereens must be tempered by the awe and wonder of a spirit materialising in the hour of need; the beauty of a first magical kiss must be properly seasoned by the bloody hand of a cowled killer. This interplay is, to my mind, what I find sorely lacking in many novels, both horror and fantasy, but the fantastic news is we are now seeing a glorious revival of this genre marriage.

Of course, I cannot cite every example, because no one can read everything out there in the world, but here are just a few of recent books I’v encountered embodying the best of fantasy and horror:

BleakWarrior by Alistair Rennie is perhaps one of the greatest fantasy novels I have ever read: occult, metaphysical, labyrinthine, daring, bloody, mystical, yet bizarrely and paradoxically hopeful. It is one of the most hyperviolent and hypersexual stories I’ve ever encountered, and yet it wields its violence and sexuality not for the sake of shock value, but to probe the absolute limits of the human condition and human sanity. BleakWarrior is a non-dual meditation on the interconnectedness of all things, explored via the medium of a darkly fantastical world whose rules can be bent and broken by those with sufficient madness and will. It is Highlander with occult philosophy and a triple R rating.

Daniel Volpe’s A Story of Sorrow is a splatterpunk fantasy that pushes the brutality of a dark, medieval world to its very limits. Volpe’s characters are callous and bloodthirsty, his magic is twisted and disturbing, and yet within this harsh framework is a vitality of human spirit, even a sense of adventure. Though A Story of Sorrow is really only a brief toe-dip into Volpe’s world, I am excited to see where his story goes. It has an episodic feeling which is very much aligned with fantasy’s roots, yet is clearly all building to a crescendo which will transform our woebegone hero from a killer into something more. Then again, perhaps I’m projecting my optimism onto a story that is, ultimately, one of sorrow…

Full Metal Octopus by Carlton Mellick III is filed under bizarro, but at heart is a fantasy novel that contains scenes of nightmarish horror, especially for those with claustrophobia. The novel follows a precocious fairy, Eliot, living in the slums of Grub Town—a city located in Mellick’s fantastical version of America—who gets involved in a gang war on a mythical scale. The adventure features tentacle sex, death-by-vaginal-constriction inside lamia strippers, and yakuza elves. The tone oscillates between enchanting romance, pure weird, and a desperate bid for survival in the bleak reality of a world that stands allegorical of our own whilst losing none of its dark magic. The ending made me ugly cry. It’s a tour de force that, for all its modern perversions, exposes the true, enduring power of magic and fantasy and its connection with the timeless hope that lives in the human spirit. Truly a masterpiece.

The Serpent King by Brian Barr is an occult, science-fantasy epic that contains scenes of abject horror intermingled with startling, dazzling magic. Set in another galaxy, one in which serpents rather than apes have become the dominant, sapient species of their planet, The Serpent King charts the rise and fall of the galaxy-spanning Nagan empire and the quixotic sorcerer Zian. Brian Barr has one of the most fecund imaginations of any writer working today, and his unique blend of science-fiction and fantasy offers up a feast of world-building and sociological commentary that cuts to the bone of contemporary struggles. In addition, Barr’s understanding of occult principles lends grisly verisimilitude to his magic. The Serpent King is equal parts Illuminati conspiracy, a satire of that very premise, and a terrifying bloodsoaked tragedy, all combined by the finest of dark alchemical magics.

Iseult Murphy’s The Mountains of Sorrow may seem like a cute tale about a wood-witch and her squirrel friends, but do not be deceived. The Mountains of Sorrow contains harrowing scenes worthy of a canto in Dante’s Inferno. The evil queen, Zelda, may sound like a princess from a popular video-game series, but she is anything but: Zelda is a cruel, terrifying antagonist whose masterplan is so callous and gruesome it leaves one reeling. Murphy uses the fantasy setting to brilliantly underscore her horror themes by way of contrast. For example, juxtaposing the beauty of the natural world and those who defend it with those who worship technological idols, and the sacrilege of the human flesh and spirit that is the only possible result of such idolatry.

I also want to add a forthcoming book to this list. I had the privilege of reading Stolen Pallor by Sean Eads and JoshuaViola, a book soon to be published by Blood Bound Books. This novella is a darkly fantastical horror that explores the meaning of art. Set in a modern world that parallels our own, yet is also just different enough to enchant us, we are soon drawn down the rabbit hole of strangeness until we reach what seems the very precipice of hell itself. This book feels like Fincher’s Seven and Clive Barker’s Hellraiser conceived a warped lovechild. It has such sights to show you.

Well, I think that does it for now. Thank you so much for coming this far. If you can think of any books that do this well and haven’t been mentioned, or would like to chat about the ones I have included, please let me know in the comments! As always, my love to you, brave explorers of these subterranean realms!

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Review of BleakWarrior by Alistair Rennie

Fantasy, and in particular the sword & sorcery genre, has had a rough patch. I think Neil Gaiman illustrated it perfectly when he said in his introduction to The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany (1999): ‘it is an irony, and not entirely a pleasant one, that what should be, by definition, the most imaginative of all types of literature has become so staid, and too often, downright unimaginative’. As much as I adore the works of Tolkien, they have become almost too pervasive in their influence. It is always the way that when one book or story is successful, it spawns imitations and, in the case of Hollywood, sometimes outright clones. It can be exceedingly difficult to break the creative influence of the our literary forbearers, but we must try to tread new ground (or at least, re-examine old ideas in a new way).

This brings me to Alistair Rennie’s BleakWarrior, published by Blood Bound Books in 2016. This is like no other sword & sorcery story I have ever read. BleakWarrior is equal parts Warhammer 40,000 and Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun. Equal parts philosophical exploration and Tarantino’s House of Blue Leaves. It is violent to the extent it could make George R. R. Martin blush, and yet the murder and sex orgies are juxtaposed with dialogue that is unequivocally Shakespearean and emotionally rich. Take this sentiment from the eponymous BleakWarrior himself: “But surely a strain of consequence must bind our absent purpose to some singular aim.” He is questioning whether fate has brought himself and another character together, but the labyrinthine nature of his syntax gives us a measure of the madness that eats away at his soul. The book is full of rich (and sometimes hilarious) exchanges such as this that circuitously hint at deeper meaning.

BleakWarrior is set in a secondary fantasy world with maddening logic. It is most similar to the magical sci-fi, baroque universe of Jack Vance and his Dying Earth series. It also follows Vance’s suit in the sense that many chapters from this book feel like they could be stand-alone short stories (and I believe the first part of the book to be published was a chapter called “The Gutter Sees The Light That Never Shines” in an anthology of Weird Fiction by Jeff VanderMeer). These episodic instalments, however, add up to create a greater whole. Seemingly innocuous threads become critical components later on, and characters that seem disconnected from the whole tapestry suddenly prove integral. Given the nature of so many threads, there is certainly massive potential to expand this universe and take the story even further in subsequent volumes. BleakWarrior is assuredly standalone, but I could certainly stand to have more!

BleakWarrior also has shades of Haruki Murakami. In Murakami’s most recent book Killing Commendatore, metaphorical concepts come to life. Alistair Rennie creates the “Meta-Warriors”, a cadre of assassins that embody strange concepts. The Gutter, for example, is a murderous psychopath who stinks like his namesake. But also, a play on words, because his preferred method of killing is gutting his opponents. Or Whorefrost (a pun on hoarfrost), whose semen is a lethal dose of sub-zero that freezes you from the inside (yes, you read that sentence correctly). Needless to say, this book is not for the faint of heart. It is as far from Tolkien’s world of innocent heroism as you can imagine. Here, bloody fights devolve into sexual orgies, scientists conduct experiments so immoral you have to laugh or else cry, and pussy-juice may or may not be magical.

I felt kinship reading BleakWarrior because in many ways it bears similarities with my own attempt to reinvent the sword & sorcery genre: Beyond The Black Gate. Beyond fuses a high-fantasy secondary world with ultra-violence and horror. Both BleakWarrior and Beyond The Black Gate feature insane killers that are steadily humanised by an agonising process of self-awareness. But what sets BleakWarrior apart from so many books, including my own, is the unique language Alistair Rennie has created to tell his story. It is at once parodic of traditional high falutin medieval fantasy lingo, but also an outstanding example of it. When the character Nailer of Souls, who as his name suggests consumes the souls of those he defeats in combats, tastes the spirit of BleakWarrior and announces: “Your soul to me is poison, BleakWarrior” – I could not help but shiver with the poetry of it.

Alistair Rennie is someone who understands that language gives meaning as much by its rhythm and sound than through signification. He feels the pulse of linguistic intercourse (and sometimes marries this with literal intercourse). In addition, the Meta-Warriors are literal embodiments of concepts, which means they are at once living breathing characters but also commentaries upon their own tropes. This means BleakWarrior creates a clever kind of loop, whereby it relentlessly satires itself but in doing so displays enough self awareness to then bypass cliché and achieve real epic grandeur.

Similarly, Rennie aligns the reader’s reason for reading with the reason for BleakWarrior’s actions: he does not know what or who he is and must find answers. There is a mystery at the heart of this book. What are Meta-Warriors? Why do they exist? And why do they run so counter to all the laws of the natural world? This mystery keeps us turning pages, just as it keeps BleakWarrior propelled into acts of dizzying violence. We feel sympathy for BleakWarrior because we, too, are in the dark: lost in a miasmal world we do not understand but are fascinated and sickened by.

I will not spoil how BleakWarrior ends, but suffice to say it does not disappoint. If you have been longing to read some high-quality sword & sorcery, then please look no further than BleakWarrior. It will repulse, titillate, raise hairs, and move you in unexpected ways.

Long live the Bastard Sons of Brawl!

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Thank you for reading! If your appetite has been whetted, to purchase a copy of BleakWarrior, go to Amazon UK or Amazon US. To purchase a copy of my own Beyond The Black Gate (which will indebt me forever to you, dark scribe), go to Amazon UK or Amazon US