Elan is back this month with another meandering post about feelings. This time, about how horror makes an excellent subgenre for epic fantasy, using a specific example from the Wheel of Time. If you like Elan’s words, read more of them here.
One of the greatest things about writing fiction—and genre fiction in particular—is the opportunity we get as writers to smash tropes and archetypes together, like a particle collider, and examine what happens with precision. We’ve been conditioned by bookstores, however, to categorize books by more superficial story elements (literally superficial, not figuratively). So when we think of “fantasy” or “epic fantasy,” our minds typically think of adventure stories.
As you’ll no doubt notice if you read my words here and elsewhere, I reference the Writing Excuses podcast with almost-obsessive regularity. This year, they’ve dedicated themselves to the discussion of what they’re calling Elemental Genre: the style of story you’re telling, rather than the setting in which it takes place. Science Fiction, Fantasy, Urban Fantasy—these are the dressings that go around your story. A story isn’t “fantasy,” but it can be a fantasy adventure, a fantasy horror, a fantasy romance, a fantasy ensemble story, etcetera.
When the scale of a fantasy is epic, however, you have the freedom to include as many plots and genres as you want. Caveat emptor: you probably shouldn’t do that. Too many intricate plots might confuse your readers, and makes contradictions and logical leaps a likely piece of your world. There’s a limit to how much story can feasibly told and keep your readers engaged. A good example of a series that hovers close to that limit is the Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan.
Wheel of Time (WoT) is a polarizing series, but I’m not here to defend the fourteen-book megalith’s merits. Rather, I’m here to discuss what I believe to be an exquisite example of horror within epic fantasy: the town of Hinderstap.
Book twelve of the series, The Gathering Storm, marks the beginning of the end of the series. The final battle approaches, and an incredible amount of stuff has already taken place. Our characters have fought, died, loved, lost, conquered, betrayed, trusted—a cavalcade of feels. The books are complex, multi-genre beasts, with adventure, horror, relationship, ensemble, drama, mystery, humor, wonder… all of the genres playing a part. But The Gathering Storm features a horror subplot that really stands out.
Mat Cauthon, one of the prime movers in WoT, arrives in a town called Hinderstap with a small cadre of followers, and finds a town populace that is standoffish and exhausted. Being a stubborn and occasionally loutish fellow, Mat tries to interrogate several townsfolk about their odd behavior. They tell him, simply, that he’s welcome to pass through, but he and his group must be gone before sundown. Mat, rather than hearing this as a warning, continues digging.
The sun begins to set.
And the townspeople go wild. Feral. Inhuman, tearing at each other’s throats, brutalizing each other and trying desperately to kill Mat and his crew as well. It becomes a long kill-or-be-killed kind of night for the heroes, who are, understandably, freaking out. Most of the group survives the night and, drowning in guilt and disgust at what they were forced to do the night before, leave. They head back into town the next day.
Then the townspeople show up again. Unharmed.
I won’t go much further into the details, because the whole subplot is excellent, and you should read it. And if you don’t want to read it, you can always read the summary.
The point of this is to bring to light the idea that epic, non-urban or lovecraftian fantasy is fertile ground for horror stories. Not only that, but the moment of horror does not need to alter the trajectory of your novel. It can serve to throw your readers for a loop, to put your characters through a wringer that becomes a defining moment for them.
It can be an exciting and fresh take on epic fantasy. The thrill of a character being chased through a forest isn’t the same as true horror. I don’t mean to knock a good chase scene, of course. I would just love to see the thing chasing the protagonist shrouded in a bit of mystery, maybe fog, and a blood moon. A distant howling is heard, shifts to a gurgling, then cuts off abruptly. The torch’s flame flickers in the wind, but in the thick fog, it’s making things harder to see. The crunch of decaying leaves and the squish of rotting vegetation beneath her feet seem to grow louder as the fog thickens, diffusing the reddish moonlight so that all around her, the skeleton of a forest can be seen. A gust of frigid wind tears her cloak from her stiff fingers, whipping it about her head. She flails, grabbing at the folds of cloth, and her torch falls to the forest floor, instantly snuffing out in the damp rot beneath her feet. Silhouettes of trees, wearing the nudity of autumn, surround her. She reaches out with her senses, but the forest creatures lie in the beginnings of wintersleep.
Another howl. Another gurgle. Another silence.
She reaches into her wellspring, pulling at the warm, sweet magics that flow within. Her eyes glow and she sees. Trees crashing in the distance. Blood soaking into the rotting leaves. Offal calling in carrion birds from the west. The scents of fungus and earth wafting into the air.
It turns one of its heads toward her. It opens its mouths, roaring, gurgling.
It’s coming. She runs.