In Defence of Grimdark
“Grimdark is dead.”
– Justin Landon (Nerds of a Feather blog)
Across the ages, when women and men were under attack by forces that would see their heads on spikes, they would take up whatever weapon they called friend, rally together, and slog through the mud to defend what they believed in.
My sisters and brothers of grimdark, our favourite subgenre is under attack.
A recent blog featured three publishing professionals who were asked if grimdark fantasy has had its day in the sun and what would come after. If these individuals didn’t decree the full-on “death” of Grimdark, they brushed it off as some phase the SFF community would get over in due time—like pubescent acne.
“Grimdark is a parody of itself, and the best grimdark writers are not writing grimdark at all. They're writing about hope. And if the authors who popularized the genre aren't writing grimdark, then who is?”
– Aidan Moher (Nerds of a Feather blog)
Mark Lawrence gathered the denizens of grimdark to voice their opinions over on his blog, and now we, the fans (well, the ones on the GdM team, anyway), are having our say (including quotes plucked to suit our agenda).
In one of my recent novels, a character asks, “Can you appreciate the light without the darkness?” If fiction holds a mirror to society, wouldn’t it be a bit hypocritical of us not to acknowledge the parts of ourselves that weren’t all that attractive?
Like grimdark author Scott Lynch (Gentlemen Bastards Series), I’m a firefighter. I’ve seen the dark underbelly of society. I’ve seen what drugs can do to a person’s psyche and anatomy. I’ve witnessed brigands being thrown into police cruisers and the look on their face as realization sets in—what they’ve done, where they’re going. These people weren’t born evil, they simply made decisions they deemed right at the time that took them down one path or another. The same can be said of all of us.
I’ve breathed in the pungency of death. Trust me, you never forget that smell. But I cherish life all the more for it.
Grimdark gives us a glimpse at fantasy that is more realistic and, yes, a little more rough around the edges. We grimdarkers are that seedy part of the map that many fantasy and sci-fi readers avoid at all costs for fear of being accosted with truths they’d rather ignore. We are that part of human history, current day events, and theoretical future that they can’t bring themselves to accept.
“Look!” we shout as they hustle by. “Life is not all unicorns and rainbows!”
But with fingers in their ears, they hurry on. That’s fine. We are proud in our love of the grit and the muck; proud of our view of history, the future and the way humanity has and could exist in them.
“Anyone who argues that the contents most easily placed in the grimdark bag are the wrong contents because they 'distort history' should be congratulated for growing up comfy, safe, and warm, surrounded by many soulful encouragements and benevolent sentiments, then sent to a Syrian refugee camp.”
- R. Scott Bakker (Mark Lawrence’s blog)
Recent popularities have proven us not to be alone in our love for grimdark. The Game of Thrones TV series, based on the A Song of Ice and Fire books by George R.R. Martin, has become a worldwide phenomenon. Readers continue to gobble up the latest grimdark novels put out by big name publishers and even the newest kids on the block like Ragnarok Publications, who are getting lots of well-earned attention.
Look at grimdark’s cousin, the horror genre, which is claimed to be defunct every year. The Walking Dead’s recent mid season premiere put such a dent in the Grammy viewership, that it was the lowest in five years.
But what about all the rape, murder, and grit?
Like any genre, grimdark has well-meaning authors who focus on the salt and pepper of macabre and disturbing images versus the meat and veg of what it’s all supposed to mean. For the rest, to say that these things havent’t happened, doesn’t happen, or won’t happen – especially in the times of upheaval and war these stories tend to be told in – is just flat out sticking your head in the sand.
Grimdark is the six billion shades of grey that represents every human being’s perspective on life – from the boy committing atrocities on the road to avenge his mother and brother, to an angry young woman fighting anyone and everyone in a sexist society to prove herself to her peers, to sons burning the galaxy to remove their father from power as he becomes a god, to the woman betraying her friends and family for a chance at freedom.
History swims in this sort of thing. And the pool in which it wades tends to froth with blood.
“Greek tragedy, anybody? Medea or the Oresteia? Shakespeare’s King Lear or Titus Andronicus? Webster and Middleton? The Brothers Grimm? (I’m talking of course, about the real-deal original folk and fairytales, before they got Bowdlerised down into kid-friendly fare) Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein? Jean Anouilh’s masterful re-imagining of Sophocles’s Antigone for the modern era?”
- Richard K. Morgan (Mark Lawrence’s blog)
Grimdark has been around longer than most of us realize. Now it just has a name. When things get labelled, generally there are tectonic shifts of camps, and you either like it or you don’t. The term “grimdark” originally came from the tagline for Warhammer 40,000.
Then some authors, critics, and readers began to use it as an insult for authors and their works that leaned toward the darker side of fantasy.
In a horrible excuse for olde English they cried, ‘Sweep thy grit under the carpet and give me black-eyed orcs! And evil goblins! Don’t forget an uncompromising dark lord without a shred of good in them! And Aragorn to slay them all without a single moral misstep!’
But just like punk rock, the community gave them the finger, took up the term as our banner and waved it proudly. That’s right, grimdarkers, we are the Sid Viciouses and Johnny Ramones of the literary world.
Grimdark readers should never feel threatened by those shouting for the demise of the genre. We have Mark Lawrence’s Jorg Ancrath and his road brothers, Joe Abercrombie’s The Bloody Nine (placed as far away from Jorg as possible), Kameron Hurley’s Omagista blood mages, Locke Lamora, Robin Hobb’s assassins, and Arya Stark defending our blood-stained walls.
But authors are turning away from grit!
Grit alone isn’t grimdark. Grimdark is the grey of morals and character that conveys the human condition. We are two sides of a coin. It all depends on which side you choose to look at.
To say Joe Abercrombie and George RR Martin are steering clear of grimdark because one wrote a YA series (which, I would still argue, is grimdark) and the other wrote a children’s book is sheer lunacy. It’s well known that Joe Abercrombie is soon returning to the world he began with The Blade Itself. George R.R. Martin isn’t suddenly shifting the mood of The Winds of Winter to happy-time in Westeros and Kameron Hurley isn’t going to back off. Grit is just the salt on the wound.
Sure, there are things in grimdark that aren’t very pretty or socially acceptable, but it would be ignorant to think works in the genre are glorifying such malicious deeds while ignoring the good in humankind. They cast light on what we’re capable of as a species – especially when we believe we are in a righteous position. These deeds are a part of the world we live in, like it or not.
“And that's why I say that grimdark isn't finished, because there will always be a place in the world for stories that shine a light into the darkness of the human soul ... while hopefully remembering that where there is violence and brutality and evil there can also be honour and courage and hope.”
– Karen Miller (Mark Lawrence’s blog)
Grimdark is here to stay. If we don’t address these darker parts of ourselves, we’ll never truly grow and mature. That’s what living is all about.
That’s why grimdark will keep growing and pulling the crowds in.