Grimdark, as it has been defined by folks more in the know than yours truly, is both a genre and a style of narrative that is, well, grim, dark, gritty, and slightly dystopian. You’ll also find the words “amoral,” or “hopeless” attached to it. But it is sometimes easier to identify in its manifestations than its qualities. For example, it is generally agreed that George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones is grimdark. But things get murkier after that. Is Joe Abercrombie grimdark? How about Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner? Is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road grimdark? Or just effing grim?
I certainly aspire to it in my books, but the optimist and former stand-up comedian in me can’t resist the occasional flash of unwarranted absurdity. Sue me. Whether my works qualify or not, though, that thing we call “grimdark” has been around a good deal longer than its name.
Take Macbeth. If you feel anything but lousy after seeing or reading it, you either didn’t understand the text or you watched a bad production. Macbeth getting his comeuppance isn’t supposed to be satisfying. It’s a rusty dirk to the gut. Macbeth was the good guy in the beginning, the golden boy. But he runs afoul of some witches (including his wife!) and his own ambition, and all that potential is washed down the drain with a river of blood. The guys who come after him? The debate’s still out on those weasels.
Have you read or seen Titus Andronicus? It makes Game of Thrones look like something you’d see on Teen Nick. Maiming, decapitations, rape, murder, cannibalism. And that’s just in the ticket line.
And the real tragedy of Hamlet is that he lives in a world without sanity, reason or hope. What could be more grimdark than his line:
How stand I then,
That have a father kill'd, a mother stain'd,
Excitements of my reason and my blood,
And let all sleep? while, to my shame, I see
The imminent death of twenty thousand men,
That, for a fantasy and trick of fame,
Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot
Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause,
Which is not tomb enough and continent
To hide the slain?
And I could go on and on about Othello and Lear as well. The point is these flavors have been around for centuries, at the very least. That we’ve only just gotten round to naming them is our bad.