On Grimdark: or popup subgenres on the greater froth of story

Grimdark:  what is it?  I had no idea until recently, other than it pisses off authors who are labeled with it.  So I looked it up.  This turned out to be a bad idea, because it’s a bigger subject than I should probably get into at six-thirty in the morning on a school day with a cheesecake to drop off.  But let me sum up.

The term grimdark is based on a tagline from the Warhammer 40K franchise:  “In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.”  Huh.  Very cool. My googled sources (and let me note that you cannot AVG a search term, so get off my @#$%^&* browser, you piece of @#$% sneakware) say that the term “grimdark” is often used to mock that which it describes.  Apparently it started out as a description for fanfic, and seems to be used now on everything from My Little Pony to Emo.  Mark Lawrence, whose Prince of Thrones and King of Thrones books I just finished recently (and loved) and who is getting called one of the fathers/founders/major writers of grimdark fiction, seems to be rolling his eyes about the label.  I also see it being used as a critical term, as in “Grimdark = sexist.”

The thing that interests me is watching a subgenre forming.

I’m in the middle of this one.   I wasn’t in the middle of Steampunk.  Sorry, folks, but it turns out I just don’t give a damn about Steampunk.  It’s interesting, I like the clothes, I like the setting, but the stories themselves don’t fill any great longing in me.  I’d rather watch from the outskirts drinking my tea and trying to figure out what, other than aesthetics, it means when you stick clockwork on something and spraypaint it copper, than get down in the overly mannered mosh pit, thanks.  But I’ve always liked grim, dark stories; they do fill some great longing in me, no matter what genre I find them in.

So I finished King of Thrones last night and looked the sequel up on Amazon:  it’s not coming out until August 6.  I’m hungry for more.  Now what?

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Get enough author recommendations that cross-reference each other in Library Space, and you get a subgenre.  There’s a craving for a particular emotion, a particular type of experience–stories crystallize around it until it’s a subgenre.  If that need stays the same, the subgenre becomes more and more solid, like layers of a pearl coalescing around the irritant of that initial craving.   If the need changes, drifts into other areas, or is just too free-floating to coalesce for long, the subgenre dissolves, leaving a few framents in history, like splatterpunk.  I think “grimdark” is more of the latter type, a flash in the pan, an upwelling of aspects of horror and noir in high/epic fantasy, possibly in reaction against things like The Wheel of Time series, possibly in reaction toward Game of Thrones, that will soon move on.

Personally, I think I like grimdark, or what I think of as grimdark, because, as far as I can tell, the stories are about corrupt, calcified worlds falling to pieces and becoming subject to change–and I can really get behind that right about now.  After a generation of mostly “Good guys vs. bad guys, you can tell the difference because, um, good guys!  Yay yay yay!” I’m about ready for a change.  Plus, I grew up in the 80s, and we pretty much knew that we were going to get blown up by nukes while we huddled uselessly under desks.  This grimdark stuff just feels familiar.

Give me the Invader Zims, the Frankensteins, the Hordes, the Clockwork Oranges, the Thomas Covenants, the Red Harvests, the Dark Towers, the Heathers, the Long Price Quartets, the Bukowskis, the bad fighting the worse.  It’s not pretty, but at least it doesn’t pretend to be nice.  I want to see more characters who aren’t young white males taking a stand and being just as nasty as anyone else, but really, I’ll read this grimdark stuff anyway, because what I relate to is that sense that the established order isn’t all it’s cracked up to be–it’s just a heirarchy, and heirarchy means bullies, and we’re all part of it, so that means the bullies are us.



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  1. Have you read any Joe Abercrombie? Whatever trilogy The Blade Itself is part of? I recommend it.

  2. De

    I’ve tried, but that guy seems to be one of those writers my brain keeps dumping me back out of. I’ll look at it again – I keep wanting to get sucked in, because it sounds appropriately awful, if that makes sense.

  3. Give me the Invader Zims, the Frankensteins…

    Yes, please!

    I’m thinking this Grimdark thing could be cool. Like the New Adult genre, it’s got lots of baggage, but if it’s written like it sounds, it could be wonderful. It’s interesting, how genres are birthed in such controversy.

  4. De

    Well, as in anything, if it takes off people will jump on the bandwagon that aren’t actually grimdark, like Goths who think wearing bright colors is cool. And marketers will go, “I envision the new grimdark. It’s…grimpink.”

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