Wednesday, July 27, 2022

“You Are A Grim Hero”; topical highlights of Grimdark’s history (Zothique, Fighting Fantasy)

 “You Are A Grim Hero”; topical highlights of Grimdark’s history (Zothique, Fighting Fantasy)

Spring 2015, guest post by S.E. Lindberg (author of Dyscrasia Fiction) for Hyperborea Blog – Francesco La Manno --> that link is defunct, so the article is now reposted here in 2022.


As “Grimdark” matures and gathers traction, readers seem interested in defining its scope.  Many blog posts already cover the topic of “What is Grimdark,” including posts from champion Mark Lawrence (author of Prince of Thorns): Mark Lawrence Post May 2013  - What is Grimdark?; and Mark Lawrence Post Feb 2015 - "Is Grimdark dead?"  (With guests: R Scott Bakker, Karen Miller, Joe Abercrombie, Teresa Frohock, Kameron Hurley, Richard Morgan). This post will not try to disambiguated the boundary between overlapping/similar genres, but it will highlight a few books/topics that aficionado’s and newcomers should enjoy:  

1) 1930’s Grimdark/Sword & Sorcery: the oft-overlooked Clark Ashton Smith

2) 1980’s Grimdark/Sword & Sorcery: the origins of Grimdark stem from Game’s Workshop’s Fighting Fantasy series


1930’s Grimdark: Smith’s Zothique

The pen pal mega-trio of Robert E. Howard (REH), H.P. Lovecraft (HPL), and Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) seemed to dominate pulp fiction ~1930.  At that time, today’s genres of horror, sci-fi, and fantasy (and hence Grimdark too) were just lumped into “weird fiction” (i.e., published in “Weird Tales” magazine). The form was almost entirely short story, though some poems and novelette’s emerged. REH wrote the most heroic adventure of the three, and became most known for his Conan yarns (earning the title of “Father of Sword & Sorcery”, though  the genre was not coined until 1961 by author Fritz Leiber); influenced by his pen pals, REH also wrote some good HPL-style horror too.  HPL was fascinated with nondescript/unknown horrors, and is widely known for his Cthulhu yarns.  Then there was CAS. He is least known of the trio, but he shouldn’t be to any Grimdark fan (CAS is also known for his Hyperborea cycle, which likely inspired this blog’s subtitle). CAS was fascinated with poetic horror; his style is denser than REH’s and more descriptive than HPLs.  Since “Grimdark” seems to be primarily novel length horror/fantasy, it is easily argued that it evolved from weird fiction; and of three mentioned here, CAS’s work was the most “Grimdark.” CAS’s Zothique tales are the most dystopian and if you are reading this post, you should also read them (bulleted arguments below). In his to L. Sprague de Camp, dated November 3, 1953, CAS described Zothique as:   


“… the last inhabited continent of earth. The continents of our present cycle have sunken, perhaps several times. Some have remained submerged; others have re-risen, partially, and re-arranged themselves…The science and machinery of our present civilization have long been forgotten, together with our present religions. But many gods are worshipped; and sorcery and demonism prevail again as in ancient days. Oars and sails alone are used by mariners. There are no fire-arms—only the bows, arrows, swords, javelins, etc. of antiquity...” 


Why Read The Zothique Tales?

  • Aficionado’s duty – know the origins of Sword & Sorcery and Grimdark

  • Short Stories – won’t consume much time

  • The stories are awesomely Grimdark

  • Free – available online thanks to Eldritchdark, a fan website run with permission from CAS’s family. The Zothique tales are ordered as they appear in Necrocomicon’s Press 1995 printing of “Clark Ashton Smith’s Tales of Zothique” edited by Will Murray and Steve Behrends (i.e., chronological order of publication). A great review of these was shared by author Ryan Harvey on Blackgate:


  1. The Empire of the Necromancers - Jan 1932 

  2. The Isle of the Torturers July 1932

  3. The Charnel God - Nov 1932

  4. The Dark Eidolon - Dec 1932

  5. The Voyage of King Euvoran  - Jan 1933

  6. The Weaver In The Vault - Mar 1933

  7. The Tomb Spawn - July 1933

  8. The Witchcraft of Ulua - Aug 1933

  9. Xeethra  - Mar 1934

  10.  The Book of Vergama - Mar-May 1934 

  11. The Last Hieroglyph - Mar-May 1934

  12. Shapes of Adamant- fragment circa 1935 (fragment)

  13. Necromancy In Naat - Feb 1935 

  14. The Black Abbot of Puthuum - Spring 1935

  15. The Death of Ilalotha - Mar 1937

  16. The Garden of Adompha - July 1937

  17. Zothique - poem 

  18. The Master of The Crabs - Aug 1947

  19. Mandor's Enemy - fragment  (fragment)

  20. Morthylla - 1951-52


"In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.” Warhammer 40,000 tagline

“The FF (Fighting Fantasy) books were the early thoughts about fantasy needing to be dark and grim that became more fully developed in the worlds of Warhammer” John Blanche, 2014


1980’s Grimdark: Fighting Fantasy  

Many cite Grimdark’s name as being evolved from the tagline of Game’s Workshop’s sci-fi brand of fiction/games: Warhammer 40,0000. The tagline follows: "In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.” Of course, GW also produces the fantasy Olde World line up too (medieval fantasy). Check out GW’s Black Library for their books. So before Warhammer 40,0000, what did GW produce?  What spawned this tagline of Grim Darkness?  The answer: Fighting Fantasy. Its development is chronicled in a new book, and the series has been revived in App/eBook form. 

My gateway into the Sword & Sorcery genre was most likely the Fighting Fantasy books (choose-your-own-adventures + dice) created by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone in the early 1980's (Games Workshop founders; these two would then co-found Warhammer). Before personal computers & smart phones could satiate the need for solo adventuring on the go, these books rocked. They were full of disturbing illustrations that still haunt me to this day (see blogpost on evolving Fighting Fantasy books). Interestingly, select ones (like Warlock of Firetop Mountain and Steve Jackson’s Sorcery) are now available on Kindle from Worldweaver and iTunes by Tinman games.  The tablet evolution has revitalized these game books, check them out!  Ostensibly marketed toward the young adult crowd, these are full of darkness. The artwork of the Games Workshop has always been top notch.  The corpse image from Section 122 of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain has haunted me for two decades! 

Jonathan Green, author of many novels including those under the Warhammer and Fighting Fantasy brands, recently led a Kickstarter campaign to create a history book detailing how these adventure books evolved.  This 2012 effort was successful, and the print and eBook copies are now available.  The resulting book You Are The Hero (YATH) is 272 pages of illustrated goodness, with insights from authors, publishers, and artists.  John Blanche, currently Games Workshop’s art director and “the man responsible for coming up with the look of the worlds of Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000” (p45 YATH) explicitly addresses the evolution of Grimness:

The FF books were the early thoughts about fantasy needing to be dark and grim that became more fully developed in the worlds of Warhammer – and it is still happening today. The punk thing is a tribal street visual that pervades all history as far back as you wish – it’s a hint of shamanism, tribalism, barbarism, etc. People relate to that in a very enthusiastic manner. Fantasy is not about fairies and golden knights but about guys with shaved heads and zombies and a multitude of macabre horrific nastiness.” (p52, You Are The Hero, 2014)

Diehard Grimdark aficionados will hunt down The Zagor Chronicles, a series of four 1994 novels which FF fan Lin Liren found The Zagor Chronicles to be, “surprisingly grim, bleak and brutally violent for novels aimed at a 13-15 year-old audience, and the bittersweet ending is unforgettable.” These seem expensive and obscure--I’m hunting for these myself.




About S.E. Lindberg 

S.E. Lindberg resides near Cincinnati, Ohio working as a microscopist, employing his skills as a scientist and artist to understand the manufacturing of products analogous to medieval paints. Two decades of practicing chemistry, combined with a passion for the Sword and Sorcery genre, spurred him to write Lords of Dyscrasia, a graphic adventure fictionalizing the alchemical humors. Spawn of Dyscrasia continues the dark saga, featuring cover art by Ken Kelly (available now in audio book too).  Beyond Dyscrasia Fiction, his short story Legacy of the Great Dragon opens the new anthology from Perseid Press HEROIKA: Dragon Eaters (available for pre-order now, paperbacks available ~May/June 2015), in which the Father of Alchemy entombs his own source of magic.

S.E. Lindberg co-moderates a Goodreads group focused on Sword & Sorcery and invites you to participate (link).

Dyscrasia Fiction on Youtube

S E Lindberg Author Blog