The Dark Shadow of Fantasy
"Well, one thing that always cheers me is that even on the brightest, sunniest day, there's always a dark corner... a strange shadow." - Boris Karloff
"Dark Fantasy" is my little R rating on my writing. It lets the more gentle reader know that when they open my books, they're leaving behind the landscape of a High Fantasy consolatory world and entering a darker alley, where menacing shadows lurk. This alleyway has twisting sidestreets, closes, and underground tunnels with bricks and foundations leading back to the gothic literature of the 18th and 19th centuries, although it reaches even further to the most ancient writings and fears of our planet. If you ignore my rating and choose to enter the world of my creation, know that a happy ending where good triumphs over evil is not guaranteed. You may experience unnatural acts of sex and violence. Any beings from the faery kingdom you're unfortunate enough to connect with will not be the glittering, bikini-clad faeries from Walt Disney's imagination, but from a far older time when the faery kingdom was feared with good reason.
I do an enormous amount of research for all of my books. The book I'm currently working on, "The Witches of Paris", is set in 17th century France, combining the Affair of the Poisons at the court of Louis the XIV alongside the French literary fairy tale tellers, a group of women sadly nearly lost to history. It has taken nearly two years to research. I've loved faery tales ever since I was a little girl, especially the darker, more poignant tales from Hans Christian Andersen or the Brothers Grimm. However, the aristocratic women of the French salons make the Brothers Grimm look like a pair of powder puffs! If you want to read about the grotesque, sadistic, macabre and horrifying, you can't go past these sources. You will discover a Cinderella who spitefully encourages doves to peck out her stepsisters' eyes, Red Riding Hood performing a slow striptease for the wolf and so on. There is a fascinating, surreal seam of violence and sexuality running through the old fireside tales. These ancient oral tales were very erotic and complex, and unlike the diluted versions of today, they were never meant for children. So sexy were they that one of the earliest publications of fairy tales, Straparola's "The Delectable Nights", attracted charges of indecency from the Venetian Inquisition. Our culture's dismissal of fantasy as immature and childish dates back to Victorian England. Prior to that, the source material that interests me was definitely meant for adults.
And so there is some fantastical graffiti, tradition and history in my winding mist-filled alleyways. There's also some really interesting people, like Edgar Allen Poe, Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson, Shirley Jackson, Peter Straub and so on. But why do I choose to spend so much time in the shadows, ignoring the more commercially popular High Fantasy where "good" and "evil" are clearly defined? One easy answer is that I believe in the shadows. I believe in ghosts, witches and ghoulies. For as long as I remember, I've been fascinated by the esoteric and the nature of reality. I've had some very frightening experiences with ghosts and visions in the past and energies that might be normally outside our perception.
I believe the face of evil can contain a kernel of goodness, and that a saint can mask the smile of a demon. As a child, I would clap madly to save Tinkerbell from dying of the world's disbelief. As an adult, I still do. Life is frightening. It's terrifying to me to contemplate how fragile our existence is. You will die one day; I will die one day. The heart that beats within your chest will stop and you will cease to exist. Memento Mori. And no matter how many loved ones surround you as you take your last breath, you die alone. Memento Mori. When you really think about it, you feel true horror. Pick up any newspaper - the news within it is far more terrifying than any fiction.
I come from an art school background, and Surrealism was one of the movements that interested me the most. I loved the weird, quiet unease produced by the juxtaposition of two opposing, everyday objects. The Surrealists could alter how you viewed reality by their perception. That's the effect I try to aim for in my writing. I'm not a fan of slasher or gore horror at all, although I've read quite a lot of it in my time.
It's important to acknowledge the darkness, to not live a Hallmark card existence of quiet unease, to turn and face the monster that pursues you in your dreams. When I travelled through India, death was often on open display in the streets. Death, surrounded by brilliantly coloured flowers. Along the Ganges you could see the dead burning on open fire pyres. Indeed, I swum in the Ganges with the ashes of the dead, hoping to cleanse myself of sins from this life. What a contrast to our Western culture, where in an attempt to "Disneyfy" life, the dead are covered discreetly in sheets and are taboo. One of the more poignant tasks I had to undertake as a nurse was laying out the elderly patients who had died. Many no longer had relatives. Their few possessions rattling in a tiny suitcase nearly broke my heart, time and time again. A set of dentures, a hairbrush, an old photograph. Human life reduced to this. Shadows.
Goodness and virtue aren't always regarded well by the Gods. The good guys don't always win and the monster can reign triumphant. My first child is due in a few weeks and at night as she slips quietly around my womb, I've been reading her fairy tales. I finished Red Riding Hood with the words, "And saying these words, this wicked wolf fell upon Little Red Riding-Hood, and ate her all up." The abrupt ending shocked even me for a moment. "Sorry about that kid," I muttered. "But sometimes the child does get eaten." I want my daughter to appreciate the beauty in the night. To be able to cope in life when terrible things happen to good people around her and when good people around her do terrible things. I want her to know - as my characters know in "The Witches of Paris" - to look for wolves who wear their fur on the inside.
Awareness of the shadows means you understand and appreciate the light more. As Jung says, "When there is a light in the darkness which comprehends the darkness, darkness no longer prevails."
This article was re-printed in Australian Dark Fantasy & Horror 2006, edited by Angela Challis and Shane Jiraiya Cummings (Brimstone Press, 2006).
Josephine Pennicott is an Aurealis Award nominated author, and winner of the Scarlet Stiletto and Kerry Greenwood prizes for crime fiction. Josephine Pennicott is also the author of the Dark Fantasy trilogy Circle of Nine, which concludes with A Fire in the Shell (Simon & Schuster, 2004). Visit Josephine's website for more information and other articles on dark fantasy and the craft of writing.