Dark Fantasy is a nebulous psuedo-genre of the fantastic. It can cover urban fantasy with rough edges, Lovecraftian horror, epic fantasy with violence and dirt still intact — but it’s all these things and more. It’s any story of the fantastic where things aren’t Tolkien-levels of happy. Were people are complex beings, where there’s no clear good and evil, where loved ones die, villains win, people fuck and hate and bleed and shit. And these are some of the best. Even though we’re calling this a list of titles, we’re covering more than that. Some of these are individual novels, some are series, and some are authors whose name is enough to put anything they write on this list.
20. Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb
Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy, and to a lesser extent her other work in the Realm of the Elderlings, are dark in that brutal and rather scary way that has become increasingly common in fantasy over the years. While retaining all the trappings of traditional epic fantasy — kings, magic, assassins, intrigue, princesses and dragons, it’s tinted with a much, much darker tone. A tone of intolerance and hatred. Of petty human beings, unable to look past their own horrible flaws. Of brutality and sadness, even when good prevails. Wildly popular, Hobb’s work isn’t as dark or horrifying as many stories on this list, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.
19. Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko
The first book in the Watch tetralogy, and the basis of the immensely successful films of the same name, is set in Moscow about the war between two modern factions of the supernatural, each tasked with keeping the other in line. It’s Russian, you know it has to be dark. When was the last time Russia produced anything cheerful? Unsurprisingly, it’s steeped in corruption and death, in grime and collapsing Soviet architecture. No it’s not a happy urban fantasy with perfect little endings, but what did you expect?
18. The Course of the Heart by M. John Harrison
The Course of the Heart is something of a love-it-or-hate-it situation, as it attempts to meld literature with speculative fiction, and it’s not quite as friendly as when chocolate met peanut butter. Lovers of either realm may intensely dislike this novel, but those who get into it think of it as incomparable, as it glibly traipses the line between reality and something that seems, but may not be, fantasy. Four middle aged adults did something unspeakable when at school, invoking an occult rite, but none of them can remember what exactly it was. But it had something to do with a realm of happiness called “the Pleroma.”
17. Scar Night by Alan Campbell
An absolutely stunning debut novel, Scar Night arrived to night on universal acclaim. And it gets bonus points for being written by a videogame developer, because gaming and writing need to hang out more. The fact that the story takes place on an immense city suspended above a bottomless cavern by a series of chains, who worship a god of chains, and are tormented by a mad angel, gives you a feel for just how strange and dark this story is.
16. The Black Company by Glen Cook
How do you get as far as possible from your standard epic high fantasy novel? Instead of being a fellowship of do-gooders on a noble quest to save the world, have it star a cadre of elite mercenaries, who are completely happy just to be in it for the money. In a world ruled by vicious magicians and back-stabbing politics, a mercenary begins to seem like a rather sympathetic character after a while, even if they’re more than happy to slaughter any and all they come across for a paycheck. Somewhere between military fiction and fantasy, this series of books covers 40 years of the company’s history.
15. The Crooked Letter by Sean Williams
The award winning The Crooked Letter begins with the the protagonist being murdered in our own world, and that’s probably the least traumatizing part of it. He then has to survive and understand a parallel, inside-out world filled with deeply fucked-up monsters and horror, while his twin brother in ours is trying to understand what’s going on too — meanwhile their bond seems to be pulling the two dimensions into one another, which could have utterly horrific consequences. Alien gods, human mythology, and Cthulhu-esque horror make this a truly remarkable dark fantasy novel.
14. Dusk by Tim Lebbon
Lebbon is a Stoker-award winning author, which should give you a hint of his horror writing chops, and he brings those immaculately primed terrorizing skills into the world of fantasy with Dusk. Billed as “fantasy for grown-ups”, it takes the familiar tropes of epic fantasy and translates them into a much less pleasant location. You still have the farmboy who finds himself with immense power, goes on the run from the evil forces, and joins up with companions. But now you have violence, madness, monsters, evil monks sex and drugs thrown in for good measure.
13. The King In Yellow by Robert W. Chambers
Some 30 years before HP Lovecraft was crafting his macabre horror stories that bended people’s sanity, Robert W. Chambers put out a thin collection of short stories, half of which were intensely pedestrian romances, but the first four in the collection? They were something else entirely. Deeply disturbed, they revolved around a play that would drive people to madness, a symbol called the Yellow Sign, and the King himself, a tattered terrifying figure that later got absorbed into Lovecraftian mythos. For the time period, they were uniquely gothic and terrifying, and a hint of a trend that was to become more prominent in later years.
12. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser by Fritz Leiber
The Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories are seminal in the genre of swords and sorcery, but even for a genre which prides itself in being steeped in gore and death, they’re uniquely dark. Their very first adventure ends with the horrific rat eaten death of their lovers, and things don’t really get happier from there. It’s a world where brutality is the norm, greed is the main drive, and magic is never, ever to be trusted. In a genre more known for barbarians and loincloths, these two characters were often sneaky and underhanded, but still managed to remain some of the more moral and upright citizens of the world of Newhon.
11. Fey by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Rusch’s story about a war between magical fay and humans, and these aren’t namby pamby tree hopping elves and cute winged pixies. These are dark and brutal creatures of war. They may be all fine featured and slight, but they will torture you utterly and horrifically using their magic. And frankly, the humans aren’t much better, even though they’re not the aggressors. The death scenes caused by holy water are surprisingly gruesome. A far cry from the normal, sterile fantasy worlds where nameless hordes of evil, dark-skinned creatures die, and only heroes who sacrifice themselves pass on, it’s a grinding, terrifying war, where no one is innocent.
10. The Magicians by Lev Grossman
Imagine if the Narnia, Catcher in the Rye and Harry Potter novels had a baby, who ran away as a teenager and lived on the streets for a while, coming to understand how basically horrible and wretched all human beings are, and that human decency is more or less a myth. Welcome to the world of the Magicians, where the protagonist is lucky enough to be invited into a secret school for wizards, but instead of Harry Potter hijinks, it’s ruthlessly hard work, thousands of hours of studying mind numbing facts and figures among autistically smart other individuals. And then there’s the nameless entity gnawing at the edge of their world waiting to kill them. A distinctly dark and wonderfully written take on the magical other world novels that pop up so often in British children’s fantasy, though it’s definitely not for kids.
9. Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire
I read Wicked having seen the musical, and expecting a novel at least vaguely like the stageplay. That wasn’t what I got. I think Wicked the musical is to the novel, as the novel is to Wizard of Oz — same names, same places, vaguely similar plot, but completely different characters and story. I honestly feel like I missed something with Wicked, like there’s a really serious literary work going on, and I just can’t get my head around it due to the horror of this world. A world where nothing goes well, people are tortured and imprisoned, where bigotry ruled unquestioned, where murder is common. Remarkably dystopian and cynical, it’s more of a musing on the nature of good and evil, a metaphysical text wrapped in the trappings of a novel.
8. Coldfire Trilogy by C S Friedman
Technically sci-fi, but of that sort of technofantasy: “this place was colonized thousands of years ago and so now it’s fantasy for all intents and purposes, oh look gadgets are magic” kind of deal. Let’s just call it fantasy, okay? It’s a planet enveloped by a semi-sentient energy field called the Fae, which can bring nightmares to life if you’re not careful, and the original colonists only placated by destroying all their technology. You know that a planet where your nightmares can literally come to life is perfect pickings for dark fantasy, and bundle that up with two main characters neither of whom is particularly pleasant or heroic, and one of whom represents a monolithic and repressive church.
7. The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, The Unbeliever, by Stephen Donaldson
I think I might be the only person on the planet who likes these novels, but fuck the haters, they’re amazing. Dark and bitter and twisted, the titular Thomas Covenant on our planet is a man cursed with leprosy, who magically gets sucked into another world. Believing himself insane, he acts with total abandon, hurting those around him who must weather his storms as they view him as their savior. Eventually he does start acting like less of a mad rapist bastard, but things only get worse for him and the world around him. Across the current ten novels of the Chronicles, a man cursed by impotence in both sex and power regains something but must prevent madness and conquer his own self-loathing in a world attempting nothing so much as his destruction. He’s still the most utterly unlikable protagonist in all of fantasy.
6. Elric by Michael Moorcock
Moorcock’s pasty faced swordsman is the polar opposite to the majority of fantasy heroes, and practically defines the term anti-hero. Sickly, weak, and pale, he’s only kept alive by alchemy and sorcery. He destroys everyone he loves, and allies himself with forces that most would consider evil, even while trying to rebel against the sadistic legacy of his people. Probably Moorcock’s most famous creation, the adventures of Elric covered dozens of novels and traipses across the multiverse, all while existing within a world of misery, where people are distinctly unpleasant to one another.
5. Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake
The Gormenghast novels are strange beasts…surprisingly, they were written in the 1950s and were extremely influential to a generation of disaffected goths. Called fantasy, there’s very little fantastic in them. There’s no magic, no mystical races, just human beings in a remarkably dark and brooding reality. In the last novel of the original series, it does begin to flirt a bit with proto-steampunk, but it’s mostly political intrigue in a decidedly gothic setting — by which I mean less lace and fake vampire teeth, and more brooding architecture and repressive society. They’re an engrossing read, if you can look past people with titles like Lord Groan, Mr. Flay, and Dr. Prunesquallor.
4. Neil Gaiman
Gaiman is the current reigning king of urban fantasy, and it’s pretty obvious why. Novels like American Gods and Anansi Boys plays havoc with the established conventions of fantasy. Taking standard views of myths and legends, and casting them in a modern, rather unpleasant light seems to be something Gaiman excels at. Or look at something like Neverwhere, where there’s a shadow world underneath London. He always plays with the dregs of society, and how they interact with the supernatural. I’m tempted to blame him for the current glut of mediocre urban fantasy, but he’s just too damned good at what he does, even though it’s wonderfully twisted.
3. Kane by Karl Edward Wagner
Kane is sort of like Conan, but with a brain. Completely and utterly capable of slaughtering you wholesale, he instead uses his dark cunning and fiendish intellect whenever possible. But there’s still plenty of decapitation. Perhaps the biblical Cain, he’s an immortal cursed to wander the earth under the shadow of violence and death. Weary of eternal life, he struggles to find meaning with existence, throwing his lot in with various conflicts, often on the wrong side. It’s not a particularly pleasant life, but one he seems stuck in, which puts him at least a little more interesting than your standard sword and sorcery barbarian.
2. HP Lovecraft
HP Lovecraft’s incredibly influential mythos work is geek canon, and presently one of the most obvious influences on modern horror. Not quite pure horror, the element of the fantastical and magical in much of his work is enough to nudge him into the dark fantasy genre, but just barely. Some of his stuff more than others — I’d say Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath is pretty fiercely in the dark fantasy camp, but some of his other stuff less so. Even so, magical rites to summon mind meltingly horrifying critters? That’s definitely within the bounds of dark fantasy.
1. China Miéville
China Miéville is the number one name for dark fantasy, there’s absolutely no argument involved. No one else comes close to him in the genre of “weird fiction” as he likes to call it. I think every novel he’s even touched as been a major award winner, while still being indescribably odd. How else can you describe a novel where the main character is in love with a woman with a scarab for a head? Or a place where all reality is torn down, which you get to by towing an immense pirate armada along the sea using miles long sea monsters? Bizarre, dark and intriguing, Miéville rules the roost of dark fantasy.