As with all things, your mileage may vary, especially as you read in the genre. Everyone beings their own interpretations, and what works for me, might not work for you.
That said, let’s start with what grimdark’s not.
It’s not gore and violence and torture, blood and shit and misery for its own sake. Sure, there are works that will mistake this for grimdark. There are also readers who’ll do the same. And it exists in grimdark, but it’s not the focus. In general, stories that focus on body horror and all the accoutrements of gore and shit and spilled organs tend to fall under splatterpunk.
It’s also not nihilism for its own sake. Grimdark is not looking into the abyss or the pit or whatever black hole takes your fancy for the sake of doing so. It’s not peering into the black only to find more black staring back. It’s not the futility of life or screaming ennui without purpose. We can leave that for art house films that venerate Nietzsche. Grimdark is not belief in nothing.
Rather, grimdark is belief in something. Sure, that sounds pedantic. But it’s true. The presentation is bleak. But so is life. It’s the belief that if we don’t turn from our current path, whatever that may be, we’re doomed to suffer these specific consequences, as they’re laid out. Grimdark is a modern parable for modern problems.
It’s the last stop on the road to damnation. The very best grimdark looks at the world and sees the path it’s on and screams at us to knock it off. Then it shows us what happens when we don’t. And that’s where the blood and despair and pain come in. Not because of a belief in nothing, but because of a passionate belief that life is worth something. That people’s lives are worth something, and grimdark shows the terrible cost of a life wasted.
The best grimdark then, to my mind, is character-driven. No world-ending stakes, or soul-crushing damnation. Just people, trying to do their best, and sometimes failing. Because that’s what life is, right? It’s standing up despite living in a crapsack world, and making decisions, whether you want to or not. Grimdark is living in spite of. It’s putting one foot in front of the other and dealing with those decisions. It’s a hard truth Jorg wasn’t afraid to speak: “Few things worth having can be got easily.”
And sure, there’s a cynical bent to grimdark. How couldn’t there be? All of life tells us it’s hard, it’s ugly. People are hard and ugly. There is disparity and unfairness at every corner. But there’s also a joy there. In the freedom to make decisions, even if they suck. A celebration in the fact that life is only constrained by our little mortal meat engines.
It’s humor and love and hate and pain and joy all rolled up into a messy ball.
And because people are messy, their decisions are messy, and the world is messy, things don’t always turn out. There’s a visceral sort of schadenfreude in watching someone fuck up time and again. There’s a smugness in it, I think, that we enjoy. But that’s not the point. Or rather, it’s only half the point. The rest is that we should be paying attention.
These are the mistakes ordinary people make. These are the mistakes you and I make. And all the author wants, is for you to pay attention, and not trod down that path. A good grimdark book, I’d argue, isn’t hopeless at all. It’s the opposite. It’s brimming with a hidden hope that you and I will be better than the people presented within.
Whether we learn that lesson is up to us, or as Bedeckt warns: “Redemption. What a laughable concept. When he looked over his life, he couldn’t see where he had first stepped off the righteous path. More important, had he even ever laid a single foot on that path?”
About the Author
Born in Michigan and moved to North Dakota, Clayton W. Snyder is a full-time dabbler and part-time author, pursuing his dream of writing. He’s been published in several small magazines, and maintains a blog, Nod.
In his free time, he yells at clouds and accidentally gets nominated for awards.