My friends are sometimes surprised by the darkness of my writing. I guess I seem reasonably happy and modestly well-adjusted in person (which seems very strange to me). But I love the darkness, gloom, and sometimes hopelessness, of the best fiction and poetry. As a child, I loved reading Edgar Allan Poe. I was often disappointed by the happy Hollywood endings of the movies my parents took me to. The characters in the Tale Tale Heart and The Cask of Amontillado didn’t have happy endings. They died miserably and got what they deserved. Dark, I know, but oh so satisfying.
So I asked myself, why is that. Certainly, I can’t be alone. Dante, Poe, Lovecraft, King, etc. have been writing tales that millions of people love and keep loving. Many, like Poe and Lovecraft don’t give much, if any hope in their stories. The darkness overwhelms the reader, yet he plods on through the dim corridors, deeper and deeper into the impenetrable mist. Perhaps it’s like a roller coaster, the controlled fear, knowing we are basically safe, but scared into gratitude that we are alive, heart pounding in our chest, but alive. Maybe it’s schadenfreude, sharing someone else’s misery, but happy that they have it worse. Or maybe it’s something deeper, something fundamental.
Why we Fear and Love the Dark
It is primal to fear the unknown, the darkness that shrouds the dense forest. Do you have a pet, a cat or dog? Why do they put their noses into dark holes in the ground? They might smell an animal down there, but could just as easily get an eye poked or worse. They’re curious. And so are we. It’s built into our DNA; we have to know what’s under that log (rattle snake, probably), in that cave (rabid wolf, most definitely), or in the abandoned mental institution (vindictive ghosts, of course).
We go into the dark to shine our light into it, to expand our lives by testing our fear, pushing our own boundaries a tiny bit. The worst thing God did for Adam and Eve was to make life too easy. So he gave them a talking snake, pretty scary, right.
The Gift of Darkness
All decent stories have a problem, a challenge for the protagonist to overcome. The darkest stories make that challenge insurmountable, tearing the fool’s eyes out for sticking his face into the fox hole. One of my favorite books of all time is Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. It’s written with such mastery that the reader is drawn inexorably into the deepest gloom imaginable, unable to pull free until its black conclusion and Kurtz’s dying words: “The horror, the horror.”
Is it hopeless? I don’t think so, at least that’s not the message I get from these stories or the ones I think of in my own writing. We need the dark so we have a place to put the light. Shine your flashlight on a summer day – nothing. Then do it in a subterranean cave. Fear is a limitation, a doorway into the unknown, and the only way to expand is to cross the threshold. Otherwise, we stay on this side of the Garden of Eden, naked and stupid.