There is a genre of fiction which has a small but intense following which came to be known as "Dark Fantasy" during a sort of a renaissance which the genre went through in the late 70s and early 80s. It is often associated with other sub-genres of fantasy fiction like "Swords and Sorcery," but it is distinguished by lacking the heroic characters and one-dimensional villains of that genre and its focus on the combination of relatively realistic and complex characters in historical settings with a strong element of supernatural horror. Swords and Sorcery is heroic characters versus evil wizards. Dark Fantasy pits flawed and desperate characters against dark gods, demons and unearthly forces of evil.
The distinction may seem subtle, but when reading stories in the genre you immediately know that they are different from anything else. Dark Fantasy fiction had its first success in the pages of magazines like Weird Tales in the 1930s in some of the stories of Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft and especially the stories of Clark Ashton Smith. In the late 1970s the genre was revived in a series of anthologies called Swords Against Darkness and in the pages of magazines like Hortasy and Dark Fantasy, featuring early work by writers like Adrian Cole, David Drake and Karl Edward Waggoner.
Dark Fantasy has rarely made its way onto the screen, except in a few odd small budget efforts, but for some reason this year we have been offered two films which fit squarely in the genre. The first was the much anticipated Solomon Kane movie, based on Robert E. Howard's seminal stories about a half-mad puritan witch hunter. Sadly it opened in very limited release in Europe and has yet to make it to the US, even on DVD. The second is Season of the Witch which came out of nowhere with very little notice, and is also a surprisingly successful blending of horror and fantasy which is very reminiscent of the work of Clark Ashton Smith.
Season of the Witch has left many critics puzzled, but to someone who cut their teeth reading Dark Fantasy fiction it is very exciting to see the genre realized so well on the movie screen. Admittedly, the casting is a bit strange, it defies a number of cinematic conventions, and it's relentlessly dark and grim, but that's the heart of the genre.