A lot of magazines and ezines I find out there in my search for freelance illustration work are centered on the themes of “dark fiction.” To most this is characterized by Lovecraftian fantasies and gritty noir cyberpunk sci-fi. There are unexplained demonic activities or gruesome rituals or madly brilliant killer hackers. Alternate worlds are full of people who would not only kill you but also eat you as soon as look at you.
While my own works are rarely horrific, I have no problem translating a frightening story into a disturbing image. The authors certainly write me happy letters, and it gives me a chance to flex my stylistic muscles and show off what I can do in ways that my own writing and themes would not.
One of my favorites to work for is The Future Fire, which has been on hiatus for some time now and I am happy to say is about to re-open. A fair number of their stories that I’ve read are not only dark but dystopian. (In case you don’t know: dystopia – noun – a society characterized by human misery, as squalor, oppression, disease, and overcrowding; opposite of utopia) Not everything TFF publishes is dystopian. They’re looking for things that are progressive, aiming to change the reader’s perception of the real world. This is what I like about them, often prefer about them over other magazines I’ve read. I’ve never read anything in TFF that seemed hokey or shallow. Even if I was disturbed and turned off by a story, it wasn’t for lack of quality in storytelling.
But many of the stories I’ve read do have positive endings, if not clean and happy ones. And some can even be magical, in a surreal way (which I’d have to say, is the better way; I always think of magic as something chaotic: waving a wand, and saying a spell, and *poof* it works, does not feel magical to me). One of the stories I illustrated, Daughters of Hralln, actually turned out very positive I thought. The concept of it, survivors of a meteor crash making a new life through the winter, was as much “adventure” as it was the dark sci-fi subgenre. Thus why I was inspired to do more of a “comic book” style to the artwork.
I’m not a fan of dystopian stories myself. We need this type of fiction certainly, to remind us that things could be worse, or more often to remind us of where the path of “good intentions” that we’re already on is likely to lead us. I’m just the type of reader that looks for something magical and positive even within the Darkness. Too often dark fiction takes a situation, a character or creature or object, that is beautiful in it’s strangeness and Darkness, and at the end of the story the beautiful thing is destroyed. I do not care for a plot trope that builds on and builds up our need for Darkness, and then crushes us.
Dark fiction certainly has it’s place in the Higher Dark. It feeds into our Darkness, giving us other worlds and strange people and creatures to warp our perceptions and challenge our thought processes. It breaks free from the normal world and the safe comfort zones of mainstream fantasy and sci-fi. But this is one of those places I sense the fine line between Riding the Darkness and being ridden by it. The drowning of all hope and light is not balance. The rule of fear and hate is not goodness. Not that I’m saying these are the goals of the writers and/or publishers. Not at all. I merely caution them not to get caught up in the gore and monsters and forget to let some meaning shine through, that tiny candle in the benighted desert.