Best Dark Fantasy Books
Also called Fantasy Horror. Dark Fantasy is the what happens when Horror intersects with pure fantasy, giving birth to a hybrid between the two genres.
Typically, Dark Fantasy incorporates fantasy elements such as magic, a fantastical setting (or historical setting or even a modern setting), and quite often magical / supernatural creatures (ghosts, vampires, monsters, werewolves, demons, etc). The atmosphere and setting may often be Gothic inspired as well. Dark Fantasy might opt for a deeply creepy and disturbing atmosphere (but not always).
Keep in mind that taking an ordinary fantasy book and adding blood and disturbed characters a few monsters and a dark story line is NOT enough to qualify the book as a dark fantasy (horror fantasy). Dark Fantasy, as states, often merges a Gothic background setting, a creepy atmosphere, a dark storyline, violence and blood, and troubled characters WITH elements of pure horror included.
Blending Sci-Fi elements with a fantasy story is a very difficult thing to do, and even harder to do successfully. The Coldfire Trilogy does so very well. And to add to this readers are treated to a very well developed system of lore, magic, and culture as they are bade to explore the wilds of Erna. Adding to the wonder of this series is the fact that the main characters are pretty well non main stream, this is not to say that they are hipsters mind you, it is more to say that they are atypical and thus are, to me, lovable!
A millennium ago humanity came to Erna, with memories of Earth already fading in their minds they ran into the terrible creatures of the Fae who had the power to play games of terrible implication with the human mind. Fast forward twelve centuries our story begins, humans have a uneasy treaty with the Fae, mainly an agreement that the Fae stop nomming on human minds. But there is a dark and terrible force growing which humanity will soon have to contend with. This is a story with pulse pounding action and nightmarish horror, do not miss this one, or you will regret it!
Dark, Gothic, evocative, bizarre, grotesque-- these are all descriptions that fail to describe just what is Perdido Street Station. This is a novel that has to be experienced. It's visually stunning and linguistically challenging. Your brain will ache at the almost contradictory images that are evoked.
How can you possible explain a novel where the protagonist loves a women that resembles a beetle with human legs and arms? Or a world that feels more like the insides of a garbage can so grotesque and dirty it is. Or a world where the walls of reality no longer make sense, where monsters and magicians and physicists ply their strange trades? Or a world where ships are powered not by mechanics or magic but giant monsters pulling them along the sea?
For a dark fantasy romp that will explode your mind, Perdido Street Station must be read.
How does someone really describe what Ghormenghast really is. One word comes to mind and that's Gothic. These are not your standard fantasy or horror books, but there is just so much strangeness, so much atmosphere to these books that they have to be listed here as one of the best dark fantasy reads every put to pen. Yes, there is no direct magic, there is no mystical races living in the forests or creepy monsters waiting under the bed. There is no evil wizard or witch preying upon the young.
But. It's a romp through an eerie castle, comprised of brooding characters, and atmospheric settings. Make no mistake, this is a powerful work of fiction that transcends genres. This is a series where the words and the setting is just as much a character in the story as the characters are themselves.
Many, I would even venture to say most, readers are not familiar with war novels, and if that is the case, you may not quite be ready for the Black Company. The Black Company is a departure from the "Epic Fantasy" side of the genre and places readers squarely in the shoes of a morally ambiguous band of mercenaries. These mercs have a past, and it is very well done. Readers are going to trudge through the trenches of blood soaked battle fields, they will see the wounds of the newly slain, gaping red, and the reasoning behind, and if they look, even the people behind the battles.
Good and evil is not really a question that the Black Company concerns themselves with. To be hones they are making their pay, occasionally they will turn down something that is too dark, and occasionally they will accept them. The point is that the moral compass is somewhat skewed in this world. That is until the White Rose is reborn into the world, and through blood and bodies the Black Company are determined to make it to her, but to what ends? And at what cost? This is about as dark as it gets!
Here is a character who has been around for, not just any old long time, but decades. Kane is the creation of Karl Edward Wagner, or is he? We will come back to that later. Kane has graced the cover of so many books he may just give Oprah a run for her money. Born in violence, bred on the battlefield, and trained in both the courtroom and the sorcery tower Kane is an ancient immortal whose story is considered to be one of the most iconic stories out there. He has even met up with another member on this list, everyone's favorite brooding dark albino emperor warrior wizard Elric!
Don't worry, despite standing alongside Elric on this list Kane is more than capable of holding his own! (his name is even counted correct by auto-correct unlike Elric) Dark and violent Kane is an immortal who may only be ended by that violence which he began. Which sounds a whole lot like Cain, Kane is marked as a vicious killer, a lot like that one guy who killed his brother, Cain, and has a vast amount of skill when it comes to just about anything. It is hard to place a finger on one story for Kane as there are dozens. But take my word for it. Kane is worth the time.
Peter Straub is a middle aged, somewhat hefty, and mostly bald man with a fascination with the macabre. In this case however it does not make him a pedophile, or stalker, or child eating ogre, but one of the centuries most influential authors. And boy did he hit it out of the park with this one. Take a guess at how much the hardcover version of Shadowland runs for? Go ahead, check Amazon, I will be right here. That's right, a whopping $259.99. In this hit Straub is going to take readers to a slightly more fantastical version of the world we think we know well.
This story comes with some fairly typical themes, the magician's apprentice, the coming of age, the "Only one makes it out alive" scenario. But the common themes aside Straub brings it as two young boys are training to become awesome asskicking magicians. But don't go thinking that it is going to be a happy fun joyride, remember there is still that bit about only one survivor. See how this ride ends and hold on for twists, turns, and loops. Just be sure to bring some clean underwear with you, momma does always know best!
Gaiman can't write a bad novel if you pointed a gun to his head; there is a reason why this guy is often called the king of the urban fantasy genre. Gaiman is not opposed to undermining some of the standard fantasy conventions to tell his tales. In American Gods, a dark fantasy romp through myths and legends, Gamine provides a 21st century to the concept, bringing back all those ancient myths and legends as physical entities at war with a new emergent class of gods based on science.
It's a twisted and dark ride through an urban landscape of magic and myth.
Gaiman has a number of other works that would be classified as Dark Horror or Fantasy Horror. Coraline and his newest Ocean at the End of the Lane would be the top picks for ''scary fantasy reads". However, American Gods was his breakout novel and arguably his most ambitious, thematically.
Lovecraft is the unequaled master of terror. That is in no small part attributable to his mastery of themes that he may not have fully understood himself. Lovecraft revels in pointing out our cosmic insignificance, removing our mantle of apex predator, and knocking us so far down on the food chain that we have no clue what to do. Displacing humanity from its place at the top of the world he has made this list a second time in very well deserved fashion. In this work of dark fantasy Lovecraft takes us to the (you guessed it) Mountains of Madness and what we will find there may well leave us mad as a hatter.
The Antarctic is a place that is entirely indifferent to humanity, and that by itself is a terrifying concept. A land that we have no power to bend or adapt to. Taking this fear and placing it near the heart of this story the Master takes us along side an exploitative journey into the depths of a mysterious mountain range frozen in ice. Readers will descend into unspeakable depths and unimaginatively ancient places as utter insanity creeps at the corners of their minds. Lovecraft has outdone himself this time and it is one you need to read.
Weaveworld. This is one that readers are going to have a tough time with. This is hard and brutal, magical, and maddening. Weaveworld is populated by sheer, and absolute terror. Horror in its finest Weaveworld is full of cliché from beginning to end, it may be said that it is built of them. But what is remarkable is that it never feels like a cliché, it feels like a lot of things, but generic or overdone is not one of those things. Be prepared for violence, vivid evil, and strong sexual imagery, if you find it to be tasteless remember this, you are reading a dark fantasy!
The Weaveworld is a place of magic and deep value, and of course, because it is important, the badies want it, they want it desperately. Unfortunately for them it is hidden and they are not quite sure. Cal and Suzanna, however, have discovered it, hidden inside a carpet. Suddenly this "Weave" world shit makes since. The story picks up as the endeavor is made to keep it out of the hands that may be considered evil, as they unravel (Get it?) the secrets of this world. Weaveworld is going to unravel you and remake you with a new understanding of the fantasy genre.
Now when it comes to fear, readers are all too quick to file it away to gore, or suspense, or any of the typical tropes of the horror genre. But Martin builds a story that has an overarching sense of the sinister to it, not because of the things that happen in the books, though many of those are terrible, but because of the power that Martin exhibits. It is clear from pretty early in the books that it is not the characters readers must fear, but Martin, and that the characters need fearing for.
Martin has a habit of killing characters, making that fear which is most prevalent here a fear of loss. A Song of Fire and Ice is a work that some may say is entirely to depict scenes of a midget having steamy sex with whores. This is not so however. It is a tale of intrigue and power, lust and consequence. It's a tale about the darkness of base human desire -- the desire to lord power over other humans and to often inflict pain upon them, merely because you can. Telling the tales of power and love Martin has no problem pruning all of your favorite characters and will leave you empty as a husk, rocking back and forth muttering "Love No One" over and over again.
Besides the horror inflected by humans upon humans, there's an entire layer of monster horror going on as well -- a race of undead monsters trapped behind a giant wall of ice that just may be melting allowing them access to the lands of men. Follow several protagonists as they venture into this deep winterland of magic, monsters, and mystery behind the wall -- you'll feel the cold chill of horror as you venture deeper into this land and as creatures not human prey upon flesh.
Want even more horror? Well there's also witches who gain power by sacrificing human lives, cursed landscapes inimical to man, and slave societies based on the suffering of humans. If that's not horror, I don't know what is.
Fantasy sometimes has a hard time approaching gender issues. It's not so much a criticism as it is an observation. In worlds full of barbarians, thieves, cutthroats, and orcs, women struggle to find their place. Sometimes they tend to cling to magic but the trend seems to hold that they are either the innocent cleric or the bitchy witch. The Bone Doll's twin takes a very interesting approach to these gender issues and it brings us a kick ass story to boot. Mixing elements of horror and fantasy, and bringing an amazing twist to boot this is one that will leave readers breathless.
In this dark world which is a direct prequel to the Nightrunner series, a successful piece of LGBT literature, a mad king has executed or otherwise murdered all of the women in his family, fearing an ancient prophecy foretelling the deposition of the king at the hands of a queen who will bring the land to prosperity. An evil forced onto the heroes bring them to a dark place as they struggle to see the prophecy fulfilled. Enter young Tobin and haunting spirits of the long murdered. The story takes off and readers are in for a ride that will take them to some dark, but necessary, places.
Stephen King is unutterably prolific. This goes without saying. Some of his works are almost universally a hit, while some are not so beloved. But the opinion of the masses matter little to this glorious writing machine. He is working towards a goal, one that, the scope of which, may never be fully appreciated, at least not for another several years. In his work the Dark Tower readers will find familiar faces at all turns, and are going to discover that there is more connectivity in our world now than we ever thought possible before.
Why am I being so vague you may ask? I won’t answer, I am, for all intents and purposes, an inanimate slab of words. But by reading this series you may find exactly the answer you want, or the one you don't want. Roland Deschain is a gunslinger, which is pretty cool, it's like a knight, but more badass. What you know about the protagonist is very little and grows slowly. But what you do know is that his world is crumbling. Time doing crazy shit. Entire places just vanishing. Roland is on his way to the Dark Tower. This is a trip which will leave readers breathless and shaking.
Readers, at least those who truly love the fantasy genre are going to find this to be a near instant favorite. This story brings us things that are quite rare in the world of fantasy. While it is indeed a sword and sorcery, the Elric Saga focuses more on the sorcery aspect. It is a rare thing for a wizard/mage/sorcerer/summoner/caster/druid to be the main character. But here it is, and boy does it get dark. Demons and Gods, magic and murder, readers are going to be thrilled with the rich themes and strong imagery. Elric is pale, with pale hair, and pale eyes. He is an albino, and what is even more surprising, he is not the villain. (I'm looking at you Davinci Code) Not really anyways. Elric is the emperor of Melniboné, an old, and stagnate civilization. With the rise of humans and their threat to his culture Elric is forced to call on all of his powers to maintain his people, and their place in the world. Fantasy lovers delight! Horror lovers delight. Bishi lovers delight! This is a great read which will no doubt reach out to many readers, and steal others!
Now fantasy can be a lot of things, and in The Magicians by Lev Grossman readers will learn that sometimes wish fulfillment is okay, as long as it is tinged with unimaginable horror and terror from beyond comprehension. Now don't let the light hearted atmosphere that you might get reading the first page or so go to your head. This book takes the fantasy genre somewhere many authors are reluctant to take it, to the adult world! Booze, sex, and magic are going to be fused in ways you will never think of as readers learn more about our world than they ever thought possible.
Through high school Quentin is your normal kid, living life like a little brat with little to no redeeming qualities, feeling doomed to become a disgruntled adult who works at McDonald's and hates his life, with little to no redeeming qualities. And this life is pretty well on a path to fruition when he is recruited to a College of Magic. Don't cross your fingers for Harry Potter here folks, Quentin is going to learn more about life and become a decent magician along the way. Worth the time, worth the read, worth the money!
The First Law trilogy is acclaimed. Loved by most, and touted by many to be a noir fantasy story. This is not entirely untrue, but rest assured that this is so much more than that. Joe Abercrombie takes his time with this story, one which is a slow build and escalates to devastating effect. Not as much time is spent on worldbuilding as I prefer, not even a map. Joe says that this is because he does not like them. But I feel this is just a cop out. Give me a damn map so I know where the hell I am! Anyways that bit aside Joe makes up for these shortcomings in spades.
Weaving together the stories of many characters and uniting them in a mysterious plot on the dawn of war Joe creates some of the greatest character development in modern (<Does that really apply here?) fantasy. There is Ninefingers the barbarian who has, can you guess it?, nine fingers. There is the asshole who will not be mentioned. There is also Ferro, picture Connan with boobs. And then there is Glokta, who is a professional torturer with a heart of gold. Weaving together this fantastic cast could have easily ruined the book, but Joe does an amazing job of it.
No one knows how to ruin a party quite like horror great Edgar Allen Poe. The Masque of the Red Death exemplifies this unique calling. Poe spins a yarn that hits home, not just in the day and time of its publication, but today. With the rise of the Tea Party Movement, and the much less known, Grumpy Middle-Classman's Movement, the divide between classes is more pronounced than ever. Poe's Masque is perhaps more relevant now that it has ever been. This is the reason that Masque bumped the Raven for Poe's entry in our list.
When put shoulder to shoulder with other Poe works like: The Cask of Amontillado, The Raven, and A Tell Tale Heart, The Masque of the Red Death goes relatively unnoticed. Don't let that fool you though, Masque takes readers to a schnazzy party for the extremely rich, set in a fantasy land of terror. This party is closed to the general (poor) public, who are forced to wallow in filth with a horrible fatal disease. Presumably because he did not get an invite to their bitch'n party, Death is pissed and decides to crash it in a shocking personal appearance. Filled with color (or colour if your a schnazzy rich guy [or European]) The Masque of the Red Death is a superb trip into dark fantasy!
Often horror will rely on the trope that a character has lost their mind, or at least some part of it. While some authors (read: Lovecraft) have utilized this to amazing effect, most just fall flat on their face. Here however Parker creates a story which is rife with fear and paranoia (There they are! Old friends) while building a story that is layered for both complexity and entertainment. Let it be known that for the most part amnesia is almost an unforgivable sin in the world of literature and, as such, I do not tend to tolerate it, but in the Scavenger Trilogy Parker writes it so well it is hard to be upset.
As is typical of a Saturday night wrought of vodka and loud music, our main character wakes up lying in a river surrounded by bodies. Absolutely unsure of what happened last night, (or if he slept with any of them) the protagonist takes it upon himself to find out just who he is. Everyone he meets tends to have something terrible happen to him, and everyone else knows exactly who he is. But why won’t they tell him who he is? Well that is a question you will have to read the book for an answer to!
The Broken Empire Trilogy is an example of a dark fantasy that is very easy to get wrong. It is very easy to screw up and make the leading character completely unlikable, hated, and disgusting. Many dark fantasy wanna-bes have fallen into this trap. However, author Mark Lawrence knocks this out of the park. Creating a character that is gritty, vicious, dark, and lovable all at the same time he has made a work of art that is bound to take you and anyone you can convince to read it, on a ride into a very dark and frightening place.
Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath is Batman, and will be referred to as such because it is easier to do so than repeating Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath several times. Batman witnessed his brother and mother killed before his eyes and has set out to become a lean mean justice machine. On top of that Batman has decided that it is time for him to return home to claim his birthright after wandering the world learning Justice from as many badasses as possible. The result is a spectacular battle of wills and badassery which will be a stand out in readers’ minds for years to come.
As much as I appreciate strong worldbuilding in a fantasy novel, there is something to be said for equally strong character development, and in this case, stronger character development. Garth Nix takes his time to build the bare outline of a world, then fill it with character that seem, frankly, decades in the making. Readers are going to notice that they only ever really get snippets of the world around but get a nice long drink from the well of personality that all the characters are possessed of. Walk the line of good and evil and decide for yourself what evil truly is. (Its not me, I promise)
Sabriel is a relatively normal girl, attending a somewhat English boarding school. That is until her father, a powerful necromancer sends her a message (full of smiles and emoji’s) communicating that he is in peril. Setting out on a journey to learn what has befallen him, and if there is anything that she can do to help, she must travel to the Old Kingdom, where she was born, to get to the bottom of this dark mystery. Prepare for fantasy on high and chills on low as you wade through the darkness of the Old Kingdom with some of the best characters in the past century!
As a genre fantasy loves to take readers to the distant past, or some world stuck far in the past, The Steel Remains is not one of those books. This is a world that is similar but at the same time unique. And that, readers, is what I look for in a book. Uniqueness and strong characterization is without a doubt one of the greatest breaths of fresh air in the industry. Now readers should be prepared, this comes with some pretty detailed mansex, and if you're not ready for it then take a moment to prepare. Remember this is a world different from ours, they don't have the same prejudices ours does.
The Steel Remains takes readers to a world where some great calamity has claimed a vast swath of the human race, the moon, and all that was once familiar. The Scaled Ones are a menace that once again threaten the world. Three friends, old comrades in arms reunite once more to battle this threat, but have no bones about it, they are not heroes, but just survivors of this brutal world and they only survived because they are lethally efficient and have been willing to do those terrible things to see the next day.
Magic is a very powerful driving force in fantasy. And I have always fancied that if I were in some fantasy world I would be a villain who controlled vast amounts of magical power. With that as back story it is little surprise that when a work of fiction comes along in which magic is a centerpiece I am gonna be all over that shit. Readers are treated to a story of magic and thievery and barbarism as they follow characters into a richly detailed world and are immersed, allowed to explore angles that may not be so obvious.
Three hundred years ago there was a great cataclysm that devastated the world. As a result the Red Monks are a bunch of dickbags who seek out and destroy anything that might pave the way for the return of magic. This included innocent farm boy Raff. Hunted by psycho asshole monks Raff teams up with a fairly typical team of ragtag heroes in order to remain safe and alive in the face of the douche monks. While this book is not terribly well known it is one of those that stands out in a crowd, assuming covers had the same value as the contents of a book, and that books could stand in any crowd.
This one is part epic fantasy, part afterlife (bangsian) tale, and part horror. It starts with a big bang with the protagonist being murdered only to wake up finding himself in a different realm. This realm, however, is a far cry from the heavenly afterlife the Christian tales regale us with. You are presented with the question 'what if there are a number of different levels of afterlives or realms, where you decend to a different one with each death? And what if all of them have gone horrible wrong?
The protaganist finds the first level of afterlife is a pretty fucked up place with 'new souls' being pretty much reduce to the bottom of the food chain as soul food for a whole gambit of pretty fucking scary monsters who feed on them. The protagonist's twin, meanwhile, is still alive in our own world with a murderous creature that's definetly not human trying to savage him to death.
The connection between the twins, in our world and the world beyond proves to be something that's causing a bit a problem for reality, mashing together the two universes, which as you can surmise, is pretty fucking bad for everyone and everything as a whole.
So combine afterlife mythology (a kind of fucked up version of the heaven and hell conceits), toss in some Lovecraftian Cthulhu horror, throw plenty of creepy and scary, a few parallel universes that make up a number of different afterlifes and you have an awesome trilogy to read. There's plenty of horror and scary moments to keep you wanting the lights on when you read this one.
A kaleidoscope of dark images abound in this fantastic debut novel by Campbell. What's even more intriguing is the author happens to be a video game developer -- not exactly the usual prelude to a career in writing, especially quality writing as this novel happens to exhibit.
But whatever the case, it's a good combination as the author's imagination runs truly free when coming up with the setting. Think an immense city that's help above an abyss, suspended by giant chains. There are mad angels, gods of chains, young angels on a quest, psychopathic murders, mechanical angles, humans, and plenty of gory violence, and plenty of other dark and fucked up things to read about.
All in all, this satisfies all criteria for a dark fantasy novel and it's a pretty damn good read to boot.
Malevolent deities make up an important part of dark fantasy. And The Great God Pan is thick with it! "No one could begin to describe the cumulative suspense and ultimate horror with which every paragraph abounds" HP Lovecraft. If my all-time favorite author Mr. Lovecraft has spoken well of a book there is no question that it will land among my favorites. Though the super natural aspect of the Great God Pan may be terrifying on its own, one aspect that I find most disturbing is the undertone of greed and power lust that brings about the events central to this story.
The Great God Pan is a story thick with sex, science, and the supernatural. Beginning with an experimental brain surgery, seemingly copied verbatim into the handbooks of supervillains throughout history. This surgery is intended to open its recipients mind to "the great god Pan" a way of seeing the greater world. For some unknown reason (I personally think it was the whole "sawing open the person's head and screwing with their brain" thing) the victim of this surgery became absolutely batshit.
Machen proceeds to tell a wonderful, terrifying, story of lust, murder, suicide, and intrigue with a stunning finally that twists just before letting the reader down. This is a read that cannot be ignored.
The theme of good versus evil is one that is done and done and done. A trend you may notice with many of the greatest (and not necessarily listed here) fiction is that it is not always cut and dry. Many of the best point out that it is more like grey versus gray, neither is truly right. Plague of Angels however approaches the subject in the opposite way. It is evil vs. good. And for that it has earned its place here. Just as a side note, I am a religious man, but you have to read this one with a certain distance if you are to make it to the end.
Nyx is the Queen of Hell and all of the fallen angels who have found themselves there. At some point (presumably after a bangin' party) she finds herself trapped on earth with the Son of God. And while their animosity towards each other is great to begin with certain carpentry accidents have themselves reassessing their relationship. And thus they enter into a pact that will have a profound effect on the world, and history in general. This is one of those that will make your toes curl, make your hair stand on end, and make your stomach turn, but it is almost impossible to tear your eyes off of!