Categories
Author Interviews & Guest Posts Fantasy General Posts, Non Reviews

Why I Gave Up on Grimdark Fantasy (A GrimDarkTober Guest Post from At Boundary’s Edge)

October is wrapping up along with a great month of GrimDatkTober guest content from a few of my favorite people across the SFF blogosphere.  I hope everyone has found a few more books to add to their ever growing TBRs!

Today I’m happy to present the last GrimDarkTober guest post for you all.  Nowadays he mostly sticks to Science Fiction, but Alex from At Boundary’s Edge used to be a huge fantasy reader as well.  True to his brand of cranky-but-actually-cinnamonroll-in-disguise vibes, check out this great piece on why he eventually put GrimDark aside

 


Why I Gave Up On Grimdark Fantasy

I grew up reading fantasy. I tried a thick, somewhat battered omnibus of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings twice before I was 10. Admittedly, I never made it through The Return of the King, but I was absolutely enchanted by the world. I remember seeing Robert Jordan’s Winter’s Heart on the shelves of a used bookstore and thinking from the sheer size that it must be something truly Shakespearean in content. I didn’t complete either Tolkien’s or Jordan’s epics until much later on, but I filled my time with other classical epic fantasy. The Fighting Fantasy series of gamebooks were my first adventure in collecting a whole series. I read David Edding’s The Belgariad and Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle, and knew I was hooked on fantasy. As I hunted out new books to read, and sent my mother to do the same, I soon found myself in possession of a book with a bloodstained map for a cover. It was called, rather enticingly, The Heroes, and it was written by a man named Joe Abercrombie.

I was fifteen, and The Heroes offered me a new window on fantasy. This was a fantasy where people died a lot. There were no heroic sacrifices, just meaningless and pointless deaths. It was great. Blood spattered on every page, there was no clear-cut good and bad. Most of all, it was absolutely hilarious. It wasn’t only Union soldiers who had split sides by the time I reached the end. I rushed out by the other books set in the same world, and found them all in a similar vein. Though the books were filled with hateful characters, the writing itself was a clearly loving poke in the eye of the tropes and stereotypes of the fantasy I’d read up to that point. It was while looking for Abercrombie’s next book that I encountered the word that would change it all. Grimdark.

Finally I had a label for this darkly humour thing I enjoyed so much. I let that label guide me to my next reads. And so I came across Mark Lawrence. The Broken Empire wasn’t quite as riotously funny as The First Law, but Jorg had a way with words that could get a laugh out of me at times. His successor, Jalan from Prince of Fools was a much more jovial character. The comedic elements running through this books were distinctly British. A raised eyebrow and a ‘here-we-go-again’ mentality when it came to the tropes. These stories weren’t so much subverting tropes as having fun by actively running against them. And that’s what grimdark became to me. Fun. Over the top violence and a fistful of jokes wedged in for good measure.

At around the same time as I was reading Lawrence, I started Peter V. Brett’s The Demon Cycle and Brent Weeks’  . Both of these were books I had seen bearing the grimdark label in some corners of the online community, so I assumed they’d fill the same void. But they didn’t. I enjoyed both series, but neither was particularly funny. Even when they were over-the-top, I couldn’t shake the feeling that they were being played straight. They weren’t laughing at how bloody they could be, they thought it actually meant something. It was a emo, edgelord mentality that left me utterly cold.

Within a year or so, I discovered the work of David Gemmell, a forebear of grimdark who truly believed in heroism, and his work was a breath of fresh air. Gemmell’s work also led me to that of Stan Nicholls, who surely deserves more credit for running ahead of the grimdark curve. His Orcs novels are a sweary, bloody spectacle, at one point putting a unicorn horn to truly inappropriate use. But they’re funny. Weapons of Magical Destruction in its title alone tells you the tone of the book. A satire not only of fantasy, but of real-world events, all told with a crazy grin and an axe in each hand.

Meanwhile, the modern grimdark train rolled on. As an avid fantasy reader, I did what I could to keep up. I bought the first book of countless series, looking for that same witty high. I bought Anna Stephens’ Godblind, Michael R. Fletcher’s Beyond Redemption, Devin Madson’s We Ride the Storm, and Mike Shackle’s We Are the Dead. I can’t honestly say I enjoyed a single one of them. They were well-crafted books, but they proved to me one incontrovertible fact. Grimdark had started taking itself seriously. The joy was gone. The laughter was dead. There were still some good books falling under the grimdark label. R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War is more of a historical fantasy, but uses that history of violence to provoke thought. Adrian Selby’s Snakewood is one of the few books to include a magic system that doesn’t make me pull my hair out. Anna Smith Spark’s Empires of Dust is a literary masterpiece in terms of prose, and even includes some of that too-rare humour amid all the misery and tragedy.

As the grimdark label covered more and more books, it ceased to hold the meaning that had drawn me in all those years ago. Worse still, the nihilism had spread to the far corners of the fantasy genre. Fantasy became a place where hope was for idiots and anyone calling themselves a hero was only after your money. It just wasn’t fun anymore. The worst offender was R. Scott Bakker’s The Darkness That Came Before, a book that was, with its central thesis that men exist only to destroy and subjugate each other, so utterly devoid of cheer that I finally decided to call it a day.

Grimdark has cultivated a reputation for telling it like it is. For showing the world for the horrible place it is. But that’s wrong. Yes, there are bad things in the world (and worse than you’ll see in most grimdark books), but there’s joy in the world too. Even in the worst of situations, people will crack a joke. If all you’re doing is showing humanity being horrible to itself, you’re not being anywhere near as smart as you like to tell yourself. So much of modern grimdark seems intent on wallowing in self-pity, and dragging the reader down with it. Quite frankly, it’s become dull.

So yes, I’ll still read Joe Abercrombie. I’ll pick up Anna Smith Spark’s next book. But because of the author. Not because of the genre label that gets slapped across the cover.

Grimdark – whatever you are anymore – I’m done with you. Let me know if you get your sense of humour back.


You can find him online at: 

Blog: https://atboundarysedge.com/

Twitter: https://mobile.twitter.com/HormannAlex

Categories
Author Interviews & Guest Posts Fantasy General Posts, Non Reviews Horror

Roots of Darkness: The Horrifying Origins of Sword & Sorcery (A GrimDarkTober Guest Post by Peat Long)

This Sunday I’m thrilled to present a GrimDarkTober guest post from a book blogger who needs little introduction!  One of the many awesome people I met through a Wyrd & Wonder read along, Peat Long’s blog offers up a ton of book reviews, articles, lists, plus many other curiosities. With no further delay, here’s his article!


Roots of Darkness: The Horrifying Origins of Sword & Sorcery

For many, October tis the month of darkness. Gloom, murk, and perhaps a side of iniquity. Book twitter is full of tributes to this spirit, which is obviously difficult as bookish folk have no taste for the macabre and spooky, not least of which is Athena’s Grimdarktober.

Therefore, in my own tribute, I give her and you this post on sword & sorcery.

Some of you might not see the connection here. You might be thinking what does the genre of over-muscled louts seeking a totally not-compensating for anything life of big swords and scantily clad ladies have to do with dark fiction? The answer to that starts with two words.

Weird Tales.

Back in the 1920s, when pulp magazines played a big part in the American literary landscape, there was a magazine named Weird Tales. It was founded specifically to be a home for supernatural stories at a time when there was none, with repeated references to a particular influence: Edgar Allan Poe. A lot of the fiction published in the magazine reflected that influence; ghost stories, gothic stories, horror stories. But some of it was the nascent genre of sword & sorcery. How did that happen? And what influence did that have on the stories?

Some of the how lies in the peculiar mindset of Robert E Howard, whose Conan stories formed the accepted recipe for sword & sorcery. He was a bookworm who absorbed everything, a would-be pugilist with a dislike for the modern world, not to mention an author in search of ways to make a sale. Unconventional settings and violent stories came naturally to him, and were a natural addition to the more conventional horror fo the magazine.

A great deal of the how also lies with the very nature of Weird Tales. Its writers formed a close-knit community, writing to each other often, and few of them wrote as often as old Mr Nightmare Fuel himself, HP Lovecraft. His influence was felt in many ways – one proto S&S tale was inspired by him asking the author why not a story told from the werewolf’s perspective, another story got published after he prodded the editor – but the biggest was that of his stories.

At which point you start to see some other S&S staples enter the canon. Weird snakemen. Sinister sorcerers and their eerie cults. Indifferent, terrifying gods. Alien monsters and forgotten communities of malevolent people. In some respects, these are things the early S&S authors would have looked at anyway as these did reflect the fears of the time, but these are very much the sort of thing Lovecraft loved. As such, they very much part of what Howard, and other early S&S writers influenced by Lovecraft such as Clark Ashton Smith and Fritz Leiber, used.

Which means that, amid the tales of conquest and feud, of picaresque adventure in exotic locales, you get a distinct vein of sword & sorcery stories that are almost pure horror. Situations where mighty sinews, honed skill, and indomitable wills only allow our heroes to survive where all others have died. The worlds might be more historic than Lovecraft’s contemporary gothic stylings, the heroes more alive and sane at the end, but the similarity is marked.

And the result is some very dark fantasy fiction, perfect for your October reading! Want some examples? Here’s a few to look up…

Worms of the Earth by Robert E Howard – Howard’s most horrifying tale probably belongs to the character Bran Mak Morn, whose attempt to get revenge against the Romans involves making common cause with those he’d rather have nothing to do with. Very creepy.

The Howling Tower by Fritz Leiber – This adventure of Fahfrd and the Grey Mouser can be found in Swords Against Death, a collection which features a great many horror-esque stories. In this case, what seems a simple case of finding treasure in a tower goes rather unpleasantly wrong.

The Black God’s Kiss by CL Moore – This one can be found in just about any Jirel of Joiry collection, many of which are named after this story. The long and the short of it is some bastard takes Jirel’s castle and makes some presumptions about her sexual interest in him, so she elects to go to hell to find a weapon to right all of this. Hell is, unsurprisingly, somewhat unsettling.

The Testament of Athammaus by Clark Ashton Smith – This short can be found in the Hyperborea collection. It is the tale of a city’s downfall and an execution that won’t go right, told with mordant humour and gruesome horror, and a very nasty villain.

The Unspoken Name by AK Larkwood – From the old to the new. Larkwood’s riff on The Tombs of Atuan also includes plenty of that horror S&S feeling as the former priestess Csorwe navigates many, many terrifying challenges in her bid to prove her worth to her saviour.

The Border Keeper by Kerstin Hall – Another recent piece of weirded out adventure that seems to be in the spiritual lineage. It is more high flying and epic than most of the names here, but the adventures of Vasethe through the nine-hundred and ninety-nine spirit realms contains a good dose of uncanny wonder.

So there you go. Even the hardiest of heroes have horrifying moments, and all because it’s baked into the genre right at its very inception – hopefully you look up some of these stories and enjoy the dark side of sword & sorcery this Grimdarktober


You can find Peat online at:

– Twitter: @PeatLong

– Blog: https://peatlong.wordpress.com/

 

Categories
Author Interviews & Guest Posts Fiction

A Well Rounded Literary Reading List – from Alexis Levitin

An intro from @OneReadingnurse: Hi everyone! I have been working on compiling a not-to-be-missed reading list from all over the world, for those who – like me – either feel like their reading isn’t necessarily well rounded, or are simply looking for new ideas.  I originally posed this question to my PHD of something-literature-related father, who then asked his extremely well read, travelled, and translated, friend, Alexis Levitin.  Both are published short story writers, professors of lit, and Levitin has translated poetry and other works from many countries. He focuses on the Portuguese.  I would really encourage everyone to check out his links, which are posted at the end.

What I’ve got here is, to be honest, a copy and pasted email, but so much thought was put into it. It is by no means a total list, and you can note that he doesn’t focus so much on known “classics” as simply great writing.  I got their permission to turn this into a guest post, so enough from me, here it is!


Dear Athena,
      Hi. I am happy to help you build up a good reading list. But let me first give you some general advice. It is wiser to start with shorter pieces by great authors, rather than delving immediately into a one thousand page monstrous epic that might kill your desire to read any further.
     Russia:
1) Read short stories by Anton Chekhov, probably the greatest short story writer ever. “Lady with a Pet Dog” is the greatest short story ever written, but very adult.
2) Read Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, a very short novel that is very Russian.
3) Read all the short stories you  can find (there are hundreds, in fact) by Leo Tolstoy, probably the most intelligent novelist of all time.
4) Read Tolstoy’s painfully great novela, The Death of Ivan Ilych.
5) Although it is very long, read Dostoevksy’s Crime and Punishment.
 
        France:
1) Read the very short, very accessible The Stranger by Camus. It is my favorite 20th century novel. Anything else by Camus is also worthwhile.
2) If you are interested in religion and sex and love, there is a great short novel that no one reads. It is Strait is the Gate by Andre Gide.
3) Read various short stories, always amusing, by Guy de Maupassant.
4) You can try Flaubert, who is truly great, but not easy to read. About the clash between romanticism and ordinary boring life, try Madame Bovary.
 
             Spain:
1) It is very, very long, but absolutely hilarious and great fun: Don Quixote. 
2) Miguel de Unamuno is great, but no one reads him nowadays. Try his wonderful novela Abel Sanchez.
3) She is not famous, but she is excellent: Esther Tusquets from Barcelona.
4) Garcia Lorca, Europe’s greatest 20th century poet, murdered for being gay.
                 Italy:
1) Dino Buzatti is a great Italian writer, a little like Kafka. His short stories are great and so too his short novel The Tartar Steppe.
2) Easy to read, accessible, but really not bad is Alberto Moravia.
3) Zeno’s Conscience by Italo Svevo.
                   Czech/German:
1) Kafka is the greatest European writer of the 20th century. You should read everything he wrote, but especially short stories such as “Metamorphosis.”
2) Slow, but highly intelligent, try “Death in Venice” by Thomas Mann.
3) Rilke is the greatest European poet of the 20th century, along with Lorca.
                      England:
1) Joseph Conrad, especially the great short novel Heart of Darkness.
2) E.M. Forster, especially Passage to India. 
3) Graham Greene. Anything he wrote. You will love him because he is full of action, full of intrigue, full of the struggle between morality and sin, etc. The best
novel to start with is The Power and The Glory.
4) D. H. Lawrence. Read all his short stories. There are many of them and they are full of inner action, emotions, inner conflict, class struggle, men vs. women, etc. His poetry is also very interesting and accessible, but his novels are just too much.
5) James Joyce. Avoid the huge books and read Dubliners.
 
                             The United States:
1) All short stories by John Steinbeck. Easy to read, but rich in human experience. You can also try the short novels Of Mice and Men and The Red Pony, but the latter is extremely painful in its realism.
2) The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Essential reading for any educated person in the 20th century (and thereafter, ha ha). Alsdo his short stories.
3) Hemingway’s short stories, especially the greatest ones: “Hills Like White Elephants,””Cat in the Rain,” “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” and “A Clean Well-Lighted PLace.” Perhaps for love of your father you should also read the two stories called “Big Two-Hearted River,” about trout fishing and mental health. Also try the lively early novel The Sun Also Rises.
4) William Faulkner: try short stuff like “The Bear” and “Barn Burning.”
 His greatest novel, which no one reads, is called The Wild Palms. It is about varieties of love, romanticism, and death. Two novels interlaced.
5) Truman Capote- Breakfast at Tiffany’s
6) William Styron- Lie Down in Darkness (your Dad did his PhD on this great writer).
7)  James Agee- A Death in the Family
8)  Philip Roth- Everyman (short and right-to-the-point.)
9) Saul Bellow- Henderson, The Rain King
10) maybe Sherwood Anderson- Winesburg, Ohio.
As I was saying to your father today, I left out some great stuff from the 19th century: Hawthorne’s Short Stories, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and maybe his Billy Budd.  Edgar Allen Poe’s
best short stories, such as “A Cask of Amontillado,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and, best of all, his great doppleganger story,”William Wilson.” Also Twain’s Huck Finn.
      From Greece there is Kazanztakis’s Zorba, the Greek” and the great poetry of Cavafy.
     It goes on and on…….
 
That should get you started. Good luck.
Alexis

You can “Meet the Author” here at this link!  He also has a website, that I am told is not updated but does list some publications and such to check out
https://www.plattsburgh.edu/academics/schools/arts-sciences/english/faculty/levitin-alexis.html
https://www.plattsburgh.edu/academics/schools/arts-sciences/english/faculty/levitin-alexis.html