by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky
In my last post, I shared the results from putting Tasmanian Gothic through Chris Angelis’ Gothic Meter. Happily, at 53%, it turns out Tasmanian Gothic is pretty bloody gothic. Although, not as gothic as Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (72%), Dracula (76%), or Frankenstein (77%). So, if this book of mine is more than just gothic, what else is it?
Early in the first rounds of editing, my critique partners commented how grimdark the story was. Really? I was skeptical. I thought grimdark was oppressive death and destruction wrought page after page by terrible characters doing terrible things.
And while it can be that, it can also be what ‘Legacy of the Brightwash’ author @KrystleMatar calls “a place where people make eye contact with how ugly the average person is capable of being, and asks some pretty uncomfortable questions”. (@SteveTalksBooks has a great video with a whole slew of Grimdark authors discussing what they think Grimdark is).
‘Grimdark’ like ‘Gothic’ is a tough genre/mode to define. But, like ‘Gothic’, I like to think that it has its tells.
(Disclaimer: I am not a Grimdark or Gothic scholar, just an author and fan)
GRIMDARK vs GOTHIC CATEGORIES
While impossible to strictly define, I think there are categories of Grimdark (similar to the concept of ‘categories’ used by the Gothic Meter), that can help us to see the shape of it.
Let’s start with the categories I think Grimdark shares with its more mysterious cousin:
FEAR: Both Gothic and Grimdark have this in common. In both, fear is omnipresent, palpable, and oppressive.
SUBLIME: Both Gothic and Grimdark celebrate the beautiful and terrible, the awe and dread, the attractive and despicable. Both share a knack for creating characters and worlds that embody the uneasy combination of love and fear.
SETTING: While both Gothic and Grimdark employ dark, decaying, and oppressive settings, Gothic settings are more likely to be brooding and mysterious, whereas Grimdark settings are more likely to be violent and brutal. Gothic settings appear as if seen through a misty filter, whereas Grimdark has the contrast and saturation dialed up to the highest level.
Okay, now that we’ve seen how the two are similar, let’s turn to the categories where I think Grimdark asserts its independence:
CONFLICT: Whereas conflict in Gothic stories is subtle, understated, indirect, and often pyschological, Grimdark conflict is the opposite – it’s visceral, detailed, in-your-face, brutal, and unambiguous. Bones break and blood splatters. (Tasmanian Gothic – ✔ )
MORALITY: In Gothic, it is time and reality that are ambiguous, in Grimdark it is morality. Grimdark will not help you calibrate your moral compass; it is not interested in good vs evil, but rather in exploring the evil in all of us and the sacrifices we make of ethics and morality when faced with impossible decisions. There is no pure, virginal maiden to be saved from a villainous antagonist in Grimdark. The Grimdark hero is just as likely to be the villain at any given point in the story (or all throughout it). (Tasmanian Gothic – ✔)
TOPICAL (recurring themes, images and motifs): While Gothic stories include themes and elements of the occult, witchcraft, forbidden knowledge, and dark prophecies, Grimdark has its own list of topical elements:
- Blood (Tasmanian Gothic – ✔)
- Instruments of Violence (guns, knives, swords, garottes, guillotines, etc) (Tasmanian Gothic – ✔)
- Debasing Power structures (masters and servants, commanders and soldiers, lords and peasants, guards and prisoners) [this is something Grimdark may share with Gothic] – (Tasmanian Gothic – ✔)
- Death [again, something Grimdark and Gothic have in common, and in both cases likely to be gruesome; although in Grimdark, death is more likely to be perpetrated by a human, rather than the result of a supernatural force] – (Tasmanian Gothic – ✔)
WHAT ABOUT THE OTHER ELEMENTS?
In measuring how Gothic a text is, the Gothic Meter looks to some key elements that also signal a particular story fits the genre/mode – these include:
- textual clues: how certain words – e.g. ‘night’ and ‘fear’, or ‘silence’ and ‘darkness’ – are used in proximity to each other, or how certain phrases – e.g. ‘what if…?’ or ‘could it be…?’ – indicate a gothic element (in these cases ominous portents or mystery and ambiguity)
- filters: how certain elements are presented or described – e.g. in Gothic stories we have elements that are grotesque and ambiguous.
Let’s take a look at possible contenders for Grimdark elements:
To identify textual clues, I looked at the opening stories of ten issues of Grimdark Magazine (GdM) and spent most of a Sunday afternoon trying to learn how to use a open source text analysis program. While that program may have defeated me (for now), I was able to do some higher-level wordcloud analysis. I’m still determined to do text proximity analysis, but that may have to be a later update… (PS if any of you are proficient in Textable/Orange, please give me a shout out in the comments or email me – I have *a lot* of questions…).
I chose short stories because I think they offer the greatest chance of identifying key genre elements – mostly because they have to convey the world and tone immediately and have an economy of words that doesn’t allow for anything that would detract from the core idea and premise.
Things I noticed from the analytical output:
- Colours: black, grey, red
- Abjection: blood, shit, dirt
- Weapons: sword, weapons, knife, blade
- Mood: silence, quiet, crowd, fire
- Animals: rats, moths
- Body Parts: eyes and hair (typical in every genre), but also: neck, throat, teeth, skin, bone, flesh
- Death: dead, death, die, kill, killed
- Power Structures: prisoner, master, soldiers, commander, gods
- Profanity: fucking, shit
Even though this was analysed from a (very) small sample, I still think the results are interesting and align with my perception of Grimdark.
THE GROTESQUE AND VISCERAL
Looking at filters was a more qualitative experiment, and it was interesting to see whether the two filters used by the Gothic Meter applied to Grimdark.
In terms of the Grotesque, it’s probably fair to say that Grimdark also showcases the characteristic elements: disfigurement, torture, the macabre and morbid. Although I’m still yet to decide whether I think it is a recurring element in most grimdark stories, the limited analysis I did for the wordcloud seems to suggest it is.
With Ambiguity, however, I think there is a clearer line of difference. While stories in the Gothic genre/mode prize ambiguity, in Grimdark stories the visceral takes prominence. You won’t die wondering with Grimdark stories – the conflicts and their outcomes are present in high definition. This is also true of how the two genres explore ‘evil’ – in Gothic stories, the evil in mankind is observed almost by reflection, using supernatural evils and events to magnify or draw parallels with the evil in human hearts; whereas in Grimdark stories, the evil that humankind is capable of is on full display, without the need for any symbology or allusion.
I think it’s fair to say that Gothic and Grimdark have some key characteristics in common – their love for the dark and damaged, and their exploration of the sublime and shady. But their differences are just as interesting: Gothic is ambiguous, where Grimdark is direct; Gothic is subtle, where Grimdark is brutal; Gothic mysterious, where Grimdark is visceral. It’s in these differences where Tasmanian Gothic leans heavier towards the Grimdark, and I wonder whether that is a function of it being a gothic science fiction story – where the science fiction brings a sharper edge and more direct realism?