Horror vs. Dark Fantasy--What's the Difference?

I'm a big fan of horror, and also of fantasy, which means the line where those two genres meet and meld is one of my favorite thematic crossroads.  While horror and dark fantasy have a lot in common and there are lots of books that could reasonably be listed under both categories, there are a few differences that might give an indication as to which you would prefer, especially if you're new to either genre.  Here's a quick and easy guide to determining where a book falls on the fantasy/horror spectrum:


Is it scary?

Certain Dark Things Dracula

Both dark fantasy and horror have moments of tension, fear, terror, or your own personal favorite reaction to things that go bump in the night.  But with horror, the point is to be afraid.  The story is written to be scary.  Dark fantasy, while it might be occasionally frightening, generally isn't out to scare you from start to finish.  Dark fantasy can also be atmospherically dark—think books that are also described as "gritty" or "noir."  They delve into the unseemly and unseen side of things, creating stories that aren't filled with jump scares but rather apprehension and suspense.

For example, Silvia Moreno-Garcia's Certain Dark Things is a vampire book that's closer to fantasy than horror because, unlike Stoker's Dracula, Moreno-Garcia's vampires are, well, "human" as well as being frightening and perhaps even monstrous.  When monsters aren't necessarily the bad guys, it really takes the wind out of the sails of using them to inspire horror.


Is it magical?

Survive the Night Book of Night

Horror doesn't necessarily need to be supernatural (though personally, I like it better when it is!).  Humans and/or nature are more than capable of being pretty terrifying without any help from magical or supernatural elements.

For example, check out The Long Walk or Misery by Stephen King, Just Like Mother by Anne Heltzel, or Survive the Night by Riley Sager.  But fantasy has to have some element of the imaginary to it, whether it's overtly magical like Holly Black's Book of Night or more magical realism, like the beautifully gothic The Maker of Swans by Paraic O'Donnell.

That said, lots of horror is magical or supernatural in some way.  How many cursed toys, pieces of jewelry, books, places, etc. have featured in stories over the years?  How many impossible creatures have chased people through dark and spooky houses or tangled woods?  Almost without fail, these are considered horror instead of dark fantasy, primarily because those magical elements are used to inspire fear.  Fantasy, on the other hand, carries with it the conotation of an impossible dream come true, so in dark fantasy, magical elements can be frightening, but need some function beyond just being there to scare.


Does any of this matter?

Ninth HouseMaybe.  Maybe not.  If you're a bookseller debating whether to shelve a book in the horror or fantasy section, it matters a bit.  We like to have things arranged so that readers can find the kinds of books they'll enjoy without having to search multiple sections.  But of course, if we find that folks tend to look for Leigh Bardugo's Ninth House in fantasy instead of horror (where it is currently shelved, FYI), we can always move it there. 

For readers more generally, is this distinction between genres important?  Sometimes.  It depends on the reader.  In my experience, readers who enjoy specuative "genre fiction," like fantasy, science fiction, or horror, are not too picky about moving between those genres to find what they're after.  Readers who are more reluctant to delve into books that, for some reason I cannot fathom, are still sometimes considered the literary equivalent of cotton candy, might be put off by a label of "fantasy" and miss out on a book they would very much enjoy, whereas if it were shelved as horror, they might be more likely to consider it.  The reverse is also true—fans of sword and sorcery fantasy might be reluctant to pick up a book labeled horror if what they're really interested in is the magic, and thus miss out on scary necromatic awesomeness, or something like that.  


So my recommendation is this.  If you like books that are scary, magical, or any combination thereof, try out a whole range of speculative fiction.  Dark fantasy, gaslamp, steampunk, supernatural horror, occult: all these subgenres are labels to help point you in the right direction, but it's also fine to try an unexpected route.  And while you're on your literary journey, here are a few stops I recommend:


book coverThe Wolf and the Watchman (Horror)

According to the publisher, this is a work of historical crime fiction, but that historical crime is pretty horrific.  This book features scenes that are gross, graphic, and weird, and yet I couldn't put it down.  It's frequently compared to Caleb Carr's The Alienist, which makes sense, but while Carr's book is clearly about the crime, I think The Wolf and the Watchman is less about finding the killer and more about comprehending the horror.

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book coverA Deadly Education (Dark Fantasy)

How can a book with such a funny, snarky narrator be dark fantasy?  Well, when it's set in a school full of monsters continually trying to eat you, things get pretty dark.  Admittedly, this one falls on the lighter side, as it lacks a lot of the malevolence you find in really dark magical stories, but it's also too dark to be a good next step for tweens who enjoyed Harry Potter.  Bookseller pro tip—if you haven't started this series yet, pace yourself.  The third and final installment, The Golden Enclaves, is out this September and the second book ends on a cliffhanger!

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The Resurrectionist:book cover The Lost Work of Dr. Spencer Black (Dark Fantasy)

This one is a little different, as it's as much a work of art as it is a story.  In fact, the narrative elements are fairly limited, so you're left to piece together what you think happened to the eponymous Dr. Spencer Black and his creatures.  Impossible, atmostpheric, and wondrous, coupled with some definitely scary bits?  Definitely a dark fantasy, if not your typical presentation.

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book coverRevelator (Horror)

I love this book!  It's deeply creepy, thanks in part ot the insular backwoods Appalachian community where it takes place, in part to the bizarre happenings and rituals described, and in no small part to the use of the name "Ghostdaddy" for the mysterious creature at the center of the story.  Cults, monsters, gods or devils...this book has a little bit of everything, and all of it is scary.

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book coverYellow Jessamine (Dark Fantasy)

For a tiny little novella, this book packs a serious punch.  Lady Evelyn Perdanu is a shipping magnate with blood and dirt on her hands.  She's a master poisoner, having used her knowledge of plants and herbs to quietly murder her way to success—killing off her brothers to prevent them using her to secure an advantageous marriage.  Now, though, her wicked acts might be bearing fruit of a different kind.  A strange disease is sweeping the city and each victim has only one thought—finding Evelyn.  It's a story focused intently on its characters, which leaves the background ripe for imagination and contemplation.  For a less fantastical and more horrific book from this author, check out The Death of Jane Lawrence.

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book coverAll the White Spaces (Horror)

As someone who positively hates being cold, this tale of Antarctic adventure sounds like horror even before the inexplicable things start happening.  In the spirit of The Terror by Dan Simmons, All The White Spaces follows an expedition plagued by something out on the ice, but this time, the creature—is it a creature?—seems to be less of a monster and more of a nightmare.  Psychologically fraught and exploring questions of identity and self-worth, this is a slow-moving but inexorable horror story that brings to life the claustrophobic terror of being trapped and stalked in a place where even the elements are against you.

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