Dark Urban Fantasy Vs Horror: Differences, Similarities, and Their Impact on Literature

Dark Urban Fantasy Vs Horror: Differences, Similarities, and Their Impact on Literature

By Neal Martin/ April 14, 2023
Last Updated April 26, 2023
dark fantasy vs horror

In the realm of speculative fiction, horror and dark urban fantasy often intersect, creating a literary landscape filled with magic, mystery, and fear. Both genres share a fascination with the supernatural and the unknown, but they diverge in their focus and intent.

Horror seeks to elicit fear and dread in the reader, often focusing on the macabre and grotesque, while dark urban fantasy takes the fantastic elements found in traditional fantasy and transposes them to an urban setting, often with a darker and more gritty tone.

This article delves into the relationship between horror and dark urban fantasy, examining their similarities and differences while highlighting the impact of these genres on literature and their enduring popularity.

Main Elements of Horror and Dark Urban Fantasy

Horror seeks to evoke fear and dread in the reader, often delving into the darkest corners of the human psyche and exploring themes of death, madness, and the grotesque.

urban fantasy vs horror

The setting in horror stories often plays a significant role in establishing a sense of unease, with haunted houses, desolate landscapes, and isolated communities being popular choices. Examples from literature include:

  • Stephen King’s “It”: An ancient, shape-shifting evil that feeds on fear terrorizes a group of children in the small town of Derry, Maine. The story explores themes of childhood trauma, the power of memory, and the nature of evil.
  • H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu”: The tale follows the terrifying consequences of discovering ancient, cosmic beings beyond human comprehension. Lovecraft’s stories are known for their cosmic horror, focusing on the insignificance of humanity in the face of an indifferent universe.
  • Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House”: The novel centers on a group of individuals who come to investigate the paranormal occurrences in a sinister mansion. The haunted house setting serves as a central element of the story’s terror and becomes a character in its own right.

Dark urban fantasy infuses magical elements into a modern, urban setting, creating a world that is both fantastical and familiar. The genre often features supernatural creatures like vampires, werewolves, and witches coexisting with humans in a contemporary world.

dark urban fantasy

The urban environment provides a rich backdrop for the blending of the supernatural and the mundane. Examples from literature include:

  • Neil Gaiman’s “Neverwhere”: The story follows an ordinary man who discovers a hidden, magical realm beneath the streets of London. Gaiman’s novel explores themes of identity, the nature of reality, and the often-overlooked magic that exists in everyday life.
  • Patricia Briggs’ “Moon Called”: The first book in the Mercy Thompson series, the story follows a shape-shifting mechanic who navigates a world filled with supernatural beings while trying to maintain a semblance of normalcy. The series deals with themes such as belonging, acceptance, and the blurred lines between good and evil.
  • Holly Black’s “Tithe”: Set in a gritty, contemporary New Jersey, the novel incorporates faeries and other magical creatures into an urban environment. Black’s story explores themes of identity, deception, and the challenges of navigating between two worlds.

Similarities Between Horror and Dark Urban Fantasy

urban fantasy vampire

  1. Supernatural Elements

Both horror and dark urban fantasy frequently incorporate supernatural elements into their narratives, drawing on creatures like ghosts, vampires, werewolves, witches, and other beings that exist beyond the realm of human understanding. These otherworldly elements contribute to a sense of wonder and intrigue in the story.

Examples from literature:

  • Anne Rice’s “Interview with the Vampire”: This novel, which has elements of both horror and dark urban fantasy, tells the story of a centuries-old vampire, Louis, and his transformation from a mortal to an immortal creature of the night. The novel explores themes of immortality, desire, and the nature of evil.
  • Clive Barker’s “Cabal”: The story follows Boone, a man framed for a series of brutal murders, who discovers an underground city inhabited by supernatural creatures called the Nightbreed. Barker’s novel blends horror and dark urban fantasy, exploring themes of identity, acceptance, and the line between human and monster.
  1. Atmosphere of Darkness and Tension

Both horror and dark urban fantasy often create an atmosphere of darkness and tension in their stories, using elements like suspense, mystery, and uncertainty to keep readers on the edge of their seats. The mood in these genres is typically somber, with a pervasive sense of danger lurking just beneath the surface.

Examples from literature:

  • Jim Butcher’s “Storm Front”: The first book in the Dresden Files series, “Storm Front” combines elements of horror and dark urban fantasy, following wizard detective Harry Dresden as he investigates supernatural crimes in Chicago. The novel is filled with suspense and tension, as Dresden faces increasingly dangerous threats.
  • Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s “The Strain”: This horror and dark urban fantasy blend tells the story of a vampiric virus that threatens to wipe out humanity. The novel’s dark and tense atmosphere permeates the narrative, as the protagonists struggle to contain the outbreak and prevent the world’s descent into chaos.
  1. Themes of Good and Evil, Human Nature, and Fragility of Life

Both horror and dark urban fantasy often explore the complex themes of good and evil, the darker aspects of human nature, and the fragility of life. These themes resonate with readers, as they force them to confront their own fears and question their understanding of morality and humanity.

Examples from literature:

  • Poppy Z. Brite’s “Lost Souls”: This novel, which combines horror and dark urban fantasy, tells the story of a group of vampires and the humans they encounter. The narrative delves into the themes of good and evil, exploring the blurred lines between the two and the complexity of human nature.
  • China Miéville’s “Perdido Street Station”: Set in a dark, fantastical city, this dark urban fantasy with elements of horror follows a scientist and a winged woman as they confront a terrifying and malevolent force. The novel grapples with themes of corruption, the struggle between good and evil, and the consequences of unchecked power.

Differences Between Horror and Dark Urban Fantasy

dark urban fantasy art

  1. Primary Focus and Intent

Horror focuses on evoking fear, discomfort, and unease in the reader, often using unsettling imagery and themes to create a sense of terror. In contrast, dark urban fantasy is more concerned with exploring supernatural elements within a familiar setting, weaving intricate narratives that incorporate magic and otherworldly beings into the contemporary world.

Examples from literature:

  • Stephen King’s “The Shining”: This horror novel focuses on the psychological unraveling of the protagonist, Jack Torrance, as he becomes increasingly influenced by the malevolent spirits in the haunted Overlook Hotel. The story aims to terrify readers with its intense atmosphere of dread and the horrifying transformation of a seemingly ordinary man.
  • N.P. Martin’s “Ethan Drake Series”: This dark urban fantasy series, written by your truly, follows detective Ethan Drake as he investigates supernatural crimes in the city of Fairview. The primary focus of the series is on the magical world that exists alongside our own and the characters that inhabit it, rather than evoking terror in the reader.
  1. Role of Protagonists and Antagonists

In horror, protagonists are often ordinary individuals thrust into extraordinary circumstances, struggling to survive and make sense of the terrifying events that unfold around them. In dark urban fantasy, protagonists are more likely to be empowered individuals with supernatural abilities or connections, navigating the complexities of a magical world.

Examples from literature:

  • Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House”: In this horror novel, the protagonist, Eleanor Vance, is an ordinary woman drawn into the terrifying events that take place in a haunted mansion. She is vulnerable and helpless in the face of the supernatural occurrences.
  • Holly Black’s “The Cruel Prince”: This dark urban fantasy novel features a protagonist, Jude Duarte, who is a mortal girl raised in the magical world of Faerie. She is an empowered character, using her cunning and determination to navigate the treacherous world of faerie politics.
  1. Psychological Aspects vs. Integration of Magic

Horror often leans heavily on psychological aspects, focusing on the human mind’s capacity for fear, madness, and cruelty. In contrast, dark urban fantasy seamlessly incorporates magical elements into the real world, creating a sense of wonder and intrigue as characters navigate the supernatural aspects of their environment.

Examples from literature:

  • Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”: This horror short story delves into the mind of a murderer who is driven mad by guilt and paranoia, illustrating the psychological horror that results from his actions.
  • Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods”: This dark urban fantasy novel explores the integration of magic and mythology into the modern world, following protagonist Shadow Moon as he becomes entangled in the conflict between ancient and new gods.

Impact of Horror and Dark Urban Fantasy on Literature

urban fantasy horror

  1. Cross-genre Appeal and Hybrid Works

The blending of horror and dark urban fantasy elements has led to the creation of hybrid works that straddle the line between the two genres. These works often combine the fear and dread found in horror with the fantastical and supernatural elements of dark urban fantasy, creating unique and captivating stories that appeal to a wide range of readers.

Examples from literature:

  • Anne Rice’s “The Vampire Chronicles”: This series, which began with “Interview with the Vampire,” combines elements of both horror and dark urban fantasy, presenting a world where vampires exist alongside humans. The novels explore themes of immortality, desire, and the nature of evil, evoking both fear and wonder in the reader.
  • Mike Mignola’s “Hellboy” comic series: The Hellboy comics blend horror and dark urban fantasy, following the adventures of a demon-turned-hero who battles supernatural forces threatening humanity. The series incorporates elements of folklore, mythology, and gothic horror to create a unique and immersive narrative.
  1. Challenging Traditional Genre Boundaries

The influence of horror and dark urban fantasy on one another has led to a reevaluation of traditional genre boundaries, as authors experiment with new ways of combining elements from both genres. This has resulted in a broader spectrum of literature that defies categorization, pushing the boundaries of storytelling and expanding the possibilities for future narratives.

Examples from literature:

  • China Miéville’s “The City & The City”: This novel combines elements of dark urban fantasy, horror, and detective fiction, creating a unique and thought-provoking narrative that challenges traditional genre conventions. The story follows a detective investigating a murder in a city that occupies the same physical space as another city, but the inhabitants of each city are forbidden from acknowledging the existence of the other.
  • Lauren Beukes’ “The Shining Girls”: This novel blends elements of horror, dark urban fantasy, and crime fiction, following a time-traveling serial killer who targets “shining girls,” women with the potential to change the world. The narrative shifts between the perspectives of the killer and one of his surviving victims, creating a tense and gripping story that defies easy categorization.
  1. Expanding Themes and Tropes

The interplay between horror and dark urban fantasy has led to the exploration of new themes and tropes, as authors delve into the complexities of human nature and the boundaries between the supernatural and the mundane. This cross-genre influence has enriched both genres, resulting in a diverse and compelling body of literature.

Examples from literature:

  • Joe Hill’s “NOS4A2”: This novel combines elements of horror and dark urban fantasy, following a young woman with a supernatural ability to find lost things who must confront an immortal child abductor. The story explores themes of trauma, resilience, and the power of imagination, deftly blending horror and fantasy elements.
  • Seanan McGuire’s “Wayward Children” series: This dark urban fantasy series, which begins with “Every Heart a Doorway,” incorporates horror elements as it explores the experiences of children who have returned from magical worlds. The novels examine themes of identity, belonging, and the line between reality and fantasy, creating a unique and emotionally resonant narrative.

The enduring appeal of both horror and dark urban fantasy in literature speaks to our fascination with the unknown and the supernatural. As readers and writers continue to explore the relationship between these genres, we can expect to see more innovative and compelling stories that push the boundaries of what speculative fiction can be. Understanding the interplay between horror and dark urban fantasy enriches our appreciation of these genres and helps to illuminate the depths of human imagination.

2 responses to “Dark Urban Fantasy Vs Horror: Differences, Similarities, and Their Impact on Literature”

  1. Viv Avatar

    I can’t seem to tease out the difference between Dark Fantasy and Dark Urban fantasy and Urban Fantasy. Does “Dark” connote a horror atmosphere?

    1. Neal Martin Avatar

      Hey Viv. Yes, in my opinion, “dark” should connote a horror atmosphere. But more than that, it should also include the use of morally gray characters who straddle the line between right and wrong. General urban fantasy tends to be quite light hearted with a lot of emphasis on humor and snark. Dark urban fantasy, at least the type that I write, has a lot more horror elements and characters doing very dark things. It’s a bit more serious in tone, and the humor tends to be of the blacker variety as well. I don’t get too caught up with labels, though. Whatever I write comes out dark, that’s just my style. I recently published a dark romance novel, and it’s probably the darkest book I’ve ever wrote.

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