In discussions about the genres of horror, science fiction, and fantasy, and the distinctions that set them apart, it becomes abundantly clear that these three genres are also easily blended together. However, posting about these three genres on social media always brings out passionate genre buffs who rarely stray from their preferred genre of choice. The communities surrounding horror, science fiction, and fantasy seem to build a strong presence, especially noticeable on Twitter, and the three “kingdoms” rarely intersect.
Except for grimdark fans. grimdark lovers frequently play quite nicely in the sandbox of horror. More on this later.
Oh! And science fiction and fantasy are usually shelved together in book stores (which makes zero sense to me since they each have massive catalogs, why would stores try to smoosh them together?). Have science fiction and fantasy formed an alliance and made horror the odd one out?
The short answer was “No.”
The longer answer was basically “Sometimes.”
I thought about this for a long time because I stan Chuck Wendig but I’m not going to read Star Wars. I just don’t have any interest in it, and it’s not because I don’t love Star Wars, I do. And it’s not because I don’t love Wendig’s writing, I do. I think the real issue for me is the genre: science fiction.
All that world-building.
Those hard to pronounce names.
All the natural, scientific laws of this doohickey and that gizmo—everything has to be explained and demonstrated, and oftentimes I’m still confused!
*makes a face*
These are pretty much the same complaints I have about fantasy. The learning curve can be so intense! Recently I convinced my husband to watch Game of Thrones with me on HBO Max.
A re-watch for me since I’ve already watched the series in its entirety and read the whole book series. (Where’s Winds of Winter, George?)
But there is so much up-front investment to gain access to this story! There’s a huge cast with an intricately plotted storyline, tons of backstory and history; it’s very, very complicated, especially for newcomers. Fans of the show who had read the books have no idea how much of an advantage they had in understanding what was going on in season one. Book nerds, like me, who grew up reading high fantasy, are accustomed to remembering details, character relationships, and such… but it’s a lot of work. My poor husband is intrigued by the basic premise of all these kingdoms vying for the throne, but I often have to pause the show and act as his personal tour guide through Westeros.
I remember a similar experience I had with Robin Hobb. The notion of becoming a fan of Hobb’s books is daunting.
It’s not just one series of books, but five! Fantasy fans love this stuff: Buying into a whole mythos and investing time in an entire universe. Multiple worlds, a large cast of characters, and hidden Easter eggs hidden throughout the books for super-nerds who have been there since book one.
I know the wanderlust well. I’m a huge fan of C. S. Lewis and Tolkien, so I’m familiar with being bitten by that bug, that sense of going on a long, literary journey; it’s very appealing for some.
Nowadays though, I just don’t have the time to wander off into the weeds with a huge fantasy series. The mental labor it requires is not conducive to my lifestyle. As a freelance writer of book reviews for several platforms, I need books that are a “one and done,” books that welcome me into the story and whisk me away to some horribly dark place where I can feel the edges of reality slip away as the pages fly, but also promise me a safe return and an ending to the journey so I can move on to the next.
One book series ruined my reading preferences for the rest of my life. A series that took the elements of fantasy and horror and even a little science fiction and Western and created something that set the standard for everything to come after it. Stephen King’s The Dark Tower Series.
The Dark Tower manages to blend all of the major genres effortlessly. It’s the perfect example of how an author can blend the most appealing aspects of all the different genres into one epic saga. It works because King is a character-driven storyteller. The emphasis is on the people of Mid-World. There’s not a lot of exposition spent on world-building. The entire first book, The Gunslinger, revolves around its central character, Roland Deschain. The simplistic narrative reads very much like a Western as Deschain pursues the elusive Man in Black across what King calls “the desert.”
Even though the tale takes place in a world different than our own, everything is familiar—there’s nothing to learn except some subtle indicators that this is a parallel universe of some sort. The most important thing King does to equip his readers for this wild adventure is to abide by the characteristic laws of all four genres:
- Science fiction—the genre of natural laws.
- Fantasy—the genre of new laws.
- Horror—the genre of no laws.
- Western—the genre of vigilante laws.
And where there are laws, there is conflict-the central and underlying unifying element for any story in any genre.
Blending any genre with horror creates accessibility that might not have been there before. Horror is a genre defined by the provocation of emotion. The only genre that is also an emotion. In very basic terms, fantasy emphasizes the fantastical. Science fiction, the science. Horror… well, the horror. Our horror. What frightens us.
It’s this call to action that gets readers invested in the story. If there’s real concern or worry for the lives of fictional characters, anything is possible but you can count on conflict.
Circle back to grimdark.
Grimdark is a subgenre of SFF that is characterized or identified by its dark, bleak, and oftentimes, violent nature and its moral ambiguity. So of course it comfortably shares space with horror. In my mind, Joe Abercrombie is synonymous with grimdark.
“People love to see death. It reminds them that however mean, however low, however horrible their lives become… at least they have one.”
― Joe Abercrombie
And this quote is where I’ll leave you… alone… with your dark thoughts about death, murder, monsters—the human kind or otherwise, laws that were made to be broken.
In which kingdom do you reside? Horror, fantasy, science fiction or…
…do you have no kingdom?
Originally published in GdM#27