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“Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Kings”: Why We Love Dark Stories

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | August 16, 2012 | Comments ()


hiroshima01rubble.jpg

"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.



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  • Ren

    Much delayed...but I think the same could be said for historical movies, especially ones that revolve around war and extreme loss. I watched The City of Life and Death (better known as Nanjing Nanjing) one night curled up on my bed (the fiance does not share my love of tragic cinema). I became completely inconsolable at one point, just a ball of sobs and tears. For hours after I was completely destroyed. The movie itself was amazing...everything about it was just so well done. The ending scene with the Japanese unit doing the Harvest Dance has become burned into my mind.

    I would never suggest the movie for a feel good girls night, but I feel like things like this must be scene. That tragedy and darkness must be remembered in some form. I often feel compelled to recommend this to everyone, but it is such a soul crusher I feel bad doing it.

  • TenaciousJP

    One of my favorite songs of all time is Bob Dylan's "A Simple Twist of Fate" -- a beautifully sad and lonely song. Why this song resonated with me above all the confectionary love songs that we hear every day has been perfectly put into words by this column. Thank you, sir.

  • Fredo

    Consider that the greatest stories (both of antiquity and modern times) begin with darkness and tragedy or end that way: whether it's Harry Potter's parents being murdered and he being forced to grow up under the hateful watch of his family or the Little Mermaid choosing to turn to foam rather than murdering the Prince after he married another.

    I think part of the reason for our love of dark stories comes from our desire to set things right. Look at video games like Skyrim or Mass Effect or Assassin's Creed. They depict worlds in which things have gone to shit and it's up to the hero (i.e. "YOU") to sort things out. That is empowering, even if it's unrealistic. It feeds into our desire to fix things that go unfulfilled in real life.

  • Jim Slemaker

    "I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the religious tend to shy away from stories of darkness..."

    I guess that must be why THE PASSION bombed so badly...

  • ,

    Hah! Good one! The Bible could have been written by the Brothers Grimm. Just for one little f'r instance, how about God and Satan wagering over Job whilst all manner of calamity is visited on him?

    Dark shit, indeed, starting with The Fall.

  • Rochelle

    I like dark fiction and non-fiction because of the catharsis, because it's a way of getting into the psychology of humans, and sometimes because it makes my life and family seem less fucked up. Right now I'm reading Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts - a non-fiction account of the US Ambassador to Germany and his 24 yr old daughter and their life in Berlin in 1933. It's good to be reminded that really bad stuff happens in the world and that not so bad people get swept up in it, or don't recognize it for what it is. There's some awful stuff happening in the world right now, and there isn't much that I can do as an individual to make it better. So I do what I can and I process the rest by watching Walter White make bad choices and reading about how real people dealt with the real evil right in front of them. I think it makes me a more thoughtful participant in the world.

  • Dragonchild

    I'm OK with the occasional dark story; what I'm dead sick & tired of is a work getting a free pass BECAUSE it's "dark". I think I might have to wait for my generation to become irrelevant with age as I see no signs of angstalicious emo tropes dying of popularity anytime soon. Heck, I can even accept the popularity if people at least showed some reason and admit they just indulge in the shlock. "Star Wars: Episode III" has a 80% rating on Rotton Tomatoes and a 7.7/10 on IMDB for crying out loud.

  • Green Lantern

    "The Watchmen" (book/comics, not so much the film).

    That is all.

  • Endgame55

    What is the header pic? It's a wonderful image.

  • SLW

    Hiroshima the day after

  • LibraryChick

    Yes, the building was Hiroshima's equivalent to a state capitol building. The impact of the damage leaves more of an impression when viewed in person.

  • DarthCorleone

    Nicely put!

    The reality angle is a huge part of it for me. Positive escapism in stories just so rarely has anything new to offer me and all too often feels like a cheat. At the same time, there is something to be said for negative escapism that isn't my immediate reality. It informs, takes us out of our bubbles, and helps us empathize.

    Also, the bright moments in a dark story feel much more precious and earned. It's very rare that I'll watch an outright comedy and laugh as fully at or appreciate as much any of its omnipresent joking as I would at that rare and wonderful light moment in a meaty, dark character drama.

  • Guest

    "Helps us empathize"

    It's like you're all totally up on eighteenth-century literary theory, or something.

  • Siege

    I agree with your premise. I personally am really into non-fiction works about large-scale disaster (shipwrecks, fires, floods, explosions, etc), not necessarily because I'm morbid (though I totally am) but because a disaster brings out both the worst and the best in humanity. Horror fiction is often the same--a murderer or a monster or a curse is going to push characters to become something that a regular day at the office would never be able to create.

  • SBrown

    yet I’d most strenuously object to the obnoxious assertion that the explanation is one of naivety or simple-mindedness.

    I was just thinking of this, like, 10 minutes ago. Is Pajiba now beamed straight to my brain? I decided I liked dark stories because I believe that people who create them really understand life. There are people who seem to breeze through life without really paying attention and I think the happy stories are for and by them.

    As obnoxious as this will sound, as a New Yorker living in the Midwest, I find myself surrounded by these folks - people who would never enjoy the dark stories. Something shitty happens and they feel a compulsion to say something positive. "Someone stole all your stuff? At least you still have your life." "Oh, your baby just died? Well, everything happens for a reason!"

    It seems exactly like they need encouragement in the face of horror - they need it so badly, they are thrusting it upon others in the face of horrors that aren't really even their own. They couldn't possibly saying these things for the comfort of the victim, because they are just absurdly stupid sentiments. They face the horror by following up an honest "I'm so sorry" with an empty meaningless encouragement.

    You really can't understand happiness unless you have experienced sadness. This is why the dark stories resonate with me. The story is built on a true understanding of life - not a fairytale.

  • LK16

    Maybe it's because I'm a native Midwesterner, but I find attitudes like this to be extremely annoying. Yes, there is dark in life and yes, there is sadness and pain. But stories that are about those things aren't inherently better than stories that are about light or good things - or even better, stories that combine the two.

    I have this argument with my boyfriend all the time. He thinks that entertainment doesn't get any better than The Dark Knight and Breaking Bad, and that these are the be all end all of good film and TV. And while, yes, these are quality pieces of entertainment that pose interesting questions about life, they aren't the only form of entertainment worth watching or critiquing. There are plenty of strong, lighter films and television shows that I think deserve to be put on the same level, even if they are comedies or even *gasp* romantic comedies. There are no deaths or nihilistic themes in Bridesmaids, but it's still a damn entertaining movie filled with emotion and truths about what it is to be a woman (nay, a person.)

    To say that the only true, interesting things are dark things is to deny half of the experience of life. You want to listen to Elliot Smith? That's awesome. But you don't have to shit all over the Beach Boys to do so. But then again, I'm just a girl from Michigan over here making fuckin lemons out of lemonade. What do I know?

  • Guest

    Good job, SLW.

    You may also be interested in 'The Lucretian return' idea, if you haven't already mucked around in it. When I talk to my horror fiction class about "why we like dark stories," it's one of the theories I list (I could never possibly limit the discussion to a single reason, of course).

  • SLW

    Thanks Ranylt. Do you happen to have an article on Lucretian Return? Google wasn't immediately fruitful, leading mostly to uninformative wikipedia entries and some articles on JSTOR that were dense academicese, but not my particular dialect of academicese.

  • Guest

    Imma email you stuff...

  • Tinkerville

    "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."

    Beautifully put. I think that sums up the appeal very well. I've tried to explain to friends why I'm so attracted to incredibly dark books and games and it's hard to put into words. In a way I think the darkness helps to give an added meaning to stories, which is not to say that lighthearted stories are meaningless of course, but when you add death and fear into the mix it changes the game completely. I devour murder mysteries and look forward to that midway point when there's the second killing like it's Christmas.

    When I'm sad I'm that much more attracted to reading dark books, not because it suits my mindset but because like you said, there's a strange comfort in those kind of tales.

  • BierceAmbrose

    "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."

    This.

    I don't want to go all Monty Python singing on a cross, but why should we have any life, or fun, or impact on the world at all? I loves me some "dark" stories. They seem more truthsome and heroic than stories without any of the "bad." Without bad nobody has a chance to choose to make something better. "Hey, guys, it all ends in a cliff but meanwhile we've got miles to play with. Let's do something cool!)

    There's a different frame of reference where the simple fact of being consciously alive is a miracle. Also a mystery. You don't have to believe in the rantings of any particular sky-bully's self-appointed scribes to recognize miracles (There's no way that can happen.) and mysteries (There's no reason that should be the way it is, yet it's very definitely that way.)

  • Guest

    This may not be what you meant, but for me, nothing cures a shitty day like watching a movie about people with waaaay worse problems. Horror fiction is a great perspective-adjustor.

  • Tinkerville

    Agreed. My car might've broken down right in the middle of LA traffic, but at least I'm not a clone raised to supply humans with fresh organs. Or am I...

  • valerie

    "I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the religious tend to shy away from stories of darkness..."
    No.

  • MikeRoorda

    I've always explained my love for the dark and dreary fare like Breaking Bad through the lens of horror. Stephen King's essay "Why we crave horror movies" really drove it home for me better than anything else. To quote him:

    "I like to see the most aggressive of them – Dawn of the Dead, for instance – as lifting a trap door in the civilized forebrain and throwing a basket of raw meat to the hungry alligators swimming around in that subterranean river beneath.

    Why bother? Because it keeps them from getting out, man. It keeps them down
    there and me up here. It was Lennon and McCartney who said that all you need is love, and I would agree with that.

    As long as you keep the 'gators fed."

  • Guest

    This is definitely what, say, Dean Koontz, does to keep his alligators fed.

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