It is an inescapable fact of Grimdark that it must wrap itself up in cloths of blood.
It must conjure the spectre of outrage and over-saturate the sensitivities of its readership with the resplendent gush of gore and a plethora of depictions of horrific acts.
Not gore in the sense of graphic detail (necessarily) but gore in the sense of enabling the violent damage and destruction of the human body as a core element of its dramatic impetus. Suffering becomes a fulcrum around which the drama is turned, the engine room in which the emotional objectives of the narrative are effectively generated.
For those of us (most of us) who crave the excitement of violence and death in fiction, questions need to be asked. What sort of creatures are we that derives enjoyment from the imagined bloodletting of members of its own species? What sort of species asserts bloodletting as a compelling feature of the narratives it habitually consumes?
Slaughter, torture, punishment or the degenerative impacts of sorcerous enterprises – in Grimdark Fantasy, these are legitimate forms of titillation and the basis upon which the pleasure effects of narrative are given wings.
In Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself, a character is created who considers these issues in fascinating detail.
Sand dan Glotka, the torturer, is both a victim and a perpetrator of horrible ills. This puts him in a unique position for questioning the legitimacy of his actions which, on successive occasions, leads him to conclude the same thing over and over again.
It is a conclusion that is marked by his submission to a rhetorical hall of mirrors where he is forced to ask “Why do I do this?” with a repeated emphasis that, while it indicates a certain amount of failure on his part (to come to terms with why he does it), also affirms the inevitability of what he’s doing as something he must do, simply because of what he is.
As readers, we sit on the shoulders of Glotka while he plies his trade of hideous abuses against others. At no point are we urged to make a moral judgement about his motivations, his actions or his character (indeed, Glotka is portrayed as strangely likeable). And, to this extent, Glotka becomes a reflection of ourselves as we follow his progress through one violent intervention to another, whereby we enjoy the spectacle of torture with the same numb curiosity and muted excitement as he does.
Glotka, to my mind, is an important figure in fiction (aside from the fact that he’s a brilliant piece of characterisation). He possesses the same capabilities as any villain but is not villainous, and he is certainly not an anti-hero. He is unalterably human. His flaws become a sort of strength. He is, in fact, the perfect reflection of the reader who finds him or herself caught in the act of enjoying narratives of violence and death without knowing why – simply because of what he or she is.
In the end, we can only ask, like Glotka, “Why do we do this?”
And the answer comes – “Why do we do this?” – over and over and over again.
Reasons to be Direful
There are several reasons why we might be able to justify these indulgences as necessary (even healthy) aspects of our psychology. Perhaps they provide an opportunity for a cathartic release of forbidden desires that require their exorcism from the better portions of our being. Or perhaps they provide a means for facing up to our innate fears of violence, offering a device for flushing them out of our system and clearing away the anxious thoughts that populate our fragile minds.
My own favoured explanation, however, is this:
We are a violent species, a species that desires violence as much as it desires food or sex. But, in real life, the desire for violence is mitigated by fear – a fear of coming off worse in the encounter, or of being arrested for committing crimes of grievous bodily harm.
Fear is the prevention – not moral restraints or ethical considerations – but fear.
In fiction, the fear factor as a superior emotional quality that quashes the desire for violence is almost completely redundant. We are able to indulge our passion for violence, to let it run loose, without the prohibitive mechanism of fear to discourage us from enjoying it, in a way that can’t happen in real life scenarios.
It seems to me that the only thing we fear more than violence is the fear of admitting that we enjoy it. Surely, then, our willingness to read fiction that accentuates violence as part of its appeal is a manifestation of this admission, in this case made in actions rather than words.
It is the legacy of Grimdark that it does this openly, that it is a particularly honest form of fiction, which says more of us than perhaps we’ll ever know.