There was a conversation a few weeks ago on a Facebook group I frequent called Grimdark Fiction Readers & Writers. On it, there was a very interesting discussion about what constitutes “grimdark” as a sub-genre. This topic tends to pop up here and there, and after thinking about it for some time, I decided to try and give some categorizations a go.
Grimdark, for those of you who aren’t aware, is a term used to denote settings that are gritty and violent, or have a lingering, visceral sense of dread and horror. It’s different from Gothic Horror (stuff like Dracula) in that there’s not usually a sense of beauty and prose to counterbalance the darkness. Movies like Final Destination or Friday the 13th aren’t grimdark either, because they often have very cheesy acting or so-bad-its-good humor that might be “scary” but lacks the looming dread and grimness of a grimdark piece of media.
Holy Cannoli! why does anyone like this stuff?
Usually these stories are nail-bitingly tense, and have deep, dire consequences. For example, a grimdark fantasy story usually has no prophecies or Father Christmas giving weapons to good children. No, you gotta pull that sword out of your dying comrade’s guts, lest you be torn apart by bloody fiends with claws and fangs. These are the sort of stories where the world and occasionally the cosmos are set up against our heroes. Sometimes they die, and sometimes they don’t.
As the popularity of Game of Thrones shows however, (and yes, ASoIAF is on my scale) putting characters you grow to love in dire situations makes you like them all the more. I personally grew very bored with Harry Potter quickly because I felt it was too Disneyesque, that Voldemort’s defeat was already a bygone conclusion. And hey, for some people that’s what floats their boats. That series sold like gold-plated wizard hotcakes. But I personally connected way more with Ned Stark, and knowing that even a solid protagonist like that can die ratchets up the excitement and suspense for me. On top of that, I simply love stories that incorporate horror elements into other genres (especially fantasy). Stories where bare-knuckled heroes make it out with grit and valor are my all-time faves. And even if a story’s not full-blown grimdark or just contains hints of it (see below), I still appreciate the attempts to give layers and nuance to these fictional worlds.
Anyway, without further ado, here is my scale, from One to Six, based on overall darkness. These ARE my personal opinion, and many purists will likely disagree with some of my entries.
ONE: FRIDGE GRIMDARK
Fridge Grimdark is the lightest and most palatable of all the flavors of pseudo-Grimdark. The term is derived from Fridge Horror, and has a similar effect. Basically, it’s a backstory or other narrative element that isn’t at the forefront of the story, but shapes the narrative in a dark or disturbing way. And while not “grimdark” at all on the surface level, it’s the background lore and/or implications that are disturbing.
Believe it or not, Adventure Time is actually a really good example of this. Yes, it’s a kid’s show, but the backstory of Ooo is pretty messed up. Basically, a giant nuclear holocaust known as the “Mushroom Wars” wiped out all of humanity, most humans are either undead or possessed, and horrible, neon-bleeding mutants roamed the lands. This backstory is seen in glimpses and acknowledged more as the series goes on, but overall, Adventure Time proper remains harmless and cute. The more you think about it though, the more messed up it gets.
Grimdark-Lite is a step up from Fridge Grimdark, in that the dark elements are at the forefront, but not quite at a level that’s truly grimdark proper. The settings are well above Fridge though. There no longer are grim and dark implications, it just is. It doesn’t need to be covered in goblet-fulls of blood and death, but at some point that was the case and it’s not hidden in the background.
This is officially teetering the line where when crossed, your media becomes flat-out R-rated if it wasn’t already. Grimdark-Lite CAN be PG-13, but on the upper ends of it, with the little pinky toe inching out towards a hard “R”. The movie “9” is a good example of this, PG-13, yet very dark and oppressive, with all of humanity extinct and mangled robotic creatures roaming the lands. It only avoids an R because humans are all dead, and the characters are sack people.
Fallout also counts, as it has Grimdark elements, but also a lot of black humor. It’s not as fully committed as say, Berserk, but it’s inching in that direction. And if you stop to think about say, the process of turning into a Feral Ghoul, then things start to get a little less cute, and more properly dark.
THREE: HEROIC GRIMDARK
Heroic Grimdark is a genre where heroic tropes are both played out and subverted (often horrifically so) to give a sense of heightened stakes. A lot of so-called “dark” or “mature” fantasy falls in this category. A Song of Ice and Fire, Diablo, Conan and the Netflix Castlevania fit this label, with some leaning more on the Heroic, while others lean more on the Grimdark.
Heroic Grimdark is where the moral grayness of protagonists begins to become less of a suggestion and more of a requirement. The grimdark isn’t just a set-piece or backstory now, it’s a creeping part of who our heroes are. This can manifest as Han Solo-esque rogueishness, temptations laid before a Paragon hero, creeping madness, or a tarnishing of the heroic ideal for “realistic” decisions. The world itself must have ugliness too. Roving bands of murderous bandits, corrupt politicians, mean streets, blood-drenched warlocks and cackling daemons offering favors to desperate people. Despite this, characters can still be good, and things aren’t totally hopeless (yet). Just very bleak and ugly and visceral at times, and always uncomfortably human.
FOUR: VANILLA GRIMDARK
“In the Grim Darkness of the Far Future, there is only War.”
Because Warhammer coined this phrase in the first place, Warhammer is the base yardstick by which I shall judge Grimdark as a whole. Thus, I consider Warhammer to be the most essentially basic piece of Grimdark media out there, both in its 40k and Fantasy incarnations.
The Warhammer settings are brutish, dark, extremely violet, apocalyptic and over-the-top. In 40k, even the “heroes” are basically outright zealot fascists borrowing imagery from regimes like the Spanish Inquisition and Soviet Russia. On the other hand, their enemies are basically demonic punchmeat monsters, psychic xenomorphs and genocidal Orcs, so in a way it’s almost …justified? After all, a witch hunt is kind of warranted when actual witches are turning your galactic citizens into crab-clawed daemon-spawn..
The fact that there is no “right” answer to this and that everyone’s basically a shade of villain is what makes Vanilla Grimdark the most essential, basic form of the genre. The grimness, darkness and Gothic look is literally more essential to 40K than the science fiction. Our heroes are flawed, zealous and possibly even outright villainous. Entire worlds get depopulated by their own side because one guy said “this Chaos thing might be cool…” Your friends are your enemies, and your darkest of times, the enemies may become your friends. But there’s still room for cool stuff, and the baddest of bad guys haven’t won out yet (though that is a distinct possibility).
FIVE: HIGH GRIMDARK
High Grimdark is basically what happens when you add an extra shot of Grim and Dark to Heroic Grimdark. Elric of Melnibone is the quintessential version of this, as he is essentially a Prince of Darkness acting as the protagonist. He is as ‘anti” as an antihero gets, occasionally crossing over into full-bore villainy at times and generally bearing powers that are flat-out evil. He’s basically what would happen if Boromir just up and took the Ring for his own purposes and went out into the world, occasionally letting its influence consume him. And the ring wasn’t a ring, but an evil, soul-ripping sword that wants you to kill your friends really bad, just for funsies.
High Grimdark is notable for being very lofty in its depictions of the Grim and Dark. This is where we start to leave the gritty human side of things and cross over into the cosmic, Lovecraftian evils. Granted, the human grit and grime is still there, it just pales compared to the more scary and demonic presences in the world. Good things may exist, but are not at all focused on, or all gods and deities may just be squirming alien monsters. There are basically no happy endings, at least not without stepping on a stairway of bodies first. In fact, I’ll say this. If you’ve watched Berserk, and noticed a certain character looks a bit like the guy above…
Yeah, that’s not a coincidence.
SIX: BLACK GRIMDARK
Black Grimdark is where hope goes to die, usually leaping off a cliff out of sheer terror. This is basically what many Lovecaft fans think The Mythos is, when some of his actual works fit more into Vanilla or High Grimdark (see Call of Cthulhu, where it’s implied the Big Green One is defeated by a boat). Black Grimdark however, is basically a hopeless setting with horrible or terrified heroes that go mad or evil from the sheer existential hell of it all. Nothing can save you, you are utterly screwed and so is everyone you love and most likely the world and universe at large. You can either join the eldritch circus, or die with the peanut gallery.
Very few stories are actually legit Black Grimdark because Black Grimdark is depression on paper. Like I said in the beginning, the appeal of Grimdark is usually to see people overcome massive obstacles. But this particular flavor is basically like watching someone spin on a hamster wheel while thinking they’re running away. Dark Souls is one of the few settings that…kind of pulled it off. And only then because the player’s own accomplishments offset the extremely dark and hopeless narrative of humanity dying out and repeating a horrific timeline. Basically only good in horror, or really messed up fantasy games like the the aforementioned Souls and Darkest Dungeon.
And well, that’s just my two cents. Yes, some of the earlier ones aren’t “Proper” Grimdark, but I felt they at least contained elements that fit that description. But what are your thoughts? Is six too many? Too little? What books do you enjoy that might fit these categories?