For a long time, I considered myself a “dark” writer. I thought that my writing was dark and gritty, showcasing the bad side of reality, the side that everyone else wants to ignore. Part of this came from my identification in part as a horror writer; horror is dark, right? Well, it can be, but it isn’t necessarily. Poe’s writings were dark. Alas, my own horror is not inspired by Poe, but rather by Lovecraft. While Lovecraft himself was in part inspired by Poe, most of his writings, I don’t think, were dark. His writings, instead, were bleak – and so are mine.
What then, I hear you ask, is the difference between dark and bleak? While many will probably disagree, I believe that the difference between dark and bleak is that dark reveals cruelty, and bleak reveals futility. Dark writing has hope; bleak writing does not. Dark writing is personal; bleak writing is impersonal. At its core, I think, dark writing explores the mankind’s inner darkness, while bleak writing describes the universe’s outer darkness. Dark writing is concerned with portraying the bottom-most depths of humanity, and showing how utterly cruel and sadistic other living beings can be. It shows the dark side of social and personal lives, and the cruelty embedded in every interaction. Bleak writing, on the other hand, shows not cruel individuals and the darkness inherent in humanity, but instead the hopelessness of existence and the forces outside of your own control that shape your life, often with utter indifference. It isn’t the potential for cruelty that scares in bleak writing, but rather the indisputable fact that nothing you will do matters.
If this difference is unclear, that’s fine; for a long time, it was unclear to me. My best analogy for the difference is in comparing the works of Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft. Poe’s stories, while they did not always feature a clear antagonist, were all driven by human activity (a piece I wrote that I think is somewhat dark is “Station Fourteen;” some might disagree and have a good case for it). When there were antagonists, even if they were not human, they often had human characteristics (see “The Devil in the Belfry,” a piece of dark satire). In “The Telltale Heart,” the cruelty of mankind is brought out through murder and explored through the psychosis it brings. “The Pit and the Pendulum” has no individual antagonists, but the source of darkness is mankind itself – and also, at the end, mankind is also the source of hope. In many dark stories, the dark is contrasted with the light, and both are highlighted, albeit with a heavy emphasis on the dark.
This is not the case in the bleak writings of H. P. Lovecraft. The darkness or lightness of humanity isn’t explored because it isn’t relevant. It doesn’t matter; nothing anyone does matter, and the future will be terrible (my own story “Hell Factory” is a prime example of this). H. P. Lovecraft was the master of this idea, and indeed really gave birth to it in his development of cosmicism. Even Lovecraft’s autobiographical hero Randolph Carter, in the end, wasn’t able to really have any effect on anything; in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath he is still fooled by Nyarlathotep, and he suffers a terrible fate in the “Silver Key” stories. None of Lovecraft’s protagonists win; even the faint hope in some of Poe’s stories is gone. Furthermore, their fate is not the result of personal cruelty or even any kind of human foe; their fate is the result of the inexplicable and inexorable forces of the universe, represented by literally incomprehensible eldritch (I love that word) deities. There is no salvation from the dark; there is only a bleak future.
So, the major difference? Dark writing is concerned with personal cruelties perpetuated by social forces or individuals, and brings out the bad parts of everyday life. Bleak writing is concerned with impersonal forces that make personal activities meaningless, and give individuals little agency to change their doomed future. Dark writing, I think, is more common than bleak writing, because dark writing still offers the possibility of a happy ending, with the protagonist coming out a changed, more nuanced individual due to his horrible experiences. Dark writing leaves room for victory, and often ends on victory. Bleak writing, on the other hand, almost by definition, offers no such victory; any victories that are won are meaningless, as we are quickly reminded. Only insanity, death, or doom awaits the protagonist in a bleak story. He will not be a more nuanced man by the end of it; he will be mad or else six feet under (in an alternate dimension).