A poisoned imagination? (Part One)
By Mark Wegierski
This article is based on a draft of a presentation read at the conference, "Poisoned Cornucopia: Excess, Intemperance and Overabundance Across Literatures and Cultures" (Opole, Poland: University of Opole) September 12-14, 2012.
This article looks at so-called late modern societies – especially America and Canada – that, it could be argued, have become increasingly influenced by an excess of dark and disorienting imageries, especially in the various subgenres of the fantastic.
Among the most prominent and absorbing of these subgenres are fantasy role-playing games (RPG's) such as Dungeons and Dragons, launched in 1974. D & D arose from a convergence of interest in historical boardgaming, medieval miniatures gaming, and the huge popularity of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings in the 1960s.
As Dungeons and Dragons became increasingly prominent in the 1980s, some concerns arose about the allegedly occult nature of the game, fuelled by a number of very highly publicized cases of teenage suicides. Indeed, there was a made-for-television movie, Mazes and Monsters, which explored the most prominent of these suicides. However, in relation to what was to follow in the 1990s and later, the mostly Tolkienian role-playing background or world prevalent among gamers in the early 1980s, had been very reserved indeed.
D & D, as it is probably most commonly experienced today, is far removed from the charming, graceful Tolkienian mythos, while also lacking the Nietzschean textures of (for example) Robert E. Howard's Conan vision. It is often enough repeated that D & D often amounts to the personalized power-fantasies (tinged with sexual elements) of frustrated and often highly intelligent adolescent North American males. It could be argued that D & D typically conforms to the kind of vision of open-ended progress, amorphousness, florid lifestyles, and wish-fulfillment fantasies, which have increasingly come to characterize the late-modern world.
The 1990s have featured a plethora of ever-darker RPG worlds. There have also been parallel developments in other genres, notably science fiction and fantasy writing, film, and television; and the comic-book genre. The comic-book genre is indeed known for its pioneering embrace of various forms of the macabre. It has also been characterized by a "dark turn" in the portrayal of superheroes such as Batman (typified by the breakthrough graphic novel, The Dark Knight Returns) or even Superman (where Superman, for example, was subjected to death). The Spiderman comic also went into a period of gritty realism, where its lead figure was plagued with doubt, and afflicted with substance abuse. Horror writing, film, and television, have also intensified, probably far beyond what the older writers and directors would have countenanced. All these tendencies are magnified across not infrequently blood-soaked video, computer and interactive Internet games.
Computer and Internet games have become a huge, burgeoning area, partially eclipsing the dice, pencil, and paper-based games that are played face-to-face. It may be noted that there has occurred, across the Internet gaming culture, a decrease of interest in straight historical games, in favor of so-called First Person Shooters and sci-fi/fantasy. And many games which are ostensibly based on a science fiction background, are in fact dark space fantasy, dark fantasy, or horror.
There has also been the tendency of the vampire emerging as one of the central icons of our age, called the ultimate unattainable sexual fantasy and the focus of numerous subgenres, including vampire romances and vampire erotica. Among the more successful vampire television series was Forever Knight, which portrayed the half-shaded figure of a "vampire-cop". Now, of course, there is the Twilight book and movie series, and at least two major television series, True Blood, and The Vampire Diaries. Admittedly, the portrayal of vampires today ranges across a very wide spectrum.
To be continued.
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.