Horror and fantasy fiction share much of the same literary DNA. Lovecraft, for one, was influential in both fields, as were several of his influences and contemporaries like Arthur Machen, Lord Dunsany, and Clark Ashton Smith. Why then are there not more novels (at least that I know of) that fuse the sensibilities of these cousin genres? I know there is more to this genre-hybrid than the titles I list here (please comment with some of your favorites that I should check out), and high fantasy is still a bit of a blind-spot for me, reading-wise. But it still seems like underutilized territory.
In fact, I considered making an equivalent movie list, but aside from a few pieces like Pan’s Labyrinth (itself a Machen-inspired film), I just couldn’t come up with many titles. Maybe with the success of the Game of Thrones franchise, which got darker and more violent than any filmed fantasy I’ve seen before, more filmmakers will explore the combination of high fantasy and horror. Until then, though, we have some excellent books to read that fuse fantastic worlds with a horrific atmosphere, as well as a few horror novels that lean into fantasy tropes.
Maybe writers have avoided this hybridization because of market pressures, with publishers eager to stick to known genre-boundaries. Or maybe it is relatively unexplored because people have difficulty creating fantasy worlds so believable that we can then appreciate it when the horrific erupts there. The following books bring us to strange worlds with stranger inhabitants and then unleash darkness upon them.
City of Singing Flame (1931/1981)
Clark Ashton Smith
We start with Clark Ashton Smith, a younger contemporary and friend of H. P. Lovecraft, one with rather healthier views on race and sexuality. A few of Smith’s stories take place in the real world, but e often sets off to other planets, a pre-Ice Age continent named Hyperborea, or a dying and terrifying future Earth known as Zothique by its unfortunate inhabitants. Smith leans far more into what would soon be thought of as science-fiction and fantasy worlds and tropes, but his stories usually have a darkness in them that aligns with horror.
In “The City of the Singing Flame,” for instance, the main character steps through a portal into a strange plain dominated by a massive alien city. Beings from all across the multiverse are being drawn here, but is it for their benefit or their doom? Clark’s stories are more diverse than HPL’s, in structure, tone, and characters, and I wish he was read more today. His prose is pretty purple, often purpler than HPL’s style, so I know that turns some readers off. But if you can get drawn into his world through (or despite) his thick style, you’ll be given visions of alien worlds and terrible beauty you won’t soon shake off.
The Gormenghast Trilogy (1946-1959)
Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast series, starting with Titus Groan, represent this completely other branch of fantasy that could’ve been, had J. R. R. Tolkien’s descendants and imitators not dominated the field for so long. In fact, despite being far less known, Peake has still had an almost secret influence on the field, with countless genre authors citing him as a big part of their creative evolution. The three finished novels (and one fragment) that make up this series are all about Gormenghast, a castle that seems to be the size of a city, or perhaps a mountain. In this castle live a fair number of royals and servants, but huge swathes of the place have been abandoned for centuries, some so thickly overgrown with vegetation that no one could enter them without a lot of struggle. The castle has been ruled over since time immemorial by the Groan family, a once proud lineage that has now shrunk to a small cast of eccentrics, grotesques, and neurotics.
The first novel focuses on the birth of the latest heir of this family, as well as conflicts that arise within both the royal remnants and their servants. The characters out-Dickens Dickens with their strange personalities and sharply described oddities of dress and behavior. Magic is rare in these books and only enters later in the trilogy, but Peake’s world is so bizarre it doesn’t matter. And that castle… Whether there are monsters or ghosts deep in its recesses or not, it casts this dark and hyper-Gothic shadow over everyone trapped inside. I’d kill to see this one given a big-budget yet faithful movie adaptation.
The Bloody Chamber (1979)
The subgenre of retold fairy tales is by now a more familiar one than it was when Angela Carter started writing her stories. At least from what I hear, many of these new versions of old stories can get pretty erotic. And I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them manage to stir a good bit of horror, both psychological and supernatural, into the mix. But I doubt many of them can match the fever-pitched, yet strangely knowing tone of Carter’s work. If they do, it’s likely only because of the path she carved.
If general audiences know her for anything, it may be that she wrote the story later adapted as the bizarre, sexual, and violent werewolf retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood,” The Company of Wolves. That story is in this collection, as are reimagined versions of the “Bluebeard” folktale and “Sleeping Beauty.” These are definitely not Brothers Grimm stories, however dark those original versions of these legends were. Carter introduces vampires, werewolves, con artists, and a lot of perverse sexuality into her stories, while telling them in a rich style. As with Clark Ashton Smith, this style will put off plenty of readers, but for those attuned to this sort of voice and vision, Angela Carter’s work is pure treasure.
In Peter Straub’s follow-up to his successful Ghost Story, two teenage boys at a boys’ school for the wealthy bond over being the victims of a particularly noxious bully as well as a shared love of magic. The boys put on a magic school for their school, only to have it end disastrously in a mysterious fire. When Del Nightingale invites Tom Flanagan to stay with him at his uncle’s estate, Shadowland, Tom learns that this uncle, Coleman Collins, has taught his nephew real magic. What follows is a story about growing up, first love, and real sorcery only pretending at being stage magic. As Tom gets to know the old man better, he slowly realizes Collins is hiding dark secrets, including a being the man created in order to deal with his enemies.
This idyllic summer of learning and friendship soon splinters into suspicion, transformation, and magical violence. Straub’s novel, as is the case with all of his work, is no quick ride through horror and fantasy. Rather, it’s a deliberately-paced and lyrical examination of the draw of supernatural power and the ways, subtle as well as extreme, that such power could corrupt someone.
The Dark Tower series (1982-2012)
This is Stephen King’s magnum opus, a series that blends science fiction, horror, high fantasy, and westerns into a unique mixture that’s almost a genre unto itself. Largely set in Mid-World, a darkly warped version of Earth, the books follow the adventures and trials of Roland Deschain, a gunslinger/knight who is the last of his royal bloodline. Roland begins the series pursuing the Man in Black, a treacherous wizard responsible for the fall of the Deschains who may be familiar to readers of some of King’s other novels who is a minion of a far darker power.
Over the course of the series, the gunslinger gathers a Ka-tet (karmically-bound fellow travelers) from our Earth, and they travel through this weird world littered with ancient technology, mutant monsters, and strange magic. Their goal: the Dark Tower, the center of the multiverse, the spoke around with all worlds turn. Something is corrupting it and should this wicked force take complete control of the Tower, every universe will fall into a never-ending hellish state called Discordia. Can a withered gunslinger, a drug addict, a wheelchair-bound sufferer of Dissociative Identity Disorder, and a young boy save literally everything and everyone?
King’s series can be read by those who haven’t touched any of his other novels, but for those who have, these books are filled with great callbacks, cameos, and even explanations for some of the other evils in the King literary universe. And skip that movie. What a great cast! What a great opportunity to bring the epic to the big screen! And what a great example of why film producers and screenwriters should stick to King’s actual stories and not try compressing and mutilating them into supposedly audience-friendly mainstream fare.
The Anubis Gates (1983)
Tim Powers has made a career of writing sui generis novels that blend fantasy, horror, science fiction, mystery, espionage, and comic elements. The Anubis Gates takes these tropes and throws in time travel portals. This might sound really messy, but the novels gels into its own compelling beast. Brendan Doyle is a grieving widower and expert on a strange 19th century poet named William Ashbless. After being invited to be the resident expert on a time travel trip to see the poet Samuel Tyler Coleridge, Doyle is abandoned in 1810, forcing him to try to find a living there as well as find a way back.
This doesn’t even begin to describe the bizarre cast of characters or the malign magical plan they are all being drawn in to serve. I will say that my favorite is a sewer-dwelling, stilt-walking sorcerer-clown named Horrabin who may have been part of the inspiration for Stephen King’s Pennywise. Someday an enterprising TV show runner will turn this into an amazing series, but until then, check out the novel for a unique and action-packed reading experience.
Clive Barker’s Imajica was the first fantasy novel I read as a teen. I’d avoided the genre largely because I thought it was all elves and dragons and other Tolkien-derived medieval settings, but when I picked up this fat novel, I saw the genre could incorporate any number of influences and visions. In Imajica, the Earth was once connected via interdimensional portals to four other universes, four other Earths. An mysterious catastrophe separated our world from this network known as the Imajica, and throughout the centuries, powerful sorcerers have attempted bringing them back together in a magical operation called the Reconciliation, each of which has failed, often dramatically.
The novel follows Gentle, a lover and an art forgerer, his ex-girlfriend Judith, and a shapeshifting, gender-fluid assassin named Pie’oh’pah. These three, as well as a cast of several dozen other strange characters, will plumb the depths of the Imajica, visit the massive city Yzordderrex, and discover the secrets of the Unbeheld, the godlike creature who rules the First Dominion. One of the things I loved about this novel which may be a turnoff for some is its inclusion of occult violence and the sort of adult situations often excluded from the works of Tolkien’s acolytes but present in novels like Game of Thrones, so don’t expect a gentle ride through this amazing series of worlds.
The Throne of Bones (1997)
In this astonishing, gritty, and at times nihilistic collection of short stories, Brian McNaughton just about created an entire subgenre of horror on his own. While the stories cover all sorts of scenarios in his fantasy world, about half of them revolve around a decadent city whose graveyards are haunted by ghouls. Minor spoiler warning here, though you pretty quickly figure out what’s happening. McNaughton’s ghouls are corpse-eating abominations with one imaginative peculiarity: if they eat a corpse’s brain, particularly a fresh one, the ghoul literally becomes that person for a short time, inheriting all their quirks and memories and essentially assuming they are the deceased. As you can imagine, this leads to all sorts of demented circumstances, from the comic to the erotic.
What all of these stories have in common, though, are a twisted sensibility, poetic style, and an unfettered exploration of some of the darkest topics. Necrophilia, incest, cannibalism, all of it happens in these stories, so buyer beware. This ain’t your grandpa’s high fantasy. I loved it, as will some of you sickos out there. Another book that should be brought back from oblivion and given some sort of cinematic treatment.
Perdido Street Station (2000)
Set in a sprawling and comprehensively imagined city named New Crobuzon, Perdido Street Station is probably my favorite fantasy novel set in my favorite fantasy world, the bizarre Bas-Lag, a planet distorted by an interdimensional rift. This first book in a series of interlinked but standalone novels mostly doesn’t leave New Crobuzon. This city-state lies in the shadow of a massive ribcage belonging to an extinct creature that would’ve made the dinosaurs look like mice. The city is ruled over by a merciless police-state, one which punishes lawbreakers horribly by turning them into grotesque machine-hybrids called the Remade. At least ten wildly different species of intelligent beings live and work in this gritty city, mixing with one another in peaceable and violent ways. In the city lives Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, a researcher with a leg in both science and magical theory.
When an avian creature who has lost his wings due to an unspeakable crime approaches Isaac about helping him fly again, the scientist’s efforts lead him to encounter a dangerous new species. I imagine all of this sounds like a lot, and it is: an explosion of creativity and weirdness. But Miéville makes it work so well that when the novel takes a turn into being a monster story, you’ll happily ride along with wherever he’s going. Miéville’s novels are also infused with his politics, non-authoritarian Marxism. Even if that isn’t your bag, you’ll probably still enjoy the scope and intensity of his imagined world.
The Darkness That Comes Before (2004)
R. Scott Bakker
I must admit I’ve only read this, the first in a multi-book epic, so I cannot knowledgably speak of the series as a whole. The Darkness That Comes Before, however, very much impressed me with its detailed and dark fantasy world, as well as the larger story it begins to tell here. The novel is set on a continent named Eärwa which was once inhabited by alien creatures but is now dominated by humanity. Eärwa is wracked by religious conflict, and the novel shows the beginning of a new Holy War, one that will draw the attention and talents of the mysterious wandering warrior Anasûrimbor Kellhus.
From what I understand, his rise and development, only begun here in this first novel, eventually is similar to that of Dune‘s Paul Atreides, though Kellhus is a darker, more ambivalent figure. Of all the works on this list, this is the one that’s closest to being a traditional work of high fantasy, but there’s nothing common or lazily Tolkien-derived about Bakker’s world. In tone and plot development, it resembles Game of Thrones in some ways, but it’s a far grimmer and more troublesome world than that of Martin’s. Eärwa feels so shadow-haunted and grim I have no qualms about labeling the novel horror-fantasy.
3 replies on “10 Epic Dark Fantasy Novels and Short Story Collections: Shadow-Plagued Worlds”
Some recommendations: I think you can add to the list Berserk that is THE medieval dark fantasy manga. The universe of Warhammer and Warhammer 40k could fit in this horror-fantasy worlds. The Library at Mount Char is one of the books I enjoyed the most reading it, I dunno if could be considerer horror fantasy but… sometimes pretty hardcore stuff in it.
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Epic-fantasy horror is my niche as an author. You can check out the Dark Goddess Chronicles at http://lostinthewood.net. Lethal Red Riding Hood and Gingerdread are available now, with book three (Ear Wyrm) working its way through copy editing.