In a writing group a member explained she had been criticised by a teacher for creative writing which featured a bleak theme. She was told no one reads dark stories. This is clearly wrong. I think her teacher meant “I don’t read bleak stories.” Of course our group came up with examples that contradicted her teacher beginning with Stephen King and Edgar Allan Poe. It is fine by the way, not to like a theme or genre: we all have different tastes. However, the tutor should have been honest: there is a lot of dark in the world and our art, entertainment, and stories use it. Some even revel in it.
Of course I agree with Nina Simone: artists are a prism through which our vision of the world is transformed, (for better or worse). Artists often have things to say about how bleak the world can be, in order to offer the contrasting joy and hope. Yet many stories begin from a point of darkness and head into bleaker territory. Because sometimes life is like that too. Yet, there is a larger point to be explored here. If we think about the most enduring stories; our myths, our legends and fairy tales, they all explore violence and war, murder, enslavement and rape, theft, loss, revenge, physical and psychic pain. Darkness is thus an ancient story telling tradition, perhaps even our oldest one.
Modern interpretations of ‘fairy tales’ calling themselves ‘dark retellings’ are wrong, because ‘dark fairy tale’ is a tautology. Fairy tales are vessels that convey layers of meaning and are thus already light and dark by their very nature. If you think a wolf eating a grandparent isn’t dark that’s a reflection on you, and that’s just for starters. Even if you argue they are symbolic, (and they are), why do they seem to depend upon such gruesome imagery? Are humans just naturally better at remembering terrible events?
You don’t have to read very far into whatever version of the Greek myths you have to see humans get horribly punished for espousing opinions on which the gods differ (like who is better looking Hera, Aphrodite or the other one). The gods can be seen as egotistic versions of humans, mostly behaving badly in response to the things humans do, or for reasons of their own.
But let’s look at Homer. He argues the Greeks will stage wars over a messy divorce (battle of Troy) and use human sacrifice to ensure their safe commute (Iphigenia). You may survive the 20 year trip back home (The Odyssey) but your crew will be turned into pigs, or otherwise die. When you get home, you find your wife (Penelope) is preyed upon by dude-bro wannabe island kings who you have to fight, but not before you execute all the palace staff first (for reasons). Even if these epic poems are symbolically charged works that delineate important lessons on the soul’s relationship with the body, and the body’s place in the cosmos (as I was taught btw) they are nonetheless brutal.
If the works of Homer are not dark enough, let’s look at other texts that the western world claim as foundational. Like the Pentateuch or Old Testament. The world barely existed before the members of the first family are killing each other because their god prefers meat over grain. Other crimes included eating meat with cheese, turning back to look at a city, and combining different kinds of textiles in the same outfit. Things that are not crimes include kidnap, rape, and selling your daughter as a sex slave.
Ok, different groups of Christians argue these books have been superseded by (a small selection of the) Gospels of the New Testament. But the world it is set in features Roman occupied cities full of poverty, political disenfranchisement, disease, and endorsed slavery. Its world is where justice consists of mob support of capital punishment. And this story sees the hero betrayed and denied by his closest friends before a prolonged death. Then the method of his torture becomes the symbol of this weird new death cult, as the Romans deemed it.
Things to terrorise your very soul.If the above doesn’t convince you that the darkest parts of history and myth aren’t somehow popular, with care taken for their transmission, I don’t know what will. Sure, some of it is about context, and ‘in groups’ and ‘out groups’ – ie those who are enslaved are outsiders. Yet I rewatch Pan’s Labyrinth and think about how violent its world is, and thus how far we haven’t come from stories of how a son could be stoned to death for being an insolent teen.
This darkness is infused in our religions, our moralities, our behaviours, our politics and our laws. Ancient traditions in story telling seem to teach us life is conflict. Then, we live like it is, and therefore our stories aren’t stories without it.
What it would take for a different way?