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

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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 🙂

How Subtle Should Dark Comedy Be? – A Ramble

As regular readers of this site know, I write these articles ridiculously far in advance. As such, I wrote this article fairly early this year when I was still binge-watching a DVD boxset that I got for Christmas (via a gift voucher). So, I thought that I’d take a look at what the 2017 series of “Twin Peaks” can teach us about dark comedy and subtlety.

Needless to say, this article will contain some SPOILERS for this TV show.

Anyway, when I started watching the new series of “Twin Peaks”, my reaction to it was initially something between bewilderment, morbid fascination and gloomy despair. Initially, I thought that the new series was “too depressing” or “too disturbing” when compared to the older episodes of the show from the 1990s. It was only after about eight or nine episodes that I realised that it was meant to be a dark comedy. After this, the series made a lot more sense.

But, although there are some clearly comedic moments, most of the series’ dark comedy is kept surprisingly subtle.

For example, there’s an incredibly dark piece of comedy that revolves around the differences between two dangerous car-related events in different episodes. Both scenes are presented as serious, shocking, gritty drama. Yet, when you compare the two of them, it’s hard not to see the ironic dark comedy (regarding who survives and who doesn’t).

Then there’s the subversion of the “handsome rebel” trope. Basically, there’s a scene in a bar near the end of one episode where a character finds herself attracted to a guy in a leather jacket who breaks all the rules and seems like the kind of roguishly handsome love interest you’d expect to see in a 1980s/90s romantic comedy. But, when she talks to him, he quickly turns out to be a terrifying violent criminal. This scene is utterly shocking upon first viewing. But, when you think about it in the context of romance movies etc.. it’s hard not to see the very dark humour/irony in this scene.

This irony is further counterpointed by the fact that another “rebellious” character from the old seasons of the TV show is now, 25 years later, a highly respected member of the local police, who is far more interested in enforcing the law than breaking it.

But, the main thing that clued me in to the fact that the series was a dark comedy was the eighth episode. Most of this episode consists of a surrealist art film/ horror film. The episode’s sheer strangeness and seeming irrelevance to the main plot of the series was the thing that finally made me realise “This series isn’t meant to be taken 100% seriously“. After all, the fact that something as utterly bizarre as this was able to be included in a popular American TV show is absolutely hilarious when you think about it.

So, what can all of this teach us about dark comedy and subtlety?

Simply put, subtlety allows you to include more dark comedy than you would probably get away with if you were a bit more obvious about it.

This is mostly because the audience gets to feel the “normal” reaction of horror, despair, unease, awkwardness etc.. that these scenes evoke, with the dark comedy only becoming obvious later – when it is a welcome way to lighten these emotions.

Going back to the car-related dark comedy scenes I mentioned earlier – if these two scenes had included a slightly lighter emotional tone or had been shown in close succession, they would probably be criticised as crass or tasteless. Yet, the fact that they’re played completely seriously and separated by a fair amount of time means that the audience only notices the underlying dark comedy sometime after they’ve experienced more “acceptable” reactions of shock and horror. As such, these scenes are able to add dark comedy to subject matter that is usually considered off-limits for comedy.

However, if you’re including subtle dark comedy, you do need to find some way to signal to your audience that your story includes dark comedy. But, you should usually wait a while before you make this fact obvious to your audience. I mean, one of the reasons why the eighth episode of “Twin Peaks” (2017) works so well is that it appears halfway through the series. The audience is already gripped by the main story of the series, so when something bizarrely irrelevant appears, it’s a significant clue that they shouldn’t take the story too seriously. This sudden moment of realisation retroactively lightens some of the more serious or grim moments earlier in the series.

So, yes, subtlety means that you can include more intense dark humour.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

“Zero” By C. A. Brown (Short Story)

A huge smile crossed Bert’s face as he gestured at the large chart behind him: ‘…And, with the recent contractual changes, annual profits per branch have increased by an average of twenty percent. Good work everyone.’

Polite applause followed. Bert scanned the table in front of him, carefully judging how much enthusiasm each branch manager showed. Two of them were over-egging it, almost to the point of sarcasm. He made a mental note of their names.

Keeping the smile on his face, Bert said: ‘Luckily for us, the press have been focusing on the larger companies. Any blowback from employees?’

‘Some grumbling.’ A bald man in a green suit shrugged. ‘I just tell ’em that if they’re good at what they do, they’ll get more hours. Works well enough.’

The man next to him laughed: ‘Too true, mate. I tell them that zero hours means zero hours if they don’t shut up about it. ‘

Beside him, a blonde woman in a pinstripe suit shook her head. ‘We’ve had a surge in union memberships. No strikes so far. Legally speaking, they don’t have a leg to stand on.’

A chorus of approving murmurs echoed around the room. Bert nodded. ‘Some trouble is to be expected. But, things will settle down. It isn’t like the competition can offer them any better. Honestly, I’m surprised that they haven’t sent us a cease and desist letter. I mean, where do you think I got the idea from?’

Polite laughter followed. Bert stood up slightly straighter: ‘Best of all, if trends continue, then I think that we are all going to have a very merry Christmas.’

More applause. A couple of people got up to shake Bert’s hand. He made a mental note of them too. One showed genuine enthusiasm, the other was brown-nosing. Stay at the top long enough and you get an instinct for this kind of thing. His mind began tabulating bonus figures as he waited for the applause to die down.

His eyes drifted over to the clock. It was nearly four. Keeping the smile on his face, Bert said: ‘And that about wraps it up. Keep up the good work everyone.’

As the managers left the room in high spirits, Bert reached for the intercom at the head of the table: ‘Any appointments, Susan?’

Clacking keys echoed over the intercom. A second later, Susan said: ‘Yes, a gentleman just showed up. Very insistent that he meets with you at once. Said that he called a couple of weeks ago and made an appointment. Can’t find any record of it though.’

‘Did you get his name?’

‘Phil Catafalque.’

‘Well, I’ve got a few minutes to spare. I’m sure I can squeeze him in. Send him to the conference room.’

Bert glanced at the clock. Fifty seconds later, Phil strode into the room. Everything from his slicked-back hair to his sharp suit screamed multi-national CEO. And, Bert noted with some glee, not one of those trendy tech company hippies either. A businessman of the old school. They were so rare these days.

As Bert extended his hand, Phil glanced at the clock before nodding at him: ‘I’ve got to say, your list of achievements is impressive. I’ve been waiting to meet you for some time.’

Bert blushed. ‘I wasn’t aware that news travelled so quickly, Mr. Catafalque. Are you interested in this company? I can assure you that our contractual changes are only the start of a wider strategic cost-cutting initiative. There has never been a better time to invest.’

Phil shook his head: ‘I’m interested in you, Bert. You’ve really done well for yourself here. But, alas, all things must come to an end.’

‘I don’t understand. In case you don’t know, I own this…’ Bert’s voice broke off as Phil reached behind his head. From the collar of his suit, Phil pulled a dark hood over his head. Beneath it, his face grew ever more gaunt until it was little more than a skull.

‘You’re… No, you can’t be. It isn’t possible.’ A red flush crossed Bert’s face. ‘If this is some kind of Halloween prank, then I’m calling the police!’

‘You would only be wasting their time. And mine too. Like you, I put a lot of stock in efficiency.’

Bert’s eyes widened: ‘Come on, surely we can work something out? At least let me make a few phone calls. How long have I got?’

A thin smile crossed Phil’s lips. His bony fingers reached towards Bert. ‘Zero hours.

Short Story: “Letters” By C. A. Brown

It all started in the local newspaper, of all things. Although this wasn’t something that Joanne usually read, the paper got delivered to her by accident every now and then.

Every time it arrived, she’d glance over it just to remind herself why she didn’t get it every day. And she always looked at the letters page. After all, it was like a website comment section, but with more articulate writers and less venom.

But, then, she noticed that the same few people kept getting their letters in the paper. It had started when some crackpot’s letter about building a giant portcullis in the channel “to show the EU we mean business” had somehow got past the editor. She’d rolled her eyes, thought “who wrote this?” and remembered the name.

When the next paper arrived four days later, she noticed that he not only had the top spot on the letters page but that he was fervently arguing in favour of bringing capital punishment back “in order to sort out those inconsiderate types who check their mobile phones in the cinema.”

She also noticed a frothing, ranting letter from another person who was arguing that there should be hefty fines “for non-attendance of weekly church services, to restore this land’s moral fibre“. She made a note of the name.

Sure enough, when a crumpled copy of the local paper arrived on Joanne’s doormat two days later, not only were letters by these two people featured – but one of the other ranting letters was shockingly badly-written. Normally, she despised it when people got pedantic about things like grammar and spelling. But, this letter made the comments below online videos look like eloquent treatises by comparison. She made a note of the name.

She had almost forgotten about the paper when the next one landed on her doormat eight days later. Half of the front page had been torn off and the third page was stained with what looked like dried ketchup. No doubt that the delivery boy had stopped off at the chip shop and needed somewhere to ditch the paper he’d accidentally ruined. Still, Joanne didn’t complain. It was a free paper.

Taking a deep breath, Joanne flicked to the letters page. Sure enough, the three people were still there. But literally every letter was just like them too. There wasn’t a single cheerful letter about something mildly funny happening, a mention of a kind local person or a random piece of retro nostalgia. It was just two pages of solid ranting, foaming and frothing.

For the first time in quite a while, Joanne decided to go out. The emotion caught her completely by surprise. But, even the soul-crushing stage fright of appearing in front of random strangers seemed reassuringly normal compared to the stuff that she had just read. So, after changing into some of the few vaguely semi-formal clothes she kept lying around, she stepped outside.

When she briefly glimpsed a distant person slowly strolling down the street towards her, she realised that this had been a bad idea. They’d have to pass each other and this could involve eye contact or, even worse, some kind of cheery greeting. Would they pass each other too closely or too distantly? Whatever happened, it would probably be wrong. It would make her feel like some kind of freak for the next couple of hours.

With a vaguely practiced motion, she fumbled through her bag for something whilst turning around. If this person was looking, it would just seem like she’d forgotten something and had to return home to get it. A perfectly normal thing to do. Even though she was sure that she was horribly out of practice at the old handbag-turn, it seemed to work.

Then, as she took the first quick steps back along the street, Joanne let out a long sigh of relief. On the corner of Grantfield Road, she saw two gaunt skeletons merrily feasting on something. She glanced over her shoulder and, sure enough, the random person strolling along the road was none other than… what was the right word for it?… A former human? A reanimated body? No doubt that “zombie” was considered front-page scandal rude. But, she thought, would they even care?

Whistling a cheery tune, she strolled back home, occasionally waving at the shambling, soulless beings that she passed. None of them cared whether she was “normal” or not. Best of all, there was another copy of the paper lying on the doormat when she got back. As she opened it, she realised that all the horror movies she had ever watched had got everything totally wrong.

When the zombie apocalypse hits, Joanne thought, looking for survivors is the last thing you want to do. After all, most of the people who can go for weeks without noticing that the dead have risen from their graves are the kind of people who write angry letters to the local paper. Thankfully, she thought, not all of them are. A warm smile crossed Joanne’s face. Without even having to pretend, she had become the most normal person on the planet and it was awesome.