The definition of dark fantasy is still widely debated. The label is claimed by both fantasy authors and horror authors. Some horror authors perceive dark fantasy to be merely a way of side-stepping the horror label and the current industry prejudice against it. In a debate about the term, dark fantasy, on a messageboard called "the messageboard of the damned" several years ago, Nick Mamatas stated that dark fantasy is matter of ambiance.
Certainly Laurel K. Hamilton's Anita Blake series and her Merry Gentry series can be called dark fantasy. The former series is set on an alternate earth in which vampires have been given full civil rights and courses in magic are taught in colleges. The latter series involves a princess of Faery who is working as a private investigator. Most urban fantasies can be equally considered dark fantasies.
As more and more cross-genre works appear, with elements of both horror and fantasy, the classification is often left up to both the publishers and the distributors.
Please allow me a few personal anecdotes.
My ebooks that come out from Renaissance Ebooks (renebooks) are listed as dark fantasy at Fictionwise. There my works are a bit of an odd man. The vast majority of books listed under dark fantasy on that list involve vampires and werewolves. Often with a romantic element.
There is the connection for me. I write about vampires, wolfweres (which are often tossed in with werewolves by definition), and necromancers. Such things are staples of horror novels. However, because I am writing in an alternate world with a semi-medieval setting, my work is often classified as fantasy.
Wikipedia says that dark fantasy involves "a bleak pessimistic outlook … and moral ambiguity." It can also involve brutality.
Anne Bishop's Dark Jewels trilogy is extremely dark. Grey Keyes is another excellent example of dark fantasy, especially his series that begins with the Briar King. George R. R. Martin's "Swords of Fire and Ice" series has some of the most brutal, edgy dark fantasy out there.
All of those qualities mentioned in wikipedia are present in their novels.
They are also present in my own, up to a point. I believe in the triumph of the human spirit, that people can pull themselves up by their bootstraps and overcome both their inner and outer challenges. Lyn McConchie says that what makes the darkness and despair in my novels work is that I "don't compromise with evil."
I have had horror authors who write about werewolves say that my work is fantasy and try to deny me a place at the table. I write about werewolves also. My first professional sale was "Wolves of Nakesht" (Amazons, edited by Jessica Amanda Salmonson, DAW 1979) that involved a woman and her children fleeing across the grasslands of an alternate world pursued by werewolves.
I have had fantasy authors tell me that I write horror because I have werewolves and vampires in my novels.
Only time will tell whether the label 'dark fantasy' becomes fully accepted by both the writers and the readers.
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