TW: Domestic Violence

“His eyes darkened as his hand gripped me tightly, inching closer to my daddy-issues painted lips. Reading the trauma right from the whips and chains he keeps in his fratboy, dartboard-door, nicotine-stained walls apartment. “I can fix him, no really, I can,” I tell myself decadently as he promised to hurt me mercilessly. God, I must love him.” 

If you’re wondering what dark romance is, that was just about the best summary one could write of every book of this unusual genre. You may have stumbled upon the term ‘dark romance’ on social media these days, or in your local bookshop. All these novels need is a dark-haired boy with tattoos and piercings, living with his daddy’s money or descending from mafia blood, and suddenly, the damsel main character falls to their feet like a storm. If you couldn’t tell by now, a modern definition of ‘dark romance’ is a subgenre of romance novels often riddled with morally grey characters, trauma, and violence, with popular tropes including (but not limited to): mafia, stalking, and kidnapping. Now, it does not take a rocket scientist to read those and see the minor, or very major, flaws in these tropes. After all, crime isn’t usually something to be fawned over and romanticised. And yet, one search on major platforms such as Tiktok’s #BookTok and suddenly, you’re transported in a world where kidnapping is seen as romantic possessiveness, murder is just another word for “I love you”, and assault is “hot”. So why is this genre of books serialised and so popular? The answer is the same if asked in the context of any other genre – escapism, expressionism, and projections.

But dark romance wasn’t always so twisted and disturbing. Historically, dark romance comes from a collective fascination with melancholia, insanity, crime, the grotesque, and the irrational. From the 1800s onwards, dark romanticism was used to counter the euphoria and sublimity brought by romance – becoming a popular genre not only in books but also artwork. Authors such as Edgar Allan Poe and artists like William Blake are among the famous household names which fall under this genre. A famous book that boasts dark romanticism with the macabre is none other than <i>Wuthering Heights</i> by Emily Bronte; Bronte wrote in a beautifully haunting way, creating one of the classic romance novels we know today. In the 20th century, <i>Rebecca</i> by Daphne du Maurier, was a beautifully written novel exploring psychological depths and a love story shrouded in mystery. And in the 21st century, <i>Fifty Shades of Grey</i> by E. L. James came to be. Riddled with possessive aptitudes, meek main characters and of course, highly sexual themes that manage to offend those who practise it. 

What once was a genre filled with fatalistic philosophy, written poetic charms and cultural underpinnings of the time, turned into pop-culture fantasy disguised with romance and directed with traumatic meet-cutes. So, how did we get here? Well, this generation has been criticised for its many radical views of life, most recently how they manage romantic expectations and relationships. And although most criticisms come from a place of hatred, this one might be on the money. As young girls record themselves on TikTok, typing texts of “I want…” followed by murderous scenes, or restricted hands and feet, the ball drops on the true problem. It isn’t the grotesque that they want – it’s the subtext of it. In these books, for each tight grip is the unsaid  “you’re the only one I want”; for each possessive claim it’s “at least he wants me”; and for each dark-haired boy traumatic dump is “at least he communicates with me,”. In some ways, these books still follow history and in other ways, it is just a sad reminder that we crave romance but live in a world where it is frowned upon. Where it’s seen as too feminine, too cute, too “icky”. The biggest consequence of all of this? If you keep thinking fatalistic love is what you deserve – you might actually start to believe it.

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