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Unleash the Night: Dark Fantasy and Allegory


Dark Fantasy has always been my favourite genre. Whether I'm reading or writing, it is a genre I return to again and again. This is partly due to my love of the dark, Gothic, macabre, and vaguely terrifying, but it is mainly due to the characters and meaning that often come with Dark Fantasy.

Mark Lawrence, Anne Rice, Joe Abercrombie, Stephen King, Clive Barker, even Neil Gaiman and Robin Hobb exist in the murky realms of Dark Fantasy.

It's not a coincidence that almost all my favourite authors are on that list.

This is a genre that allows, far more than most others, for the consideration of characters, themes, and actions, which would otherwise be considered unpalatable in mainstream fiction. The ability this genre has to reveal and explore the darkest aspects of human nature and experience has always been appealing.

When I first put pen to paper to scratch out an outline for Bleizgeist, I had no idea it was going to be a Dark Fantasy tale. In fact, I was intending to write something a little more mainstream, a little more literary, something after the fashion of Rita Mae Brown or Sarah Waters.

What I ended up with was considerably different, but it should not have come as a surprise.

The character I had in mind, right from the very start, was a girl whose inherent nature was for some reason taboo. This made her an outcast, with few friends, no family, and only one means of survival--using the very nature that cursed her to her advantage.

I was looking for an allegory, a means of depicting the harsh nature of the world when you are, in some way, different. The differences I was considering in this particular case pertained to mental illness and sexuality. I needed something that emulated the fractured and disturbing world inhabited by those with certain mental illnesses (schizophrenia and bipolar disorder), and the ostracism that is often experienced by individuals with such conditions, as well as those who are, for whatever reason, different to the 'norm' for their gender (gay, lesbian, bisexual, third gender, transgender etc.). My goal was to emphasise the duality that is often experienced by such individuals, in that their mental illness and/or their sexual identity is at once a wonder and a curse.

When you have a mental illness, or your identity (sexual or otherwise) is in some way different to the 'norm', it becomes the focus of other people's opinion of you, and sometimes your opinion of yourself. It is the thing that people define you by, and judge you by, without any consideration for all those other elements that make up the whole of you.

I struggled to find a suitable allegory for this in a story based in the real world, but a fantasy world? Or more specifically a dark fantasy world? That was a whole other kettle of the swimming things...

And so Marishka was born, a young and vulnerable woman, outcast in her society, not as a result of any illness or sexual proclivity, but the very magic running through her blood. Magic that, if left unchecked, has the power to drive her insane. The so-called 'black dog' of depression was almost immediately embodied by an extremely large (and suitably ebony) wolf, while the fractured nature of reality, the disturbing presence within your own mind of thoughts and fears and feelings that do not belong to you, were embodied by the geiste. Spirits, but not the spirits of the dead. The spirits of the living. The spirits of those who share Marishka's world but keep her at bay, never quite letting her in, never quite accepting her. By day the geiste force her to hear every thought and feeling of those near her, and by night she is plagued by their smokey, insubstantial forms.

The geiste are entities with the power to break her will, and the ability to drive her mad.

And yet her magic, her wolf, her 'black dog', proves to be her salvation.

The very thing that causes them to abhor her is the one thing they desperately need. It is also the one thing she must accept if she is to retain her sanity, and truly accept her own identity.

This book is dark, there is no getting around that. It had to be, for it deals with the darkest elements of human nature. Through the magical nature of fantasy, however, I was able to do this without writing a depressing treatise on mental health, rape, and gay rights.

I am grateful for this.

Not because I find these subjects to be unimportant, but because I believe them to be of the upmost importance, and am fully aware that people absorb and retain information far better if they are entertained in the telling.

Allegories are powerful tools, ones I often use in fiction to explore the finer aspects of more disturbing topics. Despite being an under-valued genre, Dark Fantasy is in many ways the best genre to write in when doing this, for it not only allows for the exploration of darker subjects, it allows allegories of a far more fantastical nature.

When you are dealing with a subject as incomprehensible and difficult as mental health, there is sometimes no way to satisfactorily explain the experience of having a mental illness without relating it to magic and the mythical, because conditions like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are so far outside the normal experiences of most people there are no every day comparisons that would do it justice. Equally, for those who have never been forced to battle their own sexual identity and live with the prejudices of others, and the pressure to conform, it can be difficult to fully grasp how horrifying the experience is. It simply doesn't compare to anything in their reality.

Dark Fantasy may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it often contains the stories most vital to human understanding and compassion.

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