Recently I was interviewed by Charles Phipps, a fellow author, who asked me, among other questions, about the "grimdark phenomenon."
Grimdark is speculative fiction with an edge. For some that edge pokes out from the neck of an impaled person, a la Vlad Tepez's quaint hobby, as seen through the close up lens of a technicolor x-ray camera; for others, including yours truly, it is more the absence of the shining heroic stuff far too many commercial fantasy novels (and scifi) have been accused of, think Star Wars only that instead of robot limbs flying from a lightsaber attack it's actually more humanoid torsos and such. You know, not the glossed over crap that far too many PG 13 movies and such annoy the world-weary watcher.
In a different conversation the question was asked if we all saw grimdark as "just realistic fantasy." A term that might seem an oxymoron, but if inspected closely reveals the school of thought behind it. Some folks insisted that, to use the above impalement analogy, one had to see every square inch of intestine being perforated by less than pleasant characters. Vlad Tepez actually had a goal in mind when he impaled people, he didn't just do it for fun. Yet this specific definition requires the protagonists (a term only fitting in the sense that they work against someone, the antagonist, and not to be confused with the stereotypical 'hero') to have an alternate view on morality. Which would be okay, if that "alternate view" did not wholly consist of utterly vile behavior like, you know, killing children and raping women, usually before, during, and after every meal.
Granted, our 21st century sense of morality is still tainted by the notions of archaic religions which were and still are quite happy to vilify and persecute and even kill those whom they perceive as heretic. Humanist thoughts may have a place in speculative fiction, in fact they should have their place; after all, Conan of Cimmeria frees slaves. And many a fantasy story has the noble king, the noble knight, the benevolent woods witch, and wholesome, family friendly warfare in which blood rarely flows and people has as many gender identifying properties as Barbie and Ken. And the same bathroom needs.
The fallacy, in my opinion, of "there are no heroes" is that "everyone is a villain." It's the same fallacy as "without light there's only darkness." Ask a blind person what darkness is. There cannot be darkness without light. Maybe it is too philosophical a topic for many, but the point is: how can anyone be a bad guy when there are no good guys? If everyone is a villain, then everyone, by the same measure, is also a hero.
I've tried reading books with everyone a villain, aside from the all too boring torture-porn-esque bloodshed, the people being portrayed have no redeeming features. They kill and murder and rape their ways through the story, utterly contrary to the Fellowship of the Ring, but just as boring. (How many times can one read that some character gutted a foe and said foe's guts hit the floor? How many times can one read that the item they carry is EVIL? Same difference.) To compare the omniscient narrator in Tolkien's epic to a contemporary slaughter-fest is unfair, stylistically Lord of the Rings is of its time, and narration-wise there may not be as many differences, but since an author, at any time, needs to be put themselves into a character's frame of mind, such an immersion into a psychopath's thoughts is nigh impossible for anyone of sound mind – thus the near omniscient narrator who can eschew the more intimate details going in. If, however, an author uses his writings as masturbatory fantasies, as a "How I'd do it" kind of thing, worry. The latter is something I don't want to consider, at all, and from the looks of it neither do the splatter-grimdark authors.
Why? Because to understand a monster you need to become the monster, at least on a deeper emotional level. That readers, or viewers, find such stuff enjoyable is beyond me, but even there you won't find that many people who will say "Oh, I want to be like Hannibal Lecter or Jigsaw!"
Violence for its own sake is nothing to be proud of or to be interested in… unless you are a psychopath or sociopath. Rape is nothing to be proud of or to be interested in, other than wanting to use extreme violence on the rapists… okay, violence directed at bastards is something I can get behind, but there is a difference: the target of such violence! According to the "everyone is a villain" school of thought, a rape victim is also a villain, thus, in logical conclusion, "deserving" of the rape, same goes for whatever random killing-spree victim number fifteen. Since everyone is a villain, killing anyone is okay. In this type of scenario even child rape is okay. (Throwing up yet?) And therein lies the fallacy, dare I say idiocy of the "everyone is a villain" school of thought.
Rape is an act of domination as much as it is a sexual act. If two consenting people have intercourse, there can be no rape. If the society considers 14 the age of maturity, and some asshole pushes himself on a woman who clearly says "No!" you have rape. There is no scenario in which this is okay. Fuck the "differing moralities" argument some use in defense of grimdark. If an author wants to portray a society that says rape is okay, turning anyone person of that society into a viewpoint character should not be to glorify that society or person. "But he likes his dog" is not a valid argument either.
The danger inherent to the "differing sets of morality" argument is that it can be used to glorify such aspects, encourage people to live out their fantasies. It can also reveal the author's twisted personality. Furthermore, think on this: rape of Jews was perfectly okay in Nazi Germany.
Twisted and dark can mean a lot of things, but if "everyone is a villain," it gets far too easy to say "the victim deserved it." And frankly, I am not okay with that.
I'm not saying everybody is a hero either. Sometimes, if you want to get things done, you need to get your hands dirty. Dirty Harry, Martin Riggs, Blade, none of them are heroes, but neither are they villains. Yes, they are anti-heroes, they are protagonists, and yes, they have a different code of ethics, but not of morality. If that were so, Harry Callahan would shoot the woman holding her baby while the crook is taking her as hostage.
Neither am I saying that protagonists have to be all virtuous. A goody two shoes character with no flaws is as boring as a serial killer, from a character development point of view.
Grimdark should, in my opinion, fall in the middle.
The good vs. evil trope is old, I'd guess as old as monotheism. Why am I saying monotheism? Because in the plurality of a polytheistic society, evil was indeed a matter of perspective. If a god was everything, he was both good and evil, so in order to make the god more important and glorious adversaries needed to be the opposite.
But in the end, it was a person's actions that made a person. Was Odysseus a hero? Only to the Greeks, the people of Troy he was the enemy that brought down their city. But he was definitely not a good guy. Good guys are boring, evil guys are boring, and in our world, the real world, most people fall in between both sides.
In Lord of the Rings it was Boromir I could identify with the most. He wanted to use the "evil weapon" to defend his people. In a world where good and evil are so clearly defined, there is no middle ground. Not really. Sure, in the worlds of D&D we have neutral as a third element, but that neutrality gets put to the test in certain situations…
"Rape is good"
"Rape is bad"
"I don't care"
In some instances there is absolutely no middle ground! In such cases it is either right (I rescue the rape victim) or wrong (I rape the victim, and not doing anything is basically the same thing). The hero's path is always good, the villains path always evil, in a world where there is identifiable good and evil.
In Grimdark, like our real life world, there is no good and evil. Just right and wrong.
Sometimes the lines get blurred. Most of the times, with the exception of such things like rape and genocide. I intentionally left out cannibalism for one simple reason: Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, an instance where cannibalism is definitely not wrong. After all, they didn't kill folks to eat them, they ate the already deceased.
In fantasy the trend was, for the longest time, good clean PG-13 fun. People may die, but it's never violent. Ask any victim of war, it's never family friendly, otherwise we would not have any refugees but mega sales for whatever snack-food these people consume as they observe the battles on their sofas. Combat is bloody, and definitely not nice! Reality has the annoying habit to ignore diverse ratings boards. Pesky reality. Unlike the movies, and many family friendly fantasy novels, living wasn't nice and easy as a farmer's child, or as a soldier in the front lines. History is full of battles were warriors had to wade through entrails and blood and feces, that is nothing spectacular, to them, or to anyone who has been in a war zone, so these people are bound to not be as traumatized as a non-combatant caught in the middle. (Then again, being caught in the middle of two clashing medieval armies usually meant one turned into minced meat.) But even the "civilians" had more experience with blood and guts than us 21st century folk. Nowadays we buy our meat at the supermarket, neatly packed, pre-cut, ready to be cooked. How many of us can say that we have taken part in the butchering of a pig or piglet or cow or calf? How many of us see butchers doing their work with blood being swept onto the street in front of their shops? Not all of us are hunters, most of us have never shot a gun at anything other than some sort of non-living target, or seen blood from more than a paper cut. Some of us have had broken limbs, or worse.
But frankly, seeing a broken leg with the fractured bone ends sticking out and the victim screaming suffices to drive home the fact that we are fragile creatures. How many of us have ever truly considered how the meat for our steaks is gathered? How many want to?
Grimdark is a reaction to the glossed over stories of shining heroes in shining armors whose swords never rust or get bloody and who still win the day. Who knows, maybe even those heroes' shit shines? We cannot identify with heroes. Sure, we would like to be Luke Skywalker, or Samwise Gamgee, or any number of archetypical folks, but fact is: more often than not it is not the bad guys that die! We're far too jaded, far too bombarded by the shit that goes on in the places of power to still buy into the delusion that the good guys win and the bad guys lose. We learn that before Pearl Harbor, American oil companies did smashing business with both sides of the Second World War. That normal people do not matter to the folks we elected into power. That most bosses don't give a flying fuck about their employees' wellbeing and will fire people just to see their stock prices rise.
If bad guys were the ones to die, we would not have such "leaders."
We know all this. Which is why we have more and more trouble, the more we know, to accept the heroes of yore. The guy who rescues a potential rape victim is just a guy, a hero to the victim certainly, but a lawbreaker to the officials because he also broke the rapist's jaw and nose. In fiction, such a character might be the protagonist, and he might not only break a few bones but the rapist's spine for good measure, because he has seen firsthand how rape victims wither. Hells, he might even kill the rapist. Not only that, but he might get away with it as well. – Not the actions of a "good" guy, but certainly the actions of a guy.
We don't need heroes, we sure as fuck don't need more psychopaths and sociopaths, but we need people, flawed and broken, who despite all that do what needs to be done. That to me is grimdark. That to me is realism in fantasy.
(Allan, here. To learn more about Ulff, go to: www.amazon.com/Ulff-Lehmann/e/B01M3NGFOL/ref=dp_byline_cont_ebooks_1