Why Good Horror Novels Include Comedy

Well, although I’ve talked about the topic of comedy in horror fiction before, I thought that I’d return to it today after I started reading a horror novel from the late 1950s called “The Haunting Of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson (mild SPOILERS ahoy).

Although the novel starts in a fairly sombre, ominous and morose way, and I’d worried that reading it was going to be an extremely miserable experience, there is a surprising amount of comedy in the first half of the novel. Most of this consists of amusingly irreverent dialogue, quirky characters, dark comedy and even some hilariously obscure literary humour (eg: a reference to how Samuel Richardson’s 1740 novel “Pamela” is, as I can personally remember from my university days, dull enough to quite literally send the reader to sleep).

Yet, this comedy compliments the novel’s horror elements really well. It slightly tempers the ominous bleakness of the story, whilst also coming across as a disturbing sign that the characters are trying to protect their sanity when faced with the prospect of living in a creepy old house. After the unsettling early parts of the novel, the first moments of humour are brilliantly unexpected and can really catch you off-guard. Not only that, all of the humour seems to be a natural product of the characters and the setting, which allows it to fit in with the rest of the story really well.

But, why is it there in the first place? Why do horror novels often include moments of comedy? After all, the two genres are supposed to be complete opposites.

Well, there are quite a few reasons for this (that I’ve mentioned in previous articles), including how both genres rely on similar techniques, how it adds personality to the story, how the contrast between horror and comedy heightens the impact of both things, how it shows the reader that the author is a fan of the horror genre (to the point where they can joke about it) and because “100% horror 100% of the time” makes the reader feel jaded and less easy to scare.

But, the most important reason is probably to do with the emotional tone of the story. In short, adding a bit of comedy to your horror story tells your reader that they can’t be certain of what to expect. After all, horror stories are traditionally grim, sombre and bleak things that are filled with misery, death and other such things. So, including a bit of comedy tells your reader “Nope. This isn’t one of those stories.” It tells them that this is a different type of horror story.

Although this probably worked better in older horror novels (I mean, I was genuinely surprised that a horror novel from the 1950s could be funny), it is still effective in modern horror novels. If anything, it’s practically a requirement these days. After all, what better way is there to tell a reader that a new horror novel will give them something different from the old ones?

Of course, to do this properly, the comedy in a horror novel has to feel like a natural part of the story. This is easier to do than you might think. In short, if your story has vaguely interesting characters and/or a slightly strange premise, then this can be used for comedy as effectively as it can be used for horror.

A good modern example of this is probably Robert Brockway’s 2015 novel “The Unnoticeables“, where the fact that some of the main characters are 1970s punks means that there is plenty of room for irreverent, crude and/or gross humour that is a really good “fit” with the rest of the story.

Another good modern example is S. L. Grey’s excellent 2011 novel “The Mall“. Although this novel can best be described as what a mixture of “Saw” and “Silent Hill” would look like if it was set in a South African shopping centre and directed by David Lynch, some of the bizarre moments that make this story so unsettling are also used as a vehicle for some utterly brilliant social satire and/or weird humour. Because the humour emerges from things that, when seen another way, would be incredibly disturbing, it is a really good fit with the story.

So, although humour in a horror story needs to feel like it has emerged organically from the characters, story and/or settings, it is an essential ingredient in good horror fiction for the simple reason that it tells the reader that they can’t be entirely certain of what to expect if they keep reading. And, of course, unpredictability is one of the most important parts of effective horror.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Reasons Why Horror And Comedy Go Well Together

Well, since I’d just finished reading a novel that contained both horror and comedy and because, at the time of writing, I was preparing last year’s Halloween stories (which contain a fair amount of dark humour), I thought that I’d quickly look at some of the many reasons why horror and comedy go so well together.

1) Reaction and mechanics: Simply put, both horror and comedy are designed to evoke a physical reaction in the reader. Although these two reactions are complete opposites (eg: fear and laughter), the mechanics for doing this are more similar than you might think. At the most basic level, both horror and comedy rely on surprising the audience or subverting their expectations.

Likewise, both things also rely on keen observations, clever turns of phrase, transgressing social norms, exaggeration, timing/suspense, subtle details, unusual characters etc… In order to evoke the desired reaction.

As such, because both things use subtly different versions of the same techniques, it is fairly easy to include elements of one in the other and vice versa. Likewise, because they evoke opposite reactions in the reader, then including a mixture of both will make both the horror and comedy better because they will contrast well with each other.

2) Obscurity: Simply put, if you want to make something prestigious and respectable that will impress “serious” critics, then horror and comedy are the last genres you want to choose. If you want to make something entertaining, on the other hand….

In a lot of ways, the fact that horror and comedy are often seen as “low art” actually works in their favour. Because they are genres that are designed to evoke a reaction, they tend to get remembered and talked about a lot more. They are the art that people relax with, enjoy with friends, quote to people (and both genres have their fair share of quotable phrases) and use for emotional catharsis. They will usually have a fairly avid fanbase too.

In other words, horror and comedy go well with each other for the simple reason that they are ignored by the most prestigious film, literature etc.. awards and critics. Like punk and heavy metal music, they are made for fans of the genre.

3) Cynicism: Generally speaking, both horror and comedy rely on cynicism about the world. They rely on the fact that the world is an imperfect place where stupid, terrible, absurd and/or disturbing things can easily happen.

In one way or another, horror and comedy will often criticise some element of society, humanity etc… Whether they poke fun at it or use it to frighten the reader, horror and comedy are both genres that express dissatisfaction with the world. Although this is often more obvious in the comedy genre, the horror genre will usually include satire of some kind or another too.

So, because they both rely on criticism and/or cynicism, both genres are surprisingly compatible with each other.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Quick Tips For Adding Dark Comedy To Horror Stories

Well, at the time of writing, I was busy preparing last year’s Halloween stories. To my surprise, these stories ended up including a lot more cynical dark comedy than I’d initially expected. Perhaps it was a result of their rushed production schedule or a way to lessen the bleak theme of cold nihilism that seemed to creep into many of them. Whatever it was, it certainly added something to the stories.

So, how can you include dark comedy in your horror stories? Here are a few quick tips:

1) Observations: Chances are, if you’re a fan of horror and dark comedy, you’re a little bit on the cynical side of things. Well, this is the perfect time to use all of your many observations about how annoying the modern world can be. But, how do you use them?

Simply put, the easiest way to turn cynical observations into dark comedy is describe them in a coldly emotionless way, whilst also exaggerating them slightly for comedic effect.

For example, this Halloween story is set in a large modern bookshop. A lot of the story is filled with cynical observations about modern trends in literature that I’ve exaggerated slightly for comedic effect: “A grey cliff face of gritty crime thrillers stared back at him. The crushing uniformity of it was only broken up by the occasional moody blue rectangle.

So, using a slightly detached and dispassionate tone, whilst also including a few subtle exaggerations can be an easy way to turn your observations into cynical dark comedy.

2) Implied horror: One piece of traditional wisdom in the horror genre is that the worst horrors usually take place within the audience’s imaginations. In other words, what you don’t show can often be more horrifying than what you do. This also works for dark comedy too.

Simply put, if you show the build-up to a horrific event and then pull away at the last second, the audience is going to expect a horrifying aftermath. They are going to expect a list of macabre clues that will tell them what you, the fearless horror writer, were too afraid to show. And, when done in a serious way, this can be really chilling.

So, by using an irreverent tone or focusing on something unexpected when hinting at the grisly aftermath of the horrific events you dared not show, you can catch the reader by surprise and make them laugh. If the reader gets the sense that you’re deliberately glossing over or ignoring a repulsive horror in order to crack a joke, this lends the joke a “should we really be laughing about this?” quality, which is essential to good dark comedy.

3) Knowledge:
Simply put, dropping a cynical fact into your story at the right moment can be the perfect way to add a bit of dark comedy to your horror story. Yes, this will require a bit of research, but there’s a good chance that you’ve already watched way too many online videos and/or read too many online articles about “things that [insert company/profession/organisation here] don’t want you to know“.

Well, this is the perfect time to use those cynical factoids. For example, this Halloween story about a mysterious mobile phone app begins with the lines: “Nestled amongst row upon row of icons, the little grey square with the smiley face on it didn’t stand out. Beside it, a crimson chameleon and a maroon camera jostled for Laura’s attention. They had the advantage. Warm colours get people’s attention. Every app designer knew that.

By showing the reader that you know all of the sneaky tricks etc… that people use in real life and know lots of eerie facts about everyday things, you immediately add a slightly knowing and irreverent tone to your story, which is perfect for dark comedy.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Today’s Art (1st September 2019)

Well, today’s digitally-edited painting was a lot of fun to make 🙂 Originally, I’d planned to just make a rather understated gothic painting of a bookshop but then I remembered what the most essential part of any bookshop is (and, yes, I’ve seen at least one bookshop without this crucial shelf) and the painting quickly went in more of a dark comedy direction instead.

As usual, this painting is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

“The Horror Shelf” By C. A. Brown

Review: “Meddling Kids” By Edgar Cantero (Novel)

A few weeks before I wrote this book review, I ended up watching several episodes of “Scooby Doo! Mystery Incorporated” and was amazed at how good this modern Saturday morning cartoon was.

A couple of weeks later, I was looking around online for second-hand horror novels and happened to find a modern novel from 2018 called “Meddling Kids” by Edgar Cantero, which seemed to be a Lovecraftian dark comedy parody of “Scooby Doo” 🙂

So, let’s take a look at “Meddling Kids”. Needless to say, this review may contain SPOILERS.

This is the 2018 Titan Books (UK) paperback edition of “Meddling Kids” that I read.

In 1977, the four young investigators of the Blyton Summer Detective Club (and their trusty dog Sean), solve the mystery of the Sleepy Lake monster. Far from being a giant salamander monster, it was actually a masked criminal called Thomas Wickley who would have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for those meddling kids.

Flash forward to 1990 and Wickley is up for parole. But, soon after he leaves prison, he is ambushed by Andrea “Andy” Rodriguez, a former member of the detective club who is determined to get the truth out of him. There were things in Sleepy Lake that were too strange to be part of an elaborate criminal scheme. Unexplainable, unworldly horrors that have haunted the nightmares of the club members ever since that fateful summer holiday.

As a result of that horrifying summer, Andy has ended up living a life of crime, nerdy redhead Kerri has ended up in a series of dead-end jobs and weedy, nervous Nate has found himself in a mental hospital (but, at least he has the ghost of tall, athletic Peter to keep him company). About the only club member who is vaguely ok is Tim, Sean’s canine descendent.

Rattled by the mysterious incantations that Wickley babbles after she questions him, Andy decides that the only thing to do is to get the club together again and return to Sleepy Lake……

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is WOW! It’s a funny, creepy, thrilling and mysterious mixture of dark comedy, Lovecraftian horror and retro nostalgia 🙂 In other words, this novel is kind of like a mixture of H.P. Lovecraft, “The Last Door“, “Blood“, “Twin Peaks”, “Supernatural”, “The X-Files”, “Scooby Doo” and some kind of alternative punk comic from the 1990s. So, yes, it’s pretty awesome 🙂

The novel’s horror elements are pretty interesting. As you would expect from a modern Lovecraftian horror story there’s a really good mixture of ominous horror, occult horror, monster horror, suspenseful horror, jump scares, psychological horror, implied horror, scientific horror, economic horror/ post-industrial decay, claustrophobic horror and gruesome horror. Although this novel isn’t likely to leave you frozen with fright, there is a wonderfully creepy and ominous atmosphere in many parts of the story 🙂

The novel’s comedy elements also work reasonably well. Although there were only a couple of moments that really made me laugh out loud, the novel has a wonderfully irreverent attitude, some moments of bizarre slapstick comedy, numerous retro pop culture references, a gleefully farcical denouement, lots of amusing dialogue and some brilliant dark comedy plot elements too.

The novel’s detective elements are fairly interesting too. Although the novel enters the realms of fantasy and science fiction, pretty much everything in the story has a logical scientific, practical and/or paranormal explanation. Even though fans of H.P. Lovecraft won’t be too surprised by the premise of the story, there are enough clever plot twists and intriguing clues, locations etc… to keep the story intriguingly gripping.

Interestingly, this novel starts out as a slower-paced mystery, psychological thriller and character-based drama novel. These elements all work surprisingly well and, although this means that the first two-thirds or so of this novel are relatively slow paced (but still really compelling), the novel then segues into this absolutely spectacular action-packed final act that occasionally reminded me a little bit of the classic computer game “Blood” (which, again, is never a bad thing 🙂 ).

The story’s atmosphere is really cool too. In addition to the kind of ominous atmosphere you would expect from a Lovecraftian horror story, this story also includes the cynical nihilism of the 1990s (in addition to some vague hints of that decade’s more famous optimism) and a brilliantly dark and twisted version of the fun atmosphere of “Scooby Doo” too 🙂

In terms of the characters, they are brilliant 🙂 Not only do all of the main characters come across as stylised, but realistic, people with a huge number of quirks, flaws and emotions but the novel’s characters are also both a brilliantly inventive parody of both “Scooby Doo” and Enid Blyton’s “Famous Five” too. In short, the level of characterisation here is on par with Neil Gaiman’s amazing “Sandman” comics and Winston Rowntree’s “Subnormality” 🙂

The novel’s main characters also allow for the exploration of numerous themes such as mental illness, memory, non-conformity, friendship, love, trauma etc… too. Seriously, I cannot praise the characters in this novel highly enough 🙂 They’re a glorious band of misfits who are so much fun to hang out with.

In terms of the writing, this novel’s (mostly) third-person narration is amazing. It is this wonderfully weird mixture of formal descriptive narration, highly informal narration and more experimental/avant-garde narration… and, somehow, it really works 🙂

In true punk fashion, this novel isn’t afraid to break the rules by doing things like using film script-like dialogue segments, breaking the fourth wall (usually subtly, but one instance of it – involving a chapter ending- is truly epic) and occasionally inventing new words just for the hell of it. The inventive, irreverent and unique writing style in this novel is an absolute joy to read 🙂 Still, if you’re used to more conventional writing styles, then you might not enjoy the narration as much.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is interesting. At 442 pages, this is one of those novels that will sometimes feel like reading a DVD boxset. However, although the first two-thirds of the story are relatively slow-paced, they remain really compelling thanks to the atmosphere, the characters, the writing style and the mysterious plot. These slower-paced segments also contrast really well with the brilliantly gripping and fast-paced final act too 🙂

All in all, this is a punk Lovecraftian horror dark comedy parody of “Scooby Doo” that is set in the 1990s 🙂 Need I say more?

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a five.

Review: “Martin Misunderstood” By Karin Slaughter (Novella)

Well, thanks to the weather still being incredibly hot, I was in the mood for a short book. A novella, in fact. Of course, print novellas are as difficult to find as cyberpunk movies and other such awesome things are. I could probably go on for ages about how annoyingly uncommon this awesome book format is, but I should probably get on with the review.

Anyway, whilst visiting a charity shop in Portchester last July, I found a copy of Karin Slaughter’s 2008 dark comedy novella “Martin Misunderstood”. Interestingly, looking online, this novella apparently started life as an audiobook, of all things. So, it’s cool that there’s an actual print edition of it too 🙂

So, let’s take a look at “Martin Misunderstood”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2008 Arrow Books (UK) paperback edition of “Martin Misunderstood” that I read.

The story begins in Georgia, with a thirtysomething man called Martin Reed. Martin has a miserable life. Not only is he living with his cantankerous mother but, when he got a job at Southern Toilet Supply, he found that most of his co-workers are the same people who bullied him when he was at school. Not only that, someone has scrawled an insult onto his car and the local mechanic isn’t exactly in a hurry to repaint the car.

Not only that, when he gets ready to go to work one morning, he finds blood on the bumper of his car. Not only that, the blood also gets onto his briefcase and when he tries to clean it off using one of Southern Toilet Supply’s many cleaning products, the fluid begins to dissolve the leather. Furious with his lot in life, he begins to smash up his briefcase when he is interrupted by his secretary, Unique.

However, before Martin can get any work done, the cops show up. Apparently, he is the prime suspect in a recent murder case…..

One of the first things that I will say about this novella is that it is absolutely hilarious. It’s a brilliantly cynical farce that, whilst not for the easily-shocked, is one of the best comedy stories I’ve read since I read Armistead Maupin’s “More Tales Of The City” a while ago. Not to mention that the fact that the story is a novella also means that it is wonderfully concise and focused too 🙂

The novella includes numerous types of comedy like dark comedy, meta-fiction, farce, slapstick, character-based humour, unlikely romance, moral ambiguity, social awkwardness, “shock value” humour, cynicism, sexual humour and humourous narration. Although some of the humour is slightly subtle, the novel includes quite a few laugh out loud moments too. The novel’s humour is also counterpointed by a few more “serious” and depressing scenes that help to make the comedy funnier by contrast too.

Most interestingly of all, this novella also seems to have taken a lot of influence from classic British comedy too 🙂 Everything from the downtrodden protagonist to the socially awkward situations to the graffiti on Martin’s car initially made me feel a bit puzzled about the fact that the novel was set in America.

The story’s detective elements are more of a background detail and they serve as a way to add some extra farce to the story, in addition to introducing one of the main characters (a fortysomething detective called An, who Martin finds himself attracted to). Even so, the mystery is resolved in an utterly hilarious way and the initial uncertainty about whether Martin is actually guilty or not also helps to keep the story compelling too. Likewise, since Martin is a fan of detective novels, the story also contains references to numerous detective and thriller authors too.

In terms of the characters, they’re the source of much of the story’s comedy. All of them get a decent amount of characterisation too, which really helps to add atmosphere and humanity to the story. And, being a comedy novel, some of the characters are fairly stylised too (although one character- Unique – may possibly be slightly stereotypical though).

As for the writing, like many of the best comedy stories, the novel’s third-person narrator is pretty much a character in their own right. This novel is written in a slightly informal (but also formal, if this makes sense) and observational style that also includes the occasional aside from the narrator, which also helps to add even more comedy to the story. The narration flows really well and helps to add a bit of atmosphere to the story too.

In terms of length and pacing, this novella is superb 🙂 At a wonderfully efficient 147 pages in length, it is always great to read a novella 🙂 Likewise, the story’s humour and farce-like plot also ensures that the story keeps moving at a reasonably decent pace too. Whilst you shouldn’t expect an ultra-fast paced thriller, this novel is the kind of compelling story that you’ll probably devour in a couple of hours at most.

All in all, I really enjoyed this novella 🙂 Although it isn’t for the easily shocked and the novel’s cynical sense of humour might not work for everyone, it is certainly one of the funniest novels that I’ve read in recent months. Not to mention that, in a world where books seem to keep getting longer, it is so refreshing to read a lean and efficient story too 🙂

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it might just about get a five.

Three Random Tips For Writing Comedy Horror

Well, I thought that I’d talk about the comedy horror genre today – this is mostly because, at the time of writing, I’ve been dabbling with it a bit. So, I thought that I’d offer a few random tips for writing in this awesome genre 🙂

1) The two genres are more similar than you think: One of the reasons why comedy horror is such an interesting genre is because although horror and comedy might seem like completely opposite things, they’re a lot more similar than you think.

They both involve evoking strong emotions in the reader, they both involve suspense (eg: the set-up to a joke, or the ominous silence before something horrible happens), they both involve a certain amount of larger-than-life drama, they both rely on contrasting different things for dramatic effect, they both rely on more subtle moments (whether amusing or ominous) to keep the reader’s interest between more spectacular moments etc…

In essence, many of the underlying techniques used in the horror genre can be used for comedy, and vice versa. So, if you know a bit about one genre then it isn’t too difficult to add elements of the other genre to it. Still, it is worth looking at things in both genres in order to get a sense of how each one does things differently.

2) Character reactions: If you want to give a scene of horror more of a comedic tone, one way to do this is through how the characters react to the events of your story.

In a traditional horror story, the horrific scenes are horrific because of the way that the characters react to them. It doesn’t matter how vile the monster is, how grisly a description is or how unsettling the ghosts are… it isn’t scary until the characters react to it. In a typical horror story, they might react with mute shock, they might scream, they might try to fight for their lives or they might flee in abject terror. This reaction of horror is one of the things that makes horror stories horror stories.

So, to add some comedy to your horror story, just have your characters react in an unexpected or mildly “unrealistic” way. For example, if a traditional Dracula-style vampire suddenly lurches from the shadows and a character finds this amusing or makes a sarcastic remark about Halloween costumes, then this makes the audience consider how silly a 19th century vampire appearing in the present day would be.

3) Gruesomeness: You can add comedy to scenes of gory horror in a number of different ways.

The first is to focus more on the horrific events (eg: a physical description of what is happening) that are happening rather than on their gory consequence (eg: injuries, blood etc..). This allows you to add macabre slapstick comedy and/or farce to your story without grossing your audience out too much. So, this approach is better for slightly “lighter” or “sillier” comedy stories.

A slightly more sophisticated approach than this is to only include gore in moments where it would be amusing for it to appear. For example, the scene in the classic sci-fi horror movie “Alien” where the alien creature bursts out of a character’s chest is a gruesome, horrific scene. If it was bloodless, it wouldn’t have the same dramatic impact. So, if you were to write a scene in a comedy horror story that was inspired by this one, you might start by having a character complain of indigestion before including a gory scene of something exploding out of their chest.

The other approach is to go completely over-the-top with your gory descriptions, but to make the surrounding descriptions comedic through the use of amusing metaphors, similes and other such things. After all, there are a well-known set of metaphors and terms that “serious” horror writers use to describe gruesome moments, so by using completely different and/or slightly absurd ones, you can add some macabre comedy to these scenes.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂