“Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Kings”: Why We Love Dark Stories
"We speak of stories ending, when in truth it is we who end. The stories go on and on." -- Jacqueline Carey
Near the end of college, I visited my parents' house and was sitting up late on my laptop playing Planescape Torment for the first time. I tried to describe the game to my Dad, though there was always a disconnect with my parents with regard to video games. They're just old enough that video games are something that came after them. I think that their internal notions of video games are forever mapped onto whatever impression of Pong and Frogger they picked up through cultural osmosis back in the day. The idea that video games at their best can tell stories as deep as any novel or film may be an accepted fact for them, but it is a fact that sits on the surface without scratching at the deeper impression of frantically moving a half dozen pixels with a joystick.
Giving up trying to explain the convoluted nature of the game's approach and story, I settled on giving the more general description that the story was "fantastically dark." My Dad did not understand why someone would want to consume such a story. I had no response at the time, but it's something that I've considered over the years from time to time. Why is it that we like dark stories?
There's the easy answer that those of us who prefer such tales like to peddle. Happy stories are the sugar cookies of art, all sweetness with no dimensionality. But dark stories, those are the chocolate chip cookies, those are the sugar that we dose with a teaspoon of salt. We argue that the real world is dark, that stories without the darkness are stories that have little touch with reality. That's fair, to a point, but it just pushes the explanation back one step without actually explaining something. Why do stories need to have this texture of the real in order for us to truly love them?
I think it might be the nugget of mortality buried in our tales, of the foreknowledge that in the end we're just dust. All love stories are tragedies on a long enough scale. Every couple's love story ends in either separation or death. There are no happy endings on a long enough time scale. We know exactly what is waiting for us at the end of a tunnel of a decades. And our great stories are responses to that foreboding. They are counters to the argument that if all that waits for us is dust then all that remains to us is nihilism.
Dark stories, tragedies, aren't simply about watching bad things happen. Their appeal is not derived from a desire to revel in suffering. Great tragedy is an acknowledgement that the ending will be unhappy no matter what we do. But far from nihilism, tragedy is a storyteller laying the cards on the table and asserting that even though the journey ends in a cliff, the miles are worth it for their own sake.
If us naked apes managed to live forever, maybe we'd find something else to complain about, but on the other hand just maybe we'd lose our predilection for tragedy. Maybe we'd believe in happy endings. I don't think it's a coincidence that the religious tend to shy away from stories of darkness, yet I'd most strenuously object to the obnoxious assertion that the explanation is one of naivety or simple-mindedness. No, it is simply that those who believe that the unhappy ending is not inevitable do not have the same need for encouragement in the face of its horror.
So perhaps I have an answer to that question after all these years. I crave those tragedies because even if darkness is our fate, there can yet be comfort in it.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.