Darkness Has Its Place

Last week I talked about how light, escapist fiction may not be so escapist at all.  Does this mean I don’t like fiction that deals with darker issues?  Not in the least.  I will admit that the outcome of the story will have a lot to do with whether I decide to go back to the story at some future date, but even with those books I know I’ll never read again or movies I won’t watch again, I often take away something that makes me think.

Be Brave

Be Brave

If light stories remind us why we live, dark stories often supply the tools that help us forge ahead when living seems to be too demanding.  Frodo’s anguished determination as he slogs through Mordor.  Or Tell Sackett’s lone stand against those who murdered his wife and now want him out of the way, as well.  Or…  You must have your stories that inspire you, even in their darkest parts.

One of the greatest compliments I ever received was in a series of e-mails from a reader who told me that my Firekeeper books had kept her going during a really bad time in her life.  I assumed this was because the books had let her escape.  The final e-mail I received from her showed differently.  She mentioned that she was going on a trip to Europe with her mother and that, although she was afraid of going to strange places and of snakes and of several other things, she was “going to be like Firekeeper and be brave.”

Even those dark stories in which the challenges aren’t mighty and heroic can be wonderfully heartening.  When I was in high school, I read Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.  This is not a light story, but it has remained with me all my life, serving as a talisman about trying to find victory even when surrounded by what looks like defeat.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the tale, it recounts one day spent by Alexander Denisovich  Shukhov, a prisoner the Stalin-era Siberian labor camps.  The final paragraphs, in which Shukhov seeks value where most would concentrate on the horrible conditions in which he lives (including the fact that he’s imprisoned for no justifiable reason at all), are worth quoting.  Here they are in Ralph Parker’s translation:

“Shukhov went to sleep fully content.  He’d had many strokes of luck that day: they hadn’t put him in the cells; they hadn’t sent his squad to the settlement; he’d swiped a bowl of kasha at dinner; the squad leader had fixed the rates well; he’d built a wall and enjoyed doing it; he’d smuggled that bit of hacksaw blade through; he’d earned a favor from Tsezar that evening; he’d bought that tobacco.  And he hadn’t fallen ill.  He’d got over it.

“A day without a dark cloud.  An almost happy day.

“There were three thousand, six hundred, and fifty-three days like that in his stretch.  From the first clang of the rail to the last clang of the rail.

“Three thousand, six hundred, fifty-three days.

“The extra three days were for leap years.”

Nor did I stop with this fictional account with this very qualified “happy” ending.  I also read Solzehnitsyn’s very long Gulag Archipelago.  Powerful stuff.  Horrible stuff.  Frightening stuff.  Inspiring stuff.

There are other dark stories that have nothing to do with overt violence, rape, and mayhem.   A tale like Citizen Kane is about forgetting what you really care about – in that, it’s very depressing.  It’s also uplifting, if you choose to take from it a reminder of what you do care about.

Going back to Winston Churchill for a moment.  (For those of you who didn’t join us last week; Churchill’s life is what got me started on this train of thought.)   His life wasn’t a novel.   Readers bring expectations to novels – and believe me, I’m still getting angry fan mail from readers who feel I violated their expectations as to who Firekeeper should have settled down with!

The boy Winston didn’t know as he struggled with his erratic academic career (at one point, his father despaired of him as sub-intelligent) that he would be remembered as a brilliant writer and historian.  The young Winston, who broke with the Conservatives on matters of principle, didn’t know that twenty years later, he’d be welcomed back.  The  political “exile” didn’t know that exile would end.  As far as Winston knew, he – like his father – would find that standing up for his principles would mean his political career was over.

One of the things that sustained Winston Churchill thorough all of this were stories: stories about idealism and heroism, stories about friendship, stories about valor.  He was a historian, and so knew all too well how vicious humans could be to other humans.  However, he chose his models and tried to live up to them – even when he was aware of how often he failed.

Now, I’ll admit, I don’t particularly like reading stories about nasty people doing even nastier things to other people, but I can find value in them.  When I find myself getting upset, I look at why I’m so offended by the content.  Often, in the process, I learn what I value.  That’s worth something in itself.

When I was in college, Stephen R. Donaldson’s “Chronicles of Thomas Covenant” were on everyone’s “must read” list.  As the series unfolded, I noticed something interesting.  Darkness, grittiness, and edgy content weren’t enough to sustain the readership.  As Covenant refused to learn and grow, the series lost readers…  It never recovered.

In fact, I suspect that most readers of “dark” fiction are waiting for the light at the end of the tunnel.   I’m willing to be told I’m wrong.   I’d be curious as to your response.


14 Responses to “Darkness Has Its Place”

  1. The Great ME! Says:

    I normally don’t comment on these when I read them, but I couldn’t help but laugh aloud(and probably make my relatives wonder) at: “…and believe me, I’m still getting angry fan mail from readers who feel I violated their expectations as to who Firekeeper should have settled down with!”

    A reoccuring theme that sort-of both perplexes, annoys, and humors me all in one go(an odd combination to be sure) is when readers or viewers of a series create their own version of the characters in their head and who should be paired with who. I’ve seen you mention anime before, though I’m not sure if you’ve watched Legend of Korra, but the creators of that series at Nickelodeon actually dropped doing character pairings entirely, saying “No matter what pairings we chose to play around with, fans were always upset when it wasn’t the ones they envisioned”. Honestly, to me, it was kind of a disappointment. It’s like going out into society and telling someone else “You can’t like this person because I want you to like that one instead, they’re more perfect for you”, only to have someone else do the same again every time you try to hook up with that other person someone else told you to. I always viewed character relations as up to their creators to decide and something to develop naturally as part of the story, because really, who knows the characters and how they’d manage to get along better than those who made them? I may not always agree on some pairings, but I respect them anyway, because it’s really not up to me. I suppose not everyone has the same respect for the characters’ development and their creators choices though.

    Back to the subject of dark fiction, I’m a big fan of it myself, much more than light fiction. Of course there does need to be some progression, rather than simply dwelling within the cess pool of negativity or darkness for all time(however that may be accomplished), or it gets dull, that’s true. Of course, aside from just being inspirational when a character crawls out from the murk and manages to overcome whatever their challenges have been, at the time that they’re fighting through their troubles, sometimes it’s just nice to reflect upon the characters and events and see it in perspective relativity and be able to say, “Wow, I’m sure glad MY troubles aren’t as bad as all that”, but maybe that’s a bit sadistic of me(guilty as charged XD).

    I suppose my biggest fear as an aspiring writer is that some might not like some of the dark pieces I write enough to keep them afloat, and sometimes wonder if maybe it’s a little “too” much, though I have often heard that how much is TOO much is subjective, depending on the type of story you have going. I suppose that is something I’ll have to find out for myself.

    Another great Wandering for my wednesday morning :3 Thanks for the read.

    • janelindskold Says:

      I’ve watched the entire “Avatar: The Last Airbender” series at least twice. I haven’t tried Korra, but I think the creators made a bad decision. I was among those who wondered some of the pairing in the first series, but thinking about them and wondering why I resisted was a good exercise for me. I felt I grew as a “reader” and writer.

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    The funny thing is that my objection to Firekeeper was the number of dropped plotlines I kept waiting to be resolved: did the beasts go to war with humans? What role did the dragon play after its titular story? I kept thinking that the series would build up to this incredible conflict that would be defused through some really fraught, multi-species diplomacy in which Firekeeper would be forced to grow out of being just a wolf and become a peacemaker.

    Sigh. That was my unrealized fantasy. Oh well.

    As for dark/light, personally I’m getting tired of this dichotomous color scheme. Yes, I know this kind of light/dark, good/evil dichotomy so thoroughly embedded in our culture that it’s unavoidable, but good grief, where’s the rest of the spectrum? What does a gray-green book look like, for instance? Or dark purple? Yes, on one level it’s silly, but I bet you thought of something like an ecothriller novel when I said gray-green, right? Is there any way we can get just a bit more polychromatic in our discussion of what’s enjoyable in novels?

    • Peter Says:

      See Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey (the lack of a number at the beginning is important there…) for the last word on full-spectrum fiction 😉

    • janelindskold Says:

      I protest. The plotlines were not “dropped.” If you anticipated events that the books did not provide, that does not mean I “dropped” them.

      And Firekeeper does grow from being “just a wolf…” if not in the direction you would anticipated.

      Now… I challenge thee, noble reader, I agree that dark, light are too dichotomous. However, while saying “grey-green’ and “dark purple” are very clever, what do you actually mean?

      • Heteromeles Says:

        Sure, although your color assignments may differ:

        red: primary focus on sex and/or violence

        orange: primary focus on the physical world, as in very hard SF (cf: Robert Forward)

        yellow: ideas fiction

        green and brown: where the primary focus is on the non-human environment. Green stories tend to be more about the growing part of the natural world, (think pastorales), brown about dealing with the limits of the environment (think of it as a very deep brown).

        Blue: primary focus on emotions. I’d put many romances here

        Purple: primary focus on power and politics.

        To this you can add a discussion of light, dark, shades of gray, and so forth, although some categories don’t work very well. Also, I’d suggest that many stories can be multi-colored.

  3. Thomas rawlins Says:

    I think ,perhaps, that readers who don’t like the ending the author writes, should try writing a story themselves. Then they would find that there is no such thing as a story that pleases everyone! After all, Firekeeper was your story. I like and own all of your books. They make me think. Thank You!

  4. Paul Says:

    SF author/editor Ted White once published a novel (“By Furies Possessed”) because he hated how a particular “Star Trek” episode turned out (“This Side of Paradise”) and wanted to do his own take on it. He provided his own “light at the end of the tunnel.”

    • janelindskold Says:

      I need to see if I have that one.

      Also, Joe Haldeman’s FOREVER WAR was a call and response to Heinlein’s STARSHIP TROOPERS.

      And I know that several books in the recent flood of vampire stuff were written in direct response — no in praise — of the “Twlight” series.

  5. janelindskold Says:


    Very nice! I agree about the rainbow.

    Now, your next task is to start writing reviews consistently using these terms so that they become popularized.

    I think you have the gumption!

  6. John Michael Poling Says:

    It took me a couple days to process and think this through. I agree that as a reader, I read darker fiction for both escapism and for a small amount of catharsis, and to be certain, I’m waiting for the light at the end of the tunnel, but as a storyteller, there is something much more to it all, and that was what took me settle to work through.
    As a preteen and teenager I lived with a man whose most memorable impression on my mom, sisters and I, was his indiscriminate, and apparently evil and vicious actions toward us. In one day he would punish my ten year old sister with a shot from an air compressed nail gun at her chest, point blank, because she’s failed to plant a tree properly, and hours later he would shout her with affection. My other sister craved his attention too and after he lulled her in, he would teach her math incorrectly, professing her teachers were wrong. I had caught him many times literally cooking my sisters while holding them aloft and no one believed us our the bruises. The cops only listened to him.
    What was the point of all that? I can deduce and guess at a bunch of things but no real answers will ever come. So, in order to give meaning to the horrors of my childhood, I chose to transmutate those terrible events into something terrific and beautiful; with it I shall create a living work, a story, that explores the darkness in order to bring purpose and meaning to my life. Without that transmutation, there would be no meaning but suffering for suffering’s sake, and I can think of no thing more depressing.

    • Heteromeles Says:

      Good luck with that, and I mean this sincerely, rather than flippantly. The only thing I’d add is that you might also want to give your own good meaning to your own good life, rather than letting someone else dictate it to you, even from memory.

      • janelindskold Says:

        John —

        That’s a tough history to have lived through, even to talk about.

        I know during one of the darkest time in my life I wrote about heroes. Writing or art can provide catharsis, enable you to reclaim your life from horrible memories/ experiences.

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