Grimdark: Revolution or Fad?

This post is rife with spoilers for Game of Thrones, True Detective, and Fullmetal Alchemist. You have been warned.

The kayaking did not work. In fact, the term “spectacular failure” might be appropriate. Though I’m quick to distance myself from responsibility: it’s the Necanicum’s fault. That river is too low to navigate. I was walking as often as I paddled.

I’ve hit 29 rejections for The Glass Thief, and several helpful redditors have suggested that perhaps trying to debut with a 163k novel about lobsters is not the smoothest move in recorded history. Since The Valley of Steel is nearly first-drafted, and I intend to query it by the end of 2015, I don’t feel that trapped by this realization: in fact, I think it has helped thicken my skin. Meantime, I’ve tweaked my query again to remove crustacean references, so I’ll have a better chance to catch them with the first pages. The next round of eight goes out later today.

But first I am feverishly cutting “A Tale of Rust Town” down to 7,500 words so that I can enter it in Michael J. Sullivan’s Kickstarter-associated short story contest, where the first-prize winner will have their story bundled with all editions of the latest novel in his Riyria Revelations series. While “The Foaling Season” would also be eligible, Sullivan (who I thank publicly for creating this opportunity for an aspiring but obscure writer) writes fantasy that tends toward the lighter. Thus, since “Foaling Season” is about slavery, war, a suffering family, and a conflict of duty and love that mostly plays out in one man’s head, I might do better with “Rust Town.” While it is about human nature, grief, violence, and desperation, it’s also about flying machines, magic crystals, intelligent floating spheres, poisonous green clouds, and an aesthetic that hovers somewhere between steampunk and clockpunk. In case it’s not clear, I had fun writing it.

Genre considerations regarding Sullivan are a great segue into the body of this post. The term “grimdark,” according to TvTropes, that website I will not apologize for loving, originated with ad copy for Warhammer 40,000 which stated that “in the grim darkness of the future, there is only war.” It refers to a work with an exceedingly bleak outlook: nobody is safe from brutal death, nobody is truly good, and any minor victory by a character only sets them up for a harder fall down the road. And the grimdarkiest of the grimdark is, of course, Game of Thrones.

It’s no stretch to say that everything on TV wants to be Game of Thrones these days. The fantasy drama nobody thought would work is now an enormous cultural force–as one of the producers relates, European customs officials who used to ask if it was a game show now say “Don’t kill Arya!”–and it’s gaining followers. The creators of The Bernie Mac Show are even on the train, adapting, of all things, The Name of the Wind, a rendition I’m increasingly scared will be less The Lord of the Rings and more The Last Airbender. Meanwhile, The Atlantic speculates that Game of Thrones, True Detective, The Walking Dead, and other shows are skewing bleak due to shame about their “genre” roots. In movies, Warner Brothers has reportedly demanded “no jokes” for their continued, futile attempt to start a DC cinematic universe to rival Marvel’s (which has jokes).

The message is that everyone wants brutal, bleak, and unhappy, that everyone rushes back to the set for the next installment after their favorite character gets stabbed or eaten or burned to death. “Dark,” at some point in the last few years, became a universal compliment. I’ve had multiple arguments about the ending of the first season of True Detective, which my beloved mother continues to claim is too happy, despite the fact that it involves multiple members of a child-murdering cult escaping justice and Woody Harrelson’s Marty Hart realizing he will never regain the family he destroyed by sleeping around. “Too happy” because Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) suggests that maybe the whole of existence might not be a giant wine press that repeatedly crushes our souls for eternity.

I love Game of Thrones, both the show and its source material. But the grimdark just gets in the way for me, and I think a lot of fans will agree. I don’t tune in to watch Sansa get raped (speaking of Ramsay Bolton, funny how nobody can be entirely good but we’re fine with people being totally evil), or Shireen get set on fire, and I don’t think other average viewers do, either–but it seems like the showrunners deviate from the source material precisely to shove that kind of thing into the narrative where it doesn’t really belong. George R.R. Martin has a method to his darkness: partly for historical veracity, and partly to get us invested. Imagine a chapter somewhere in A Dream of Spring where Arya Stark has a shot to do some real, lasting good for Westeros. After she’s watched her father’s beheading, been captured a bunch of times in a row, witnessed the Red Wedding, and surrendered her identity to a bunch of creepy Assassin’s Creed types, I will root for her success harder than I have rooted for any character in my life. It’s not that GRRM wants to be different from every other fantasy. It’s that he wants us totally immersed in his fantasy. The man has never been ashamed to be a creator.

Another case in point: I’m currently re-watching Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, the show that got me into anime and was probably a bad place to start because everything about it is so dang good. Seriously. The animation, the music, the plot that feels tightly wound despite stretching five or six threads over sixty-four episodes, and the supremely lovable Elric brothers at the center of it all. But this show is dark. Its fourth episode is about a man who turns his daughter into a hellish dog-creature just so he can keep his cushy government salary. A few episodes later, a goofy family-man military officer is shot to death by a recurring villain. A past genocide, which is referred to as such, which involved several major characters, and whose imagery we are not spared, is a major plot point.

Yet the good guys win. Despair is never final. Sacrifices prove to be worthwhile. And some kind of redemption is possible. Leonard Cohen sings that there is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in. I think that complimenting a work as “dark” is in fact complimenting it on how much light it reveals. We want to see the real world reflected, but the bleak is only half the picture.

I am not regarded by anyone who knows me as a particularly grimdark person. A friend has called me the happiest person she knows. Today, walking on the Seaside promenade, I touched the needles of a Sitka spruce, and started laughing out loud just because there were things in the world I could touch. I’ve been known to wander up and down the beach for hours, humming bits of my favorite soundtracks and coming up with ideas. So I’m biased, but I know this to be true: the great tragedies are only able to be tragedies because there is, in the end, something to restore. Even Hamlet saves Horatio. Even King Lear spares Edgar.

So I’m calling it now: the person standing in the ashes of Westeros when all is said and done will be one of the good ones. If it’s a Bolton or a Frey, the show is going to end up in the dustbin of history. Stuff tends to fade in the distance when there is no light to see it by.

Whew. Apologies for how long that got. Next week’s post likely to be about hunting bullfrogs.