Let me state this unequivocally: Grimdark is not new. The term is, to be sure, but the actual writing style? Hardly. I imagine a dozen different scholarly types would go back in time and tell you exactly where they believe Grimdark started. I am not a scholar. I read. I write. Somewhere along the way, I started writing Grimdark.
What I pen is often grim and certainly dark. I am not known for cheery endings in my stories and the best of my characters tend to have a rather vague concept of the moral high ground. When I was writing horror it was just called horror, or, oddly, urban fantasy.
That was the right definition in both cases, but, like horror, grimdark borders on being an emotional mindset. The notion that the world will not end nicely, the thought that sometimes genuine people do wicked things and that the healthiest people are not really at the centre of your stories? That is not something entirely new. It has been around since Shakespeare at the very least. It has just been renamed.
We can look at several mythologies and see certain elements of grimdark. The Norse had a special love of bloodshed in their tales. The greatest fighters, the most savage and fearless, got a reward when they died. They got to go live with the gods and fight with them every day until the universe ended.
But I said I was indulging with fiction. I would not argue the validity of mythologies. I will just hold on to the printed word and the flesh. Going with the description that Wikipedia gave us, I would have to say that the real origins of the subgenre go all the way back to Robert Ervin Howard and Fritz Leiber. Robert Ervin Howard’s Conan and Solomon Kane among others are seldom swashbuckling adventures about characters with a high moral background (Kane is arguable) Kull the Conqueror, really most of Robert Ervin Howard’s fiction creations, all have certain things in common. They are tough as nails, they are flawed, and they answer most questions with carnage. Do you want to know why most Conan movies do not hold up? Because they feel the need to make Conan a likeable character, and, frankly, he is certainly far from being a friendly persona. He might be a pleasant fellow if you are on his good side, but first and foremost he is a survivor of a critical era. Each movie feels the need to make him noble. Each movie wants to tell you how he was wrong and recovered from impossible odds. They must, as with previous Spiderman and Batman movies, tell you how he became Conan. If you venture into reading the original story told by Robert Ervin Howard, you will know that Conan was born on a battlefield, yet, there is much more to unveil which the movies left out.
Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser tales are another perfect examples of grimdark. You have a cutthroat and a barbarian going around and doing their utmost best to survive in a world that seems determined to kill them. Along the way, much slaughter ensues and any attempt to find morality is pushed aside as sorcerers and worse things repeatedly cross paths with the good guys. Seriously, you should read these books. They are absolutely amazing. There is humour but it is dark and earthy. There are tales of greed, lust, woe and the occasional deity.
I could, again, argue that Shakespeare is close to the real start, but let us be honest here: there is no true origin. Much of it depends on what you prefer and where you look. You could debate that blues and jazz are the foundations of rock n roll. You could also argue that rock and country come from the same origins.
Some would argue that grimdark did not start until novels evolved. I have argued that with a few people and I am not sure if I agree, however, I can see their logic. I just do not think it is accurate. I think Sword & Sorcery is best served as a short story. I think grimdark works well on both levels. Leiber, Howard, a lot of contemporary Sword & Sorcery writers, wrote short stories. They did not write novels. They collected their tales into books, but they did not really write very many novels. A few, I will grant that. Mostly, however, they worked in shorter forms.
The thing is, High Fantasy, The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Chronicles of Prydain, Terry Brooks’ Shannara series, to just name a few, works better in novel form. There is a different sort of paradigm. There is definitely darkness in all of them. They get grim and gritty, but there is a different perspective. The heroes might be weak from time to time, but they are, overall, a different breed of people. The stories themselves talk of prophecies and good versus evil in a different light. The stories lend themselves to sweeping combats, epic battles and legends that span centuries. There is almost always going to be an ending where the heroes have made sacrifices for the betterment of the world. Where the world is better for those actions.
Grimdark can have epics, but they are not the same beasts. That is just not the case in grimdark. Your hero might be aiming to make the world a better place, or might believe the actions taken will be for the betterment of all, but, really, the predestination is gone. The light of a better tomorrow is dimmed by the bloodshed and actions of a world populated by less savoury people. You do not get high kings and heroes. You get politicians, sellswords and homicidal maniacs with bloodied axes. You get torturers, sorcerers with an agenda that has nothing to do with helping the world out. You get wonderfully flawed people who are part of a tapestry that is dyed in stains of red and grey instead of black and white. The best colours are muted by shadows. The brightest places are buried under mountains of ash.
Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion series of books often has an element of High Fantasy. His Elric of Melnibone books, however, do not. Elric is a drug addict, a hedonist, a powerful sorcerer who rules over a stagnating empire and a morally bankrupt soul that takes what he needs in order to survive. And he is the generous fellow. And most of the dangerous fellows are honestly even worse. Though there are heroes in the series, most of them are mowed down by Elric and his unearthly sword, Stormbringer. It is not Elric doing the killing, either, it is the sword. In order to survive, he needs the sword far more it seems than the sword needs him.
Lest I forget, a few names you should be considering as you go about your research of grimdark. Tanith Lee is often catalogued in Dark Fantasy and Gothic fiction, but some of that is simply because Grimdark did not exist when she was doing most of her writing. You should check out her work. Seek the Birthgrave Trilogy. It does not get much grimmer. The same is true of Marion Zimmer Bradley. While some of her words are decidedly High Fantasy, she never hesitated to slide into the Grimdark regions, just a couple of names that are often overlooked in the history of Grimdark and names that I feel should not be neglected. They certainly had their influences on my work.
I mentioned rock n roll earlier: The thing is, grimdark is a lot like Rock and Roll. Grimdark is its own thing. But if you look back, you can see the roots of it hidden in other things. Shakespeare? Sure. Why not. Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein? Absolutely. It does not get much darker. Leiber and Howard? You better believe it. You can throw Lovecraft into that mix, and Machen and a few dozen others. Just as with Rock, they have added riffs here and there. They have tossed in certain sounds and sensations that are uniquely their own, often imitated and never duplicated. The seeds come from all over the place, the roots grow together in a dark place where heroes are flawed at best and amoral at worst. The gods of these realms do not promise light and redemption: they demand sacrifice and they offer nothing in return but, perhaps, continued existence. There is no Christ here. There is Crom. There is no magic without a cost and the price is high enough that only the foolish or the very mad would consider working those dark sorceries. Hope is a foolish notion and the best you can hope for is being strong enough to survive the worst life tries to throw your way.
It is often a dark world. But the rules are simple. Survival of the fittest. He who draws first wins. The Old West is made manifest. The empires of the world are shaped and restructured depending on the whims of sorcerers, gods and men who can wield a bloodied sword.
He who sacrifices the most is not guaranteed a place in Heaven, but he who can cut enough throats might make it to a place where they can retire in relative peace. Or not.