Celebrating Our “Lost” Subgenre: the Return of Paula Guran & The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror

I don’t know how I missed it, but I was asleep at the switch for the return of award-winning Horror editor Paula Guran to the Battle of the Best-Of Anthologies. In the deep, dark, dreary days of 2020, Guran returned to the genre with the revitalized Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror (returning as Volume One with new publisher Pyr…making it a kind of reset of the series formerly published by Prime Books.

For those of us who favored her work in anthologies and felt exiled from British editor Stephen Jones’s Best Horror (which these days limps across the pond with irregularity and a huge price increase), a long drought is over. Can I get an “hallelujah”?

This is truly good news – especially because included in Guran’s selections is a healthy dose of Dark Fantasy, a Horror subgenre often relegated to the fringes and dismissed as more Fantasy and less darkness. But considering where our Horror roots germinated from, that has always seemed counter-intuitive. And it is high time we remembered a few authors we have lost to that selective amnesia and elitism.

Dark Fantasy – From Tolkien to Neil Gaiman and Clive Barker: What Are We THINKING?

I don’t think I ever fully recovered from the loss of Clive Barker in our genre (an explanation perhaps for why I intentionally peppered this post with his more famous quotes). And suffice it to say I really don’t care what rationale was used to justify letting him go. We should have fought for him – fought for his right to be himself in whatever form he chose. We should have accepted him on his own terms and bore witness to the positive changes he could have continued to bring to the genre. But we didn’t, and I can’t blame him for turning his back on us and embracing the genre that embraced him back – lucky devils…

But before he left, he changed something integral in Horror. And he did it by reshaping Dark Fantasy in his own style.

“This particular style, which he calls “dark fantasy” (or simply “fantastique”), doesn’t only focus on the horror elements needed to provoke that fear we all long for with this genre, but on talking to a deeper level of our unconscious and appealing to our instincts and more primal side. He portrays our own nature by debunking all those ideas of the battle between good and evil, common in this genre. He shows us how they’re not necessarily opposed, or beyond that, that all those things we’re taught to understand as evil (like monsters, or demonic creatures) have, in fact, a more human side (even more than most of us), and it’s that realization the one that can scare us the most, knowing that at the end of the day, we’re the ones we should be worrying about.” The Master Of Horror Who Left Stephen King Tongue-Tied Out Of Fear (culturacolectiva.com)

Yet for reasons I will never fully understand, our genre recoiled and spit him out accompanied by virulent and vicious criticism. Was it because he was openly gay? Because he did whatever he felt he had to in order to “buy” the time to write? Because he was brutally honest in his writing? It really was none of our business…And the loss was indisputably ours.

States one source: “Of course, writing horror with that commitment to honesty has gotten Barker into some confrontations over the years. One incident occurred in 1986. He submitted his Books of Blood story “In the Hills, the Cities” to his editor, and was told that its gay protagonists and homoeroticism were too “offensive” to publish.” Clive Barker on Crafting Horror: Write Without Boundaries [Exclusive] (dreadcentral.com)

Since when did we become gatekeepers of morality in THIS genre?

Sadly, Barker was not the first nor the last to leave us or be escorted out. And we as a genre have a lot of soul-searching to do if we are going to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

Part of that soul-searching comes with experiencing real Dark Fantasy in its full flower – of experiencing first hand why it is a vital part of our genre that should never have been expelled.

And while some “purists” might be “alarmed” by the prominence of “Fantasy” in the title of Guran’s anthology, it is important that we recognize the battle being waged here: the struggle to elevate Dark Fantasy back to its rightful place in the genre. Think of the writers who could-have-been right here, influencing new writers in the genre instead of being the ones we gaze longingly at, the ones we sometimes mimic only to find those stories rejected because the ones who did them better are already strangers here. Think of Neil Gaiman in all of his talented incarnations. Heck – think of CJ Cherryh – an award-winning Science Fiction writer who has some totally awesome folk Horror under her belt. Or of Tanith Lee – formerly an established, award winning Horror writer and now deceased persona non grata…Or Charles DeLint, a major creator of what we now call Urban Fantasy – teller of urban fairy tales of definite dark slant.

It’s time to open our eyes and let Dark Fantasy pollinate our dreams once again. I promise it will be like reading Blackwood and Bierce, like James and Poe for the first time. It will be unforgettable…

Horror fans should not buy Guran’s anthology with the intention of “skipping over” the Fantasy stories, but should embrace the idea that Horror comes at us from many directions. It is my opinion that one of the reasons our contemporary stable of American Horror writers seem to have so much trouble connecting to what we salivate over in “Old Country” Horror and what Hollywood revels in –  has to do with our reluctance to write with Fantasy as a bedfellow in fear of ostracism from the genre. After all, if we can banish a writer like Clive Barker, what hope is there for the rest of us to withstand Judgment?

This goes back to that “argument” I have referred to often that started somewhere in the 1980’s about defining what is “legitimate” Horror and what is not-Horror. For a brief period there was discussion…an honest exchange of opinion and exploration of what kinds of writing and what (if any) formula and conventions should be involved in the decision-making process. It was never a formal discussion, yet is somehow the “debate” bled into our Establishment, where a handful of people seemed to begin making the decisions for the rest of us. Suddenly, sandwiched between the disappearances of traditional publishers and editorial layoffs, we were rubbing out writers and editors who seemed more receptive to Dark Fantasy than “traditionally-hewn” Vampires, Zombies and Werewolves. Yet “tradition” is a tricky thing… and it should be something that is based on truth, history and documentation – not opinion and preference.

Why, for example, does there appear to be a tendency to eliminate authors whose “eccentricities” do not fit with our fantasies about them and what we want them to be? At best, it seems to be an awfully convenient set of coincidences; at worst, we don’t look so good.  In fact, we seem more concerned about the private lives of our contemporary authors than the content of what they are writing while simultaneously “overlooking” the personal failures of any number of “Classic” authors who are now considered to be seminal canon writers.

In other words, we started losing, criticizing and exiling writers based on their appearances, lifestyle choices, and personal beliefs rather than just their writing. In doing so, we started to “weigh their sins” and blacklist those who were not more…palatable… to our rising Puritanistic tendencies both in the genre and in our nation as a whole. Stephen King was a genre godsend: an unassuming, married, white male college professor who could be your neighbor. But we didn’t want to explain LGBTQ writers, atheists, and other social rebels to our kids. Nor did we want to imagine what might be “coded” into their writings in a time we were busy floating the idea that LGBTQ  and simply “different” people are made and converted, not born.

However this is the Horror genre – not the country music industry.

We have no business whatsoever peering into the private business of our writers and passing judgment – especially if we are willing to turn a blind eye to someone like Lovecraft simply because we don’t dare to exile the father of modern Horror and Science Fiction in exchange for tolerating his bigotry and misogyny because of the Critical attention it bought us. Talk about your blood money…

And neither do we have any business making the genre schizoid between Weird writings, Literary writings and some misconstrued definition of traditional monster formula – totally ignoring Fantasy except when it nets us the Big Bucks and a few more fans. Horror is never an either-or proposition.

Yet too often, that is what we see in American publications of Horror – a too-smooth, almost nauseating homogeny. And inevitably the stories that break the mold and scare us the most tend to be ones that contain some direct or subtextual connection to Fantasy…

There is just something…core…about it…

As I have said before, Horror is a very deep genre, very broad in its ingredients list.

Whether we are seeing what we are seeing because of some disfigured idea that Real Horror is only created by straight white males and a twisted love affair with a British Horror-tainted past or not is something awaiting discussion by bigger and more Critical minds than my own. But we also need to start asking questions about whether or not our collective banishment of Dark Fantasy authors and works from the genre was and is fueled by the tendency of LGBTQ writers to heavily use Dark Fantasy elements in their Horror.

Because it sure feels like that is the measuring stick here.

And as a writer, I know it is a pillow over the face of the Muse.

Many Horror writers do not want to write the same-old traditional monster tales. Some of us try to imagine new monsters…merely based on the molds that created the ones we consider to be traditional, foundational Horror tropes. Yet time and again we roll out the same old Horror on a rack… Why don’t we have more innovative works published? Where are our envelope-pushers?

We are fine when Hollywood does it. We are fine when Urban Legends spring up and titillate our Pulp offerings. But we punish Horror fiction writers for going there.

If you have ever wondered why there is this unnamed abyss between what we all hope to write and what actually gets published, you are staring at the problem right now. American Horror writers today are caught in a push-me pull-you between what we are trying to originate and the assembly-line publication of what we all keep seeing on the bookshelf. We have so many people in our heads it is a wonder anything makes it out onto the page – let alone that it has coherence.

In the Horror genre we are happy to claim some DNA from the likes of Tolkien and even J.K. Rowling, we like to rub the covers of Neil Gaiman bestsellers like they are some talisman and point to the shared elements,  to excuse the Science Fiction in an Alien franchise or the folk tales in a Krampus film… but when we ask why these writers aren’t also in our Horror canon-eligibles, we are told they are Fantasy, or Young Adult… not Horror enough, not the “right” Horror.

What are we thinking?

At a time when we are losing writers, losing fiction fans, and watching Stephen King grow older despite whatever bargain we made with the publishing gods… WHAT ARE WE THINKING???

I’ll tell you what I am thinking: thank all that is Horror for Paula Guran. She gets it. And by her editorial selections, she is showing us why we should, too.

Horror Is NEVER “Just” Horror

I often wonder when we will be adult enough to know we can co-exist in simultaneous writer universes and still be writing Horror – when we can accept that sometimes works fall into multiple genres and can “medal” in both.

Just as there is a school of thought in Horror that Dark Fantasy is not Horror enough, there is likewise a school of thought that Dark Fantasy is not just a more “palatable” offshoot of Horror but in some ways is superior to it for its writers “not going there.” But I ask: must purists ruin everything?

Horror is not “over” Dark Fantasy, and its “purpose” is not to horrify, but rather to disturb its audience – sometimes by horrifying, sometimes by disgusting, sometimes by using bloated imagery of terror. And its purpose most definitely is to make its audience THINK. However its secret power is to trick you into it.  Great Horror lets you wallow in the shallows of scary things, or shows you hidden doors to complex other things.

When Dark Fantasy defenders allege that Horror is too superficially charged with – well – Horror and not the complexities rendered in Dark Fantasy, they are engaging in the same elitist behavior as the Horror Establishment – and they are claiming all Horror (real Horror) is Pulp, when nothing could be farther from the truth. Horror remains a complex genre: we have tentacles in many story-telling pies.

Pulp is decidedly finger-painting – raw and snarky and fun. Literary Horror is oil and acrylic and water color and chalk. All of Horror is texture and diversity. All of Horror “goes there” even if it is on the tip of a sword or a sorceror’s tongue. Subtlety or lack of it does not matter — what matters is that subtext (however shadowed, however manifest or hinted at) BE there…lurking. Haunting.

Yet only the ugliest of comparisons remains in the “discussion” snarked in stray comments or articles between Horror and Dark Fantasy “authorities.” Just as in our national politics and opinions of each other, those seeking to find our boundaries seem interested only in doing so by disparaging the very strengths of the other.

One such comparison that alleges to show the differences between us ( The Difference Between Dark Fantasy And Horror (And Why It Matters) (uproxx.com) ) even manages to downplay the complexities of the film Get Out! which is a perfect example of what Horror aspires to be – a layered genre that tears back the curtain on our societal, cultural and moral faults. Fairy tales do exactly the same thing. So does Tolkien. So does Gaiman. So does Barker. So does King and Poe and Lovecraft – even if it was not the author’s original intent.

No one writing in one genre or another is “above” or “better” than the other. Love what you love for its own sake. But leave the sniping at home. Good writing needs no defense: it just IS.

Yet time and again we see (usually) Horror minimized (Dark Fantasy vs Horror – Rachel Neumeier) wherein Horror is being described as no more than two dimensional “sensation” fiction – and this “argument” when used is a cheap shot akin to playground name-calling born of either ignorance of the genre or willful misinformation. Neumeier does a wonderful job in exploring the real differences between Horror and Dark Fantasy – at least attempting to coalesce a definition. She gives us these points to ponder:

“Anyway, all this leaves the question of what, if anything, distinguishes dark fantasy from horror still unresolved. So far we have:

a) Horror involves intrusion of the weird and scary into the mundane world; dark fantasy involves secondary worlds and/or fantasy elements.

b) Horror involves the maintenance of pervasive dread rather than adventure; dark fantasy prioritizes adventure above the maintenance of pervasive dread.

c) Horror involves victims who have little other goal than survival; dark fantasy involves heroes who strive to save not only themselves but others.

d) Horror means no assurance about any characters surviving; dark fantasy carries an implicit promise that all or most of the characters will survive and the adversary will be defeated.”

Yet she concludes by acknowledging the scope of the task in defining a genre – a task needing to be addressed by the alleged experts in our respective genres:

“None of these defining characteristics seem to me to do a very good job of separating dark fantasy from horror.”  Dark Fantasy vs Horror – Rachel Neumeier)

So why do we persist in all the mud-slinging? In trading authors and works like they are playing cards?

For those using the Horror genre’s reluctance to commit to a set of definitions and qualifiers as an invitation to exclude Horror by defaming it with their OWN definitions…this isn’t helpful. But it also exposes and often mirrors our own willful, spiteful separation of the Horror genre from its own history. We share DNA. We share roots with Dark Fantasy – even when our own genre works so hard to exclude so much of itself by grafting root after root and calling it a whole new plant.

And as Neumeier so efficiently points out: “You really cannot use a definition of horror that excludes half of all classic horror works.” Yet Horror and Dark Fantasy both seem hell-bent on doing exactly that.

Just how badly does Dark Fantasy want to separate itself from Horror? Sadly, apparently quite badly. And over the last few decades, Horror has begun to return the favor by expelling several major Horror authors for utilizing Fantasy elements – writers already once proudly claimed as Horror writers like Clive Barker and Tanith Lee.

I say again to ALL of us: what are we thinking? ARE we even thinking? Because we are all describing the same elephant here…

Truly we need to leave our prejudices and elitism on the dance floor. Both Horror and Dark Fantasy share too much in our origins to separate them, and Horror calling Dark Fantasy a sub-genre is not a minimization – it is a classification. In Fantasy, Dark Fantasy is ALSO a subgenre. And if Dark Fantasy is to be considered it own genre, then Horror and High Fantasy might be subgenres of IT.

In order for good Horror to become Great Horror, we need to find the Dark Fantasy within it. The question “What are you really afraid of?” is often drawn straight from Fantasy – from myth, legend, urban legend, and religion… both Horror and Dark Fantasy are heat-seeking missiles searching for a target hidden behind layers of denial – denial of death, denial of justice, denial of truth. Whether we choose to deny the existence of God or a Greater Power or tuck our prose behind the Greek epics for battle-heavy heroes who roam complicated and carefully crafted whole and new worlds of existential beings, we are still playing with fear. Dark Fantasy never escapes that atmosphere without becoming something other than Dark Fantasy. We need each other. We play off each other. And in Horror we need editors who see that for what it is – an umbilical cord – not a “bridge” but twins sharing a womb.

As such, Dark Fantasy collections should contain some Horror that plays on that fragile border. And all Horror collections should contain some Dark Fantasy that burrows deep in our psyches and disturbs the modern myths we create daily to mask our contemporary sins.

We should never cast out writers because some subset of our audience doesn’t want to read about something else, because they want homogeny. Homogeny kills. Diversity causes whole literary blooms – some of them toxic and some of them rich in nutrients that feed the embryos of whole new generations of stories. But including them all means when a reader picks up a Best Of collection, they are ensured surprises…Horror from different angles…proffered in ways we never thought of before. When we close the covers of a Best Of anthology, we should feel sated, inspired….and sad the ride is over. It should leave us wanting more instead of wondering what else we could have done with $20 dollars.

Isn’t that the point?

And isn’t over-dissecting our differences and puffing out our chests about perceived superiorities a little immature? Isn’t it counter-intuitive?

It’s In the Title

I find it sad that of all the anthologies we have floating around out there, only one dares to include Dark Fantasy on the covers or consistently in between them. Yet our two most prominent editors in American Horror (Paul Guran and Ellen Datlow) both have firm hands on the tiller when it comes to choosing effective Dark Fantasy to include in Best Of collections… So where is the Establishment’s definitive inclusion of Dark Fantasy in our genre? Answer: the same place as the REST of our definitions and criteria – apparently all on the cutting room floor (but certainly NOT up for discussion by the masses or anyone else). What are these people at the top of our genre doing?

This silence needs to go. This dismissal and disinvitation for intra-genre and inter-genre discussion needs to go. And it needs to go before Literary Critics find other things to entertain themselves with.

Divide and conquer also needs to go.

Lack of transparency needs to go.

Who are our “authorities” and what are their qualifications?

And where are our proxies that we should have chosen as a genre to represent us to the Critics currently asking relevant and time-sensitive questions?

After all of the flag-waving, where is the leadership? (Yeah, that’s right: this lowly sometimes writer of Horror is calling you all out.) Those of us who have been emotionally invested in the fight for Literary recognition since the 1970s are a wee bit disgusted with the crickets right now.

Why doesn’t someone collect essays by prominent editors and Literary Critics of the genre right NOW? I would love to hear what China Mieville (PLEASE WRITE A BOOK ON CRITICISM!) thinks, what Ellen Datlow and Paula Guran really think, what Stephen Jones really thinks…ST Joshi is so far the only one willing to go out on a limb, and I for one am grateful for his courage in doing so – because of Joshi, a lot of us have more thoughts about the crucial questions that remain unanswered in our genre than ever before … Why doesn’t someone even entertain a forum asking our fans what they think? Our writers? Our EXILED writers?

Really, folks, time is a-wasting…  that tapping sound is Poe’s raven at the window.

If we don’t have this discussion soon, we will never successfully marry the sum of all of Horror’s parts – Mystery, Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror (Weird and otherwise)… We will remain a bunch of talkers with no substance. And we will at last die as a genre.

This is what makes Paula Guran’s anthology series so very important right now. Of all the breaches and divisions in our genre, the most unforgivable is the loss of Dark Fantasy and our Dark Fantasy writers.

It’s time we bring them back into the fold – not to rip them from their Happy Place, their Sanctuary we sent them to in Fantasy and Science Fiction – but to INCLUDE them in our future canon. To RECOGNIZE their worth and contributions.

I keep thinking maybe Stephen King was right in 1985 when he called Clive Barker “the future of Horror.” Maybe Horror’s future lies in our ability to re-assimilate Dark Fantasy into our storytelling repertoire, and its writers back into our good graces.

We start by acknowledging that they belong in our Best-Of collections. Pick up the now two volumes of the series and see what I mean: Paula Guran knows her stuff and she is BACK. So get out there. Get thee some Horror and Dark Fantasy; chances are it will be Fantastic…

(Dark Fantasy Writers for Horror lovers to discover: Raymond Feist, CJ Cherryh, Tanith Lee, Laura Mauro, Caitlyn Kiernan, Charles DeLint, Midori Snyder, Terry Windling, Brom, China Mieville, Gertrude Barrows, Teresa Frohock, Marjorie Liu & Sana Takeda, Eden Royce, Joe Abercrombie)

Coming October 2021

10 thoughts on “Celebrating Our “Lost” Subgenre: the Return of Paula Guran & The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror

  1. This anthology looks marvelous. I agree that dark fantasy is a key element of any horror; and in fact it’s one of the first subgenres that I ever fell in love with specific to horror. I remember discovering Tanith Lee at the pivotal age of 13 and it was she, along with Anne Rice, who helped develop both my love for Gothic literature and my love for the Goth culture overall. I’ve also read stories by Midori Snyder and she is wonderful as well, though (IMHO) not as visceral as Lee. Great post, as always. Your perspective on the horror genre always gives me so much to think about.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for the vote of confidence, but not likely… I’ve managed to lose interest in submission for one thing, and find myself irritated just reading the attitudes presented in “submission guidelines.” Hard to respect the judgment if you can’t respect the judges — a necessary step to publication anywhere!)


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