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What’s the difference between dark fantasy and horror? I’ve heard lots of theories, and read lots of examples. Actually, that last bit is a lie—I’m a complete wuss when it comes to horror anything, so I do my level best to avoid it. The shower scene from Psycho? Any movie involving a chain saw, doll that comes to life (to any sound effect other than Tchaikovsky), clowns, sharks (swimming or tornadoed) or the word Halloween? Never watched a single one. Never will. However, one does not to see vast numbers of teens get turned into tomato soup in the creepy basement in order to form opinions on the genre, so here goes. The differences between dark fantasy and horror are the following:

  1. Magic? Dark fantasy’s gotta have it. Sure it can be a thin line. You can have monsters (Game of Thrones) without true horror, and you can have horror without magic (Psycho). But your dark fantasy is going to include aspects of the paranormal. In either case, magic might be evil, corrupt its users, rob them of their humanity (Voldemort), or demand a heavy price.
  2. Plot Thickens? In dark fantasy, not so much. There might be a lot of sub-plotty twists and turns, but basically there’s usually a hero who encounters creepy/scary/dangerous situations and lives to tell the tale. Of course if it’s horror, a bunch of (attractive and/or adorable) people will encounter creepy/scary/dangerous situations and get turned into gazpacho.
  3. Character Development? In dark fantasy, the hero might not be heroic, or perhaps even be downright morally ambiguous, but in the end development is usually limited to mastering some form of magic. In horror, of course, characters are too busy attempting to survive to do much character development.
  4. Ick Factor? For dark fantasy, sex and violence are usually part of the story. For horror, the sex, violence, gore, and more gore ARE the story.

To sum up? I would say the differences are that dark fantasy has heroes (however flawed) while horror has monsters (however human). My guest today, R. T. Lowe, is certainly an expert on these differences. His debut novel, The Felix Chronicles: Freshmen dances along the razor’s edge between dark fantasy and horror. Today he joins us to discuss coffee, writing, and life.

  1. Corporate Darth

    Corporate Darth

    Star Wars, Star Trek, or Firefly? Star Wars and it’s not even close. Darth Vader is one of my all-time favorite fictional characters.

  2. Who would you most like to sit next to on an airplane? Stephen King or Taylor Swift. I know I cheated on that one, but I can’t decide between the two.
  3. What is the one thing you can’t live without? My wife, my kids and my coffee in the morning. I know . . . I cheated on that one too.
  4. As a child (or now!), what did you want to be when you grew up? I wanted to be a lawyer and that’s what I became. It wasn’t until recently that I thought about writing a book. I always felt like I had a very creative streak in me, but I struggled to find the right outlet. I remember one time right after graduating law school I was working in the Mergers and Acquisitions department at the largest law firm in New York City when a senior partner asked me to draft a simple document. He called me up to his 40th floor office and stood there behind this massive desk with lower Manhattan spread out behind him through floor to ceiling windows. It looked like central casting had hired him to play the role of senior partner (perfectly knotted tie, dignified dusting of gray above the ears). He gave me a bored look and said wearily, as if he’d uttered the same tired lecture to generations of young blundering associates: “Why did you change the wording in the form, you ***damn ****up? This isn’t an exercise in art appreciation. Do you think you’re smarter than the people who created it? Change it back and stop wasting my ****ing time.” Then I was summarily dismissed to toil away on other documents, never forgetting the importance of precedent. But to someone with a creative streak, the lesson was a painful reminder that not everyone wants to hear something unique, and most importantly, if you have something unique to say, you better find the right forum for it.
  5. What is the single biggest challenge of creating the settings in your novels? Finding the right balance between being descriptive and not bogging the reader down with unnecessary (and distracting) details. My natural inclination is to go slightly overboard. I think I do this because I have such a clear picture in my head of what the setting “looks” like, and I desperately want to share that imagery—I want my readers to see what I see. But sometimes I’ll go back and review a chapter days or weeks after the initial draft and I’ll realize that I’ve overwhelmed the reader with so much detail that the actual purpose of the chapter got lost.
  6. What are you working on right now? The second installment of The Felix Chronicles. I’m hoping to have it done by the summer of 2016.

Blurb 

Felix_FC_LoReeling from a terrible accident that claimed the lives of his parents, Felix arrives at Portland College hoping only to survive the experience. In time, however, his reality star roommate shows him there is more to higher education than just classes, shared bathrooms and bad dorm food, and Felix gradually dares to believe he can put his past behind him. But a fateful storm looms on the horizon: In the nearby woods, two hikers become the latest victims in a series of gruesome murders; a disfigured giant embarks on a vicious cross-country rampage, killing teenagers who fail his ‘test’; and an ancient society of assassins tasked with eradicating the wielders of a mysterious source of power awakens after a long silence. Only one man–the school’s groundskeeper–knows that the seemingly unrelated events are connected, and that an eighteen-year-old boy stands in the center of the storm.
 

gold starMy Review: 4 out of 5 stars for The Felix Chronicles: Freshmen

What if Harry Potter didn’t know about magic until he went to college? And what if (along with almost everything else to do with dorm life as a freshman) Hogwarts turned out to be more horror story than dark fantasy, and Harry’s fellow students had a tendency to end up as ketchup?

Why am I going into all of this? Well, I was giving it lots of thought as I read The Felix Chronicles: Freshman. I made it through the (long) preface, helped by a warning that it would all make sense later, and that Felix would (eventually) show up. I went through (and then started skipping over) descriptions of beautiful young girls murdered, Bad Things happening in the woods, and a bunch of other disturbing situations, all mixed with the story of Felix’s first year in college. Going away to school can be hard enough, but Felix is still in emotional meltdown following the tragic death of his parents.

But balanced against that is what I think of as the single most useful fantasy trope ever: The Chosen One—in which destiny chooses an ordinary person to be the only one who can save the world as we know it. I’m very sincere here. Without this workhorse trope, we would be missing an unending stream of classics from the bible to the Iliad to Harry Potter, Dune, The Matrix, The Belgariad, Lord of the Rings, Narnia, Star Wars, and on and on.

So is The Felix Chronicles horror or dark fantasy? Yes. It’s a long, bloody, graphic, exciting, twisting, scary story about The Chosen One. Felix finds truths about himself, his parents’ deaths, and his friends—but mostly he finds out about being the one who has to save the world. Even more interesting is his relationship with his best friend, the seemingly-ordinary (or not?) Allison, plus his new roommate, friends, and one very odd groundskeeper at Portland College. He tangles with serial killers, monsters, his own memories, ancient assassins, their descendants, and the seriously stubborn Allison. And that’s just during freshman year.

For me, the book was a bit too long, with too much gruesomely depicted death and carnage. I’m not sure we needed all those bad guys, all that blood, and all those twists. But having said that, I would give The Felix Chronicles four stars out of five. The writing itself is very good, with wonderfully chilling descriptions and settings. And after those five hundred pages, Felix still has questions to be answered, monsters to battle, and three more years of college ahead.

*I received this book for free from the publisher or author in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.*

Excerpt


Chapter 18
The Ghost and St. Rose

The glowing red digits on Felix’s clock informed him that it was 3:15. Lucas’s desk lamp was making an island of light in the darkened room. He didn’t remember turning it on. He rubbed his eyes, then looked over at Lucas’s bed. Still unmade. But no Lucas. He lay there for a while trying to go back to sleep, but it was an exercise in absurdity. He was wide awake, uncomfortable (he was still wearing his clothes from the day before), and feeling terrible. He’d let the sadness go too far and it had carried him away. Now it was like a physical sickness; it was sticking to him, coating him. If he didn’t get it off, it would burn right through his skin and eat at him for days.

His spine popped like dominos when he stood up and stretched. He threw on a hooded sweatshirt and a baseball hat and slipped out of the dorm, emerging into a cool misty drizzle. There wouldn’t be another warm day until May—just another thing to be depressed about. No one was hanging out in the Freshman Yard except for a clutch of kids smoking cigarettes under a tree on the north end by Satler, where it looked like the party was still raging. Music was pouring out through open windows on the top two floors. He thought his friends must still be there, and wondered if they were having fun. Of course they were having fun. Why wouldn’t they be?

I should’ve gone to the party, he thought miserably, giving himself a swift mental kick to the ass. Now he was missing out on a good time and he still wouldn’t get any sleep before the game. Instead, he was about to wander the campus like a loser when he could be…what? Hooking up with Harper? Not likely. But he felt like he had a shot. Of course he had no shot at all if he didn’t try. He was telling himself that he wasn’t at the party because of Coach Bowman’s dumb rules. But the rules were just that: dumb. He could get around them; Bowman didn’t have a spy network reporting back to him on rule-breakers. So did that mean he wasn’t trying? But why wouldn’t he try? He wanted to hook up with Harper. Desperately. Thinking about ravaging her perfect body occupied almost as much time as football practice; it was how he made it through his classes when he grew bored or couldn’t focus. But if they did hook up—big if—it wouldn’t end there. She would want to get to know him. Of course. And it wouldn’t take long—maybe five minutes—for Harper to realize he was a total wreck. And once she discovered that she would reject him. Just like Emma had rejected him. He couldn’t handle that. Despite how much he liked her. Not even Harper was worth that risk.

With a very melancholy soundtrack playing in his head, he dug his hands into the pockets of his sweatshirt and headed toward The Yard. He turned and walked backward for a spell, letting his feet feel their way along the cobblestones in the soft glow of the pathlights. From a distance, Downey looked peaceful—the rooms were dark, the blinds drawn—a tomb compared to Satler. Everyone in Downey was asleep . . . or getting lucky. But not Felix. Luck had a strong aversion to him.

He passed by the first few lecture halls on the north side of The Yard without seeing a soul. There was nothing but empty paths and lawns drifted with wet heavy leaves. Alone with his thoughts, he began thinking about the guy he’d caught staring up at his room. The guy. It didn’t have to be a guy, of course. Girls could be stalkers too. Either way, he couldn’t understand why anyone would wait out in the rain just to catch a glimpse of Lucas with his shirt off. So what if he was on TV. What was the point? He just didn’t get it.

Voices off to his right made him jump. His eyes flitted up to a sheltering overhang at the entrance of the Culver building where he found the culprits: two kids making out. Felix wasn’t alone after all. He watched them for a moment and a puddle of cold water that submerged his sneaker right up to the shoelaces was the reward for his voyeurism.

The Yard looked as desolate as a stretch of farmland. Dew frosted the grass, sparkling beneath the haze. He drew in a deep breath as he rolled the kinks from his neck. He liked the way everything smelled. It was as if the trees and plants were giving off some wonderful floral scent in appreciation of the long drink the elements had bestowed on them. The cold was depressing, though he didn’t mind the rain. When you grow up in a town where it’s sloppy wet 250 days a year you have one choice: get used to it.

He wasn’t sure where he was going. But that was the plan. He didn’t care where he ended up. The night air felt good; it was already having a soothing effect. He passed another shadowed lecture hall and found a path that wound its way north as it hugged a dense thicket of sculpted shrubs. It split into two paths to accommodate a specimen tree of some sort, then reconnected on the other side at the edge of an English garden tucked in behind the building. He’d never been this way before. He didn’t stop to admire the plantings, though he was sure they were quite lovely. Horticulture wasn’t his thing. The mist was thickening, creating a haloing effect with the pathlights. Just past the garden, he came to a clearing where five trees were standing guard like monstrous sentinels—the Star Trees. The towering goliaths formed the shape of a five-pointed star, each tree acting as a point. He’d heard some kids talking about it at the dorm, but he didn’t know where it was. Until now.

As he neared the southernmost tree, he stopped to have a look around. He tilted his head back, trying to see the tops, but swirling curtains of fog covered them up. The rain lightly spritzed his face like a spray bottle set to mist. It was refreshing. Coming outside had turned out to be a good idea; it was just what he needed. He looked back down and started toward the—

A woman, her back turned to him, stood in the center of the clearing. The sight of her startled him, freezing him in place for a moment. He was sure she wasn’t there just a second ago. He kept his eyes on her as he reached out for the tree next to him, feeling the rough bark brush across his fingertips as he slid slowly past it. Her clothes were really odd; it looked like she’d gotten lost on her way home from a costume party—Cinderella came to mind. She was wearing a flowing blue dress that bunched up on the ground all around her. The dress was sleeveless, and her arms, so pale that they shone, hung loosely at her sides. Her hair was dark and long—he couldn’t tell if it was brown or black—and it cascaded in lustrous gentle curls to her narrow waist.

“Hey,” Felix called out, approaching the woman. “What are you doing out here?” The rain stopped all at once. Of their own accord, his eyes flicked up to the enormous branches of the Star Trees which all met in the center of the clearing, forming a canopy that kept everything beneath them comfortably dry.

She cocked her head and tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear. Her cheek and the visible part of her jaw were so white it looked like she was wearing stage makeup. If it wasn’t 3:30 in the morning, he would have thought she was about to perform at the school theater.

“Hey,” he said again. She was close now, no more than ten feet away. Her arms were disturbingly pale, and he wondered if she was standing next to a light he couldn’t see. Something had to be making her appear this way. Or was something wrong with her? Was she sick?

“Are you okay?” he asked.

She nodded twice, stiffly.

“Are you hurt?” He took another step. He was close enough to smell her perfume if she was wearing any—she wasn’t. Another step. If he reached out he could touch her.
She shook her head. Her shimmering hair—it was dark, but not quite black—swayed elegantly over her shoulders and across her back. His eyes followed the contours of her slender arms down to her fingers, long and delicate, ending in fingernails that were flawless, and somewhat pointy. Her fingers were white. Too white. Bone white. Vampire! he thought suddenly, his heart lurching to his throat. An icy fear swept over him as he looked up, expecting to see the face of a monster.

But the person in front of him didn’t have fangs. And she wasn’t a monster. Far from it. The beautiful woman before him was staring at him, the traces of an inscrutable smile hovering at the edges of her red lips. Her green eyes blazed like smoldering emeralds, roaming over his face, measuring him. She looked older than the girls on campus, but not that much older, and it was hard for Felix to gauge her exact age because his brain had shifted into panic mode like the time he went camping in the fourth grade and discovered he was sharing his sleeping bag with a garter snake.

And then—without warning—she turned and ran.

Felix felt his feet lift off the ground and take flight after her.

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