In Praise of Grimdark

“To be a man in such times is to be one amongst untold billions. It is to live in the cruelest and most bloody regime imaginable. These are the tales of those times. Forget the power of technology and science, for so much has been forgotten, never to be relearned. Forget the promise of progress and understanding, for in the grim dark future there is only war. There is no peace amongst the stars, only an eternity of carnage and slaughter, and the laughter of thirsting gods.” – Warhammer 40’000

For a few reasons (specifically the launch of Warhammer 40’000 Eighth Edition and the possibility of meeting Pat Mills at Glasgow Comic Con) I’ve been thinking about how important the Grimdark style of fantasy story has been to me over the years.

Now, for the uninitiated, Grimdark is a loose term to describe fantasy and science fiction stories which are as the name suggests, determinedly grim and characterised by hopelessness and violence, punctuated by dark humour and generally rubbing the reader’s nose in the awfulness of the situation presented.

Grimdark sits in contrast to the idea of a Noblebright setting where things like destiny and the power of true love tend to win out over baddies, anti-heroes are redeemed and become plain old heroes and the author doesn’t linger over details like citizens dying of the pox. It could be said that this contrast epitomises the difference between Low and High Fantasy but that doesn’t quite sit right with me for a few reasons that I can’t quite articulate.

For me, Grimdark is best exemplified by science fiction settings like the vast Warhammer 40’000 canon and classic 2000AD titles like Judge Dredd, Nemesis the Warlock and the ABC Warriors. However, Grimdark works equally well in a fantasy setting as especially well shown in the work of Joe Abercrombie or video game settings such as the Witcher or Dark Souls.

When I was about nine years old, my neighbour who was a few years older was into tabletop wargames and when his folks were looking after me in the gap between school finishing and my mum getting home from work, we used to play Blood Bowl and I’d read his source books while he was painting.

Those books included the Realms of Chaos books – the Lost & the Damned and Slaves to Darkness, which detailed the influence of the Chaos Gods on both the Warhammer Fantasy and Warhammer 40’000 settings and introduced ideas such as the Horus Heresy and corpse-emperor.

These beautifully (or horribly, depending on your point of view) illustrated books were like peering into a whole new universe for a nine-year-old and the effect has stayed with me.  They also introduced me to the artwork of artists like Adrian Smith and John Blanche which has influenced me ever since.

Over the following years, I was also exposed to 2000AD with the Two Torquemadas story in Nemesis the Warlock and the Black Hole story for the ABC Warriors being especially memorable.

Thinking about it as a grown up, I’ve always been attracted to these stories and settings because they deviate from storytelling norms in ways that I find more reflective of real life and allow more realistic and compelling stories to be told, while still having the escapism and freedom of fantasy settings.

All of the protagonists are anti-heroes at best and arguably just as bad, if not worse than the villains who could similarly be seen sympathetically as just doing what they need to do in an uncaring universe.

However, the unrelenting darkness of such settings does allow for flashes of light with stories of sacrifice, of heroism against incredible odds, just plain taking joy in being contrary in playing/rooting for the bad guy and vast amounts of dark humour.

At the end of the day, this kind of setting is about exploring the human condition and your characters motivations without having to worry about a happy ending and with enough distance from ‘reality’ to be extra cynical about everything.

Suffice to say, I’m an avowed follower of the Grimdark ways and I think it’s worth your while checking out some of my favourite works in the genre – don’t worry, I’m not going to recommend any wargame source books…

Chris’s Introduction to Grimdark Reading List

Joe AbercrombieBest Served Cold & the First Law series
Dan Abnett Eisenhorn Trilogy & Gaunt’s Ghosts series.
Pat MillsNemesis the Warlock – the Two Torquemadas (best found in the Complete Nemesis the Warlock, Volume Two)
Pat Mills – ABC Warriors – the Black Hole (best found in the Mek Files 01 collection)


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