Anyone who knows me well can tell you my love of all things fantasy and horror started at a young age. So when I started writing my first epic fantasy novel some 17 years ago, it shouldn’t have surprised anyone — let alone me — that elements one might find in a chillingly good horror novel started popping up in my sword and sorcery tale.
Since then, I’ve written several more books that one could easily call not just dark fantasy, but sword and sorcery/horror mash-ups.
So how does one make that blend of fantasy and horror work well? How do you introduce horror into sword and sorcery without jarring the fantasy reader or turning them off to your story?
Well, you can’t just mash fantasy elements and any old horror elements together and hope they go together. Otherwise, it will come out looking more like Frankenstein’s monster than a well-structured, pulse-pounding novel that any fan of fantasy or horror could enjoy.
Everything has to blend seamlessly for the reader.
When a barista makes a latte, what they hand you at the end of the process isn’t just a bunch of splotches of milk suspended in the espresso. Everything is one well-blended drink. That’s what you want at the end of creating a good fantasy/horror mash-up. Only instead of putting the steamed milk in the espresso, you start with milk and add the espresso. And you want to start slow for the reader as you’re building your blend.
You don’t want your mix to slop out all over the page. Ease the reader into the horror so that by the time you really flip the switch and put your characters into a scene worthy of a full-blown horror tale, your readers are prepped for that extra dose of spine-tingling horror.
How do I mean start slow?
Let me use Into the Darkness, book 1 of my Cathell series, as my example. The book starts out with a deadly curse and sell-sword Aeryn Ravane’s quest to not only break that curse, but find the legendary sword trapped in the caverns sealed off by that curse. It has a lot of the elements of a standard epic fantasy setup. But it slowly turns into something darker as Aeryn explores the cursed caverns where the sword had been locked away for the last century.
She soon gets the sense she’s walking into something very dark and very wrong. She finds murals that depict strange ancient rituals and a room with an altar and a black rock she feels inexplicably drawn to. When she touches that rock, bad things happen, and throughout the caverns, she cannot shake the feeling she’s being watched.
So now the reader has been introduced to elements more common to a horror tale, but in the context of a fantasy tale. So for the fantasy reader, it works. Now the stage is set for me to throw in a little more horror. But I always take care not to move past the confines of a sword and sorcery tale.
What are “the confines”?
If I throw in elements that fall well outside the normal realm of fantasy — like adding a Pinhead or Pennywise type character — I risk confusing and even disappointing the fantasy reader who picked my book up expecting dark fantasy, not The Hellbound Heart with swords. So I can’t do that.
Adding horror into a sword and sorcery novel requires thinking a little outside the trope box. But not too far. Every piece of horror I put into my novels is relatable to a fantasy reader in a sword and sorcery fantasy context. Honestly, there are still plenty of things to choose from, like a vampiric sword and The Harbinger’s armies of the dead.
Are you talking about zombies?
Yes, zombies play a featured role in modern horror flicks, survival horror games, graphic novels, and plenty of dystopian novels. But fantasy?
Consider this: they work equally well in a novel that features an evil god or a necromancer or two. I have it on good authority from my fans that zombie-type creatures are no less frightening when chasing the heroes through the streets of a medieval-style city as they are when chasing people through a modern American city. So I’m not afraid to let the zombies out, in limited quantities.
Keep in mind that zombies have also been a little overdone in contemporary supernatural and urban fantasy books. I tend to choose wisely where zombies come up when it comes to my dark fantasy novels.
So how do you know when you’ve gotten the blend just right?
Let your book reviews spell that out for you. If you get a lot of comments about too many horror elements happening for a fantasy book or that your book was too scary to finish, you know you went too far. Instead, you want a review that says something like this one for Into the Darkness:
“An excellent read, one which I wholeheartedly recommend to any fan of fantasy, horror, or any combination thereof.”
If you get that kind of a review, you know you got it just right.