I look around at fiction and so much of it seems be be trapped in unrelenting darkness, the crushing distopia, heroes you can’t tell from villains (except by whose name is on the title page maybe). Some folk have told me that this is a reaction, an introduction of “realism” to other fiction that is more Pollyannaish. More real? Maybe. Maybe not. As I have quoted elsewhere “the passionflower is as real as the potato.”
Now, I’m Goth. I appreciate darkness in storytelling and strive to find beauty in darkness even in the real world. (There’s a saying I saw: “if you don’t find joy in snow, there will be just as much snow, but less joy”, Same thing with darkness and beauty.) It’s nihilism, the absolute and complete descent into hopeless darkness that I despise. There’s no beauty in that.
Stories of unrelenting darkness have a long history to them: The Volsung Saga begins with the tale of how Andvaari’s Ring becomes cursed, and the rest is the horrible working out of that curse on the various possessors of the ring over time (and unlike another cursed ring, there’s no Mount Doom to see to the destruction of this one). The various tales of the Greek Heroes are mostly tragedies, where despite initial successes the Heroes almost inevitably come to bad ends.
More recently, Le Morte de Arthur, the collection of tales of the legendary King Arthur and his knights, is well named: “The Death of Arthur” for it all builds to the destruction of the Round Table, the fall of Camelot, and the death of Arthur.
And so on.
In all these cases, overwhelming forces beyond the power of mortal men to overcome end up crushing the aspirations of mere mortals.
However, to a certain extent from that, but also in parallel to it we’ve also seen the rise from this, a different literary tradition, tales of folk who rise above the forces opposing them and opposing, overcome.
I think part of that, not all certainly, but a large part, comes from the ideals of the Enlightenment. New understanding of the natural world, new technologies that new knowledge. This period saw the Age of Exploration and the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, bringing with it the idea that we were not helpless before incomprehensible forces but that we would instead overcome them. (Note: Not all the things to come out of the enlightenment were necessarily good things, but that’s beyond the scope of this post.)
Even then, much literature was, like the tales listed above, about the inevitable fall of its heroes. The D’Artangnan Romances (“The Three Musketeers”, “Twenty Years After”, and “The Viscount of Bragalonne: Ten Years Later”–this final one often split into three or four parts of which the last is titled “The Man in the Iron Mask) is very much in that mold. Don’t rely on movie versions for these. They often–particularly in the case of “The Man in the Iron Mask”–retain nothing but titles and character names.
And don’t get me started on “Frankenstein.”
But there were other tales as well. Any of Shakespeare’s comedies (with The Tempest being my favorite) generally have the main characters emerging happily however daunting their trials before might have seemed. Jane Austen is reputed to have things work out well for her characters in the end. And Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre even pulls in a bit of a miracle to allow Rochester to witness the birth of his son.
However, I’ve never been much for 19th century and earlier literature. I’ll read it from time to time, but generally prefer more recent items. Indeed, we’re well into the 20th century to get to the stuff that I read, and re-read, for enjoyment. And in particular, early in life I discovered Science Fiction.
And here, I think is where things went off the rails. While Science Fiction has always had its cautionary tales (going all the way back to Frankenstein), a lot of it made certain assumptions, particularly about the supremacy of, well, not always human life but intelligent mortal life in the Universe. We had writers who based their stories on the presumption that if we encountered alien life they would be so beyond us that we would be nothing but gnats to them and any attempt by a human to comprehend them would drive one mad (H. P. Lovecraft). But we also had others who presumed that even if the aliens were more technologically advanced than we were, we could learn what they had and, eventually stand up to them as equals if not superiors.
As an example of this, the late Isaac Asimov in his autobiography told of the also late John W. Campbell had a policy that for a story to be acceptable to Astounding Science Fiction humans had to be superior to any other life forms. This was why the Foundation stories were set in a humans only universe so as to avoid the need to have any aliens be somehow inferior to humans.
Along about the time I was getting into science fiction, reading old books mostly (it’s what the libraries had), certain writers and editors decided that science fiction was too “stodgy” and “adolescent” and started a “New Wave”. And part of that was stories that were decidedly dark in tone.
Now, in addition to the science fiction I was reading (old stuff that was “juvenile” and “adolescent”? Well, I was juvenile and adolescent so…) I was also into comic books. I started reading them sometime in the mid to late sixties–basically as I learned to read–and that carried on into around 1987 or so (more on that in a bit).
I’ll be honest, I didn’t really get into this “new wave” at the time. As I said, most of what I said was old stuff and newer stuff that I read? Well, it was far and away outside the “New Wave”. (Dray Prescott–probably the last great “Sword and Planet” series, was certainly not “New Wave”.)
However, as it happened, comics I was reading as new stuff. Getting old stuff back then was expensive! This was before digital editions, graphic novel collections and so forth. If you wanted an old story you had to go browse specialty stores and dig through their boxes of back issues and pay a small fortune (or a large fortune for particularly rare and popular issues) to get a copy which you hardly dared to read for fear of damaging it.
Fortunately, for me, the same forces that created the New Wave in science fiction waited a while before hitting comic books.
Let me give you an example: Batman. I have a whole Batman Rant on this, but let me give a brief precis here. Most people these days have a view of Batman that’s either a cowled psycho, monomaniacally obsessed, with plans for everything so that he could apparently single-handedly take down all the other superheroes in that universe, who drives sidekicks like some martinet and will “fire” them for the least mistake, barely if at all better than the criminals he fights–a character so dark he makes pitch black look white. Or they think the campy 60’s TV Batman (and it is a tribute to that series’ popularity that people still recognize it today). But the Batman I grew up with, the one I came of age with, was neither of those things. Driven, yes. But not to the extent of that psycho I just described. His parents’ death got him on the road he was on but he continued because he was good at it and, indeed, had mostly come to terms with their deaths…mostly. See “Night of the Stalker” for a very good example of that “mostly”. He was clearly a “good guy” even though he would bend/break the rules as needed. You could tell him from the bad guys.
Let me offer a slight digression here. In art there’s a concept called “chiaroscuro”. This is basically the interplay of light and dark. You have a picture, dark only within it there’s a spot of light illuminating some figure or object in sharp contrast to the darkness around it:
It’s in this interplay that you make interesting things happen. “If you want to paint pictures like that, you’ve got to use some dark colors.” (A great line from an otherwise “meh” movie.)
This is what “grimdark” misses. It’s not dark alone that makes for exciting, compelling stories with depth and richness, no more than it is light alone. It’s the interplay between the two. An unrelenting grim story, a hopeless dystopia, inevitable doom which cannot be stopped, simply does not compel. Even those mythic tales of the past had the doomed hero rise above their troubles for a time. Bellerophon did defeat the Chimera before attempting to ascend to Olympus and fall. Sigurd did defeat the dragon and win its horde before the curse (from the ring that was among the horde) brought him down. Roland was a mighty and successful knight before the battle of Roncevaux Pass and his defeat and death.
I suspect back then most people stopped the stories on the success rather than carrying through to the end, much like the movie “Jason and the Argonauts” stops with Jason and Medea sailing away from Colchis (and thus avoiding the really grim follow on to that story).
You can’t have just the dark. You must have light in it. Now, going back to Batman, back in the days I read, the villains, particularly Joker and Two-Face, were incredibly dark. Gotham was a pit of darkness with corruption and rampant and only Commissioner Gordon on the side of law trying to stem that black tide. Yet despite the dark-colored costume, despite his back story, despite his use of fear as a weapon, Batman was a beacon of light in that darkness. He’d long since grown passed displaced revenge for his parents death to protecting the people of Gotham for their own sakes. And while some have pointed out that Bruce Wayne could do more good with his wealth than Batman could ever do with his fists and gadgets, the Batman/Wayne of that era did both. The Wayne Foundation on one side, and Batman on the other. The serial format meant that he could never completely clean up Gotham, and the popularity of certain villains meant that they could never be permanently taken out of action. (“Why doesn’t Batman just kill the Joker?” “How many times has the Joker ‘Died’?”) But in the individual stories he wins. People saved (not everyone, every time, but enough to create some hope). Bad guys put away or “dead” through misadventure (for now, anyway; the future will take care of itself). The stories were about hope and victory–traveling through the dark to reach the light.
And that is why I can still go back and read some of these old stories with pleasure today. The dark that I travel through in the reading lets me worry to be relieved by the light at the end.
So remember, you need the dark to make good stories. But you also need the light, if only a single candle, working against that dark, to make them great.