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Genre-Bending: When High Fantasy Becomes a Horror Story

I’ve been reading (and writing) a lot of horror lately. It’s kind of become my thing. So when I noticed by chance that one of my favorite fantasy trilogies, The Darwath Trilogy by Barbara Hambly), was available as an e-book, I bought it on a whim. Going back and re-reading these books that I haven’t even thought about in years has been more than just enjoyable, it’s been eye-opening. I have lost myself in the plot, gotten caught up in the suffering and joy of the characters, and become emotionally invested in their lives just like I did the first time I read them.

What’s different now (besides the fact that I’m older and supposedly wiser) is that experiencing this story anew, I’ve come to realize it’s not just a fantasy. Oh, there is magic, and good vs. evil, and sword-play. There is even a damsel in distress, until she realizes she is perfectly capable of saving herself. But this is also a horror story, and I never realized it before.

I’ve read a lot of fantasy, starting in my pre-teens. The Big Bad is usually an evil wizard/king/high-ranking royal underling/witch/spoiled but underappreciated heir…the list goes on. But my point is a lot of the time the antagonist is some variation of a human being. Then there are the beastly Bad Guys—dragons or goblins or other mythical monsters, even the magically-created or surviving villains like Sauron or Voldemort.

The main evil in this series, however, isn’t human (although there are those, too) and they aren’t your typical beastie. They’re called The Dark, mostly because sunlight and fire are deadly to them, and so for the most part they only come out at night. They don’t walk, not having legs per se, and they don’t fly as they don’t really have wings. They float through the air with the aid of their own incomprehensible and eldritch magic, with which they can cloak themselves almost to invisibility. They can change their size, from maybe the size of a small mammal, to as large as a house in a split second. They are soft and undulating with trailing tentacles reminiscent of jellyfish. Yet they have grasping claws and dripping acid. And between the space of one heartbeat and the next they can siphon the blood from a person’s veins, strip flesh from bones, or perhaps most horribly snatch the soul from the body leaving a mindless automaton behind.

When I read about The Dark and the descriptions of what they could do, and how callously, I was terrified! They look on human beings as cattle, neither knowing nor caring that the people they feed on are thinking, feeling creatures. Even now, years later, going back and re-reading this series, I get a chill from The Dark. Is it just because the author came up with a really good, scary villain? Or is it also that atavistic fear, handed down for millennia—that fear of what we can’t see but only sense? When the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, and goosebumps skitter down your spine on dainty spider feet, is it all just your imagination? Or is there really something in the darkness looking back at you, waiting for the perfect moment to strike…?

In any case, I’ve come to the conclusion that genre is just a label, and sometimes an inadequate one at that. On the face of it, The Darwath Trilogy is a fantasy series perfect for a pre-teen to pick up and enjoy. However, underneath is all the darkness and horror someone like me could wish for.

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