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 πŸ™‚

Review: “Torched!” By James Blackstone (Novel)

Well, I was in the mood for reading another 1980s horror novel. So, after a bit of searching through my bookshelves, I found an old novel from 1985 called “Torched!” by James Blackstone. From the stamp on the inside cover, I must have got it from a second-hand book stall in Alnwick during a holiday near there in the early-mid 2000s.

Although I vaguely remember reading it back then, I couldn’t remember that much about the story (other than the fact that I later confused it with Graham Masterton’s “The Hymn). So, it seemed like it might be worth re-reading.

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

This is the 1986 Grafton Books (UK) paperback edition of “Torched” that I read.

The novel begins in New York. A middle-aged man called Al Andrade is staying at a swanky hotel for a convention and is looking for company. To his surprise, a beautiful – and somewhat nervous- woman approaches him in the hotel restaurant and asks to go to his room. However, a few minutes after they get into bed, she suddenly bursts into flames.

Meanwhile in London, cynical middle-aged insurance investigator Richard Grierson is investigating a warehouse fire that resulted in two deaths. After a bit of snooping around and some examination, he concludes that the fire was started by the owner for the insurance money. But, soon after he’s solved the case, he’s called back into the office.

Following a takeover by an American firm called Insill, Grierson doesn’t really like his trendy new boss too much. Something not helped by the fact that, following a spate of arson attacks, Insill’s main branch has asked for the UK branch’s best investigator to fly over and team up with their lead investigator, Jack Lattimer. With the threat of being fired if he doesn’t, Grierson reluctantly gets on a plane to New York….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, whilst it is technically a horror novel, it is more like an old thriller/ detective novel than anything else. It’s a fairly enjoyable novel – although, if you’re expecting a splatterpunk novel, then you’ll be disappointed. It’s a little bit like a cross between a Clive Cussler novel, a low-budget 1980s movie, and/or something like James Herbert’s “The Jonah” than anything else.

Even so, the novel’s relatively few horror elements are reasonably effective. There’s suspenseful horror, fire-based horror, sexual horror, scientific horror, cruel horror, character-based horror and maybe one or two moments of gory horror. Even so, this novel probably has slightly more in common with the average 1970s/80s thriller novel than the kind of 1980s splatterpunk novel that the dramatic-looking cover art (seriously, I miss ’80s-style cover art) might lead you to expect.

Still, as a thriller, it is fairly decent. Although you shouldn’t expect an action-packed explosion-fest, this novel makes fairly effective use of suspense, mystery, multiple plot threads and a spectacular set piece or two. In a lot of ways, this novel is a little bit more like a detective/buddy cop novel than anything else – with Grierson and Lattimer investigating the fires whilst another character called Carol also finds herself involved in the case.

But, whilst the premise of the novel is ripe for horror (and I was expecting something like Graham Masterton’s “The Hymn”), this novel goes down the cheesy ’80s thriller route of having a sleazy criminal mastermind villain instead. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a suitably chilling antagonist (although his villainy gets a little cartoonish at times) and this allows the novel to have a suitably dramatic and suspenseful conclusion at his villa. But, still, it’s impossible not to think of something like this during a couple of moments involving him. Seriously, this novel is a lot more ’80s than I’d expected.

As for the characters, they’re reasonably decent. Both Grierson and Lattimer are weary middle-aged men who have lost their families (either through divorce or arson) and, in typical buddy cop fashion, don’t get along that well initially but become a better team as the story progresses. Interestingly, although Lattimer is described as looking like an American cop, the mild-mannered Grierson is actually the “loose cannon” of the pair. The other characters are also given enough characterisation to make them sympathetic or creepy, but you shouldn’t expect gigantic amounts of characterisation here.

In terms of the writing, it’s fairly standard old-school thriller stuff. In other words, it is “matter of fact” enough to move at a decent pace but is a little bit more formal than you might expect from a modern novel. Still, the novel has a fairly decent atmosphere and sense of place to it – with the brief scenes set in London being reminiscent of James Herbert and the US-based scenes looking like something from a 1980s movie. Even so, the novel’s settings are the clichΓ©d triumvirate of London, New York and Los Angeles.

As for length and pacing, this novel is fairly decent. At an efficient 223 pages in length, it makes me pine for the days when even thriller novels could be short if they needed to be. Likewise, although the novel is fairly moderately-paced and/or mildly-fast paced, this is one of those stories that becomes a bit more suspenseful and dramatic as it goes along. Even so, a few moments later in the novel seem a little bit contrived/coincidental, although they help to make the ending a bit more dramatic.

As for how this thirty-four year old novel has aged, it probably hasn’t aged that well. Leaving aside a few “politically incorrect” moments and the general roughness of many of the novel’s sleazier moments, this novel is very ’80s. Normally, this is a good thing – since old novels usually provide a much more nuanced, realistic and immersive window into the past than films or TV do. However, aside from maybe the segments set in London, the rest of this novel has slightly more of a stylised movie/TV show-like tone to it. Still, this adds a certain cheesy charm to the story and the plot itself is reasonably compelling.

All in all, if you want a cheesy ’80s buddy cop-style thriller novel with a few horror elements, then this novel might be worth reading. It isn’t anything spectacular, but it’s a reasonably compelling (if a little silly) story. But, if you want a better old-school pyrotechnic horror thriller novel, then read Graham Masterton’s “The Hymn” instead.

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

Three Reasons Why 1980s British Horror Fiction Was So Shocking

Although horror fiction has had something of a resurgence in recent years, it’s interesting to note that (with the exception of the zombie genre) it has mostly gone back to a more traditional focus on atmosphere, suspense, implication, psychological horror etc…

This isn’t a bad thing. These traditional elements have stuck around because they are effective. When brought up to the modern day and placed in modern settings, they can still be extremely disturbing. So, this article isn’t too much of a criticism of modern horror fiction.

On the other hand, when I started to re-read Shaun Hutson’s 1985 splatterpunk monster novel “Breeding Ground” before writing this article, I was reminded at how different it was from modern horror fiction. How much more transgressive it was compared to the scarier, but perhaps not as shocking, horror that you’d typically find in a more modern novel. This is a novel that absolutely revels in grossing the reader out – and you don’t really see this sort of thing that often in modern horror fiction.

If a modern horror novel is an ominous piece of classical music that sends a shiver down your spine, this 1980s novel is a heavy metal song turned up to eleven (and, yes, the one and only Iron Maiden are referenced in it too πŸ™‚ ).

So, naturally, this made me think about why 1980s horror fiction – here in Britain especially – was a lot more transgressive than modern horror fiction often is. Here are some of my theories:

1) Historical context: Ok, there’s a lot of stuff here. The first is probably that, unlike the stylised US-influenced popular image of “the 1980s” these days, 1980s Britain was apparently a fairly miserable place to live in.

Although I haven’t studied 1980s history in a gigantic level of detail and didn’t even exist for most of the ’80s, even the comedies from that decade ridicule the general grimness of the country back then.

One of the side-effects of this was that horror authors noticed all of this stuff. They rebelled against it and they used it as a source of horror. They wrote stories set in miserable places where horrible things happen to people who live dreary, precarious and/or second-rate lives because, in a world like that, it wouldn’t be entirely impossible. They satirised the supposed bastions of goodness (eg: politicians, religions, celebrities, the police etc…) that everyone was told to trust in those troubled times. Or, to put it another way, there’s a reason why the genre is called “splatterpunk”. Like old punk music, 1980s horror fiction had a lot to rebel against.

The second is that horror fiction was in a fairly unique position at the time. In mid-1980s Britain, there was a ridiculous moral panic (is there any other type?) about “Video Nasties” – gruesome horror films that had been released on the newfangled VHS format. This led to film censorship being extended to cover videos, with the censors actually becoming stricter. However, thanks to a very enlightened court decision a couple of decades earlier, literature was (and thankfully still is) pretty much a safe haven from official censorship.

Needless to say, there was clearly an appetite for shocking transgressive horror entertainment at the time. Horror authors were in a unique position where they could reflect these changes in the genre in a way that films weren’t allowed to. And, with this added freedom, they were able to write stories that were gorier, grosser and generally more shocking than even the most “extreme” modern horror movies. Of course, since horror movie censorship has been relaxed over the past couple of decades, horror authors have less reason to make their stories as transgressive as they once did.

Thirdly, horror fiction was actually popular back then πŸ™‚ Although I was somewhat late to the party, I remember seeing loads of old 1980s horror novels in charity shops, second-hand bookshops etc.. during the early-mid 2000s. It seemed to be as much of a fixture on 1980s high street shelves as crime thriller fiction is these days. Of course, since there were more horror novels for readers to choose from, there was probably more incentive for horror authors to out-shock the other authors, to provide horror fiction that was scarier, grosser and generally more extreme than the competition.

2) Respectability: One of the cool things about horror fiction in the 1980s was that, like with computer and video games in the 1990s, it wasn’t a “respectable” genre.

This meant that the genre had a lot more freedom. Since it was “trashy” entertainment that was made by and for fans of the genre, it didn’t have to worry about winning mainstream accolades. It could be as high-brow or low-brow as it needed to be in order to provide the kind of experience that readers would enjoy. Everything from the no-nonsense grisly grittiness of Shaun Hutson to the sophisticated dark fantasies of Clive Barker could thrive in this environment.

Because it was seen as “low culture” that fans enjoyed for the sake of enjoying it, it didn’t have to hold back because of what “respectable society” might think. It didn’t really have to advertise itself because horror fans knew an interesting horror novel when they saw one (even when I got into reading horror fiction during the early-mid 2000s, you could always tell that a book was a 1980s horror novel just by looking at the cover). Like modern heavy metal music, 1980s horror fiction was pretty much ignored by the mainstream press, media etc… and could do its own thing in a way that other genres couldn’t.

Of course, these days, horror fiction has had to regain some of it’s former popularity by appealing to more “respectable” audiences. This means that the genre also has to have an eye on things like professional literary critics, reading groups, large publishers, awards and what modern culture thinks is “acceptable” entertainment. But, like with modern videogames trying to gain some of the respectability of cinema by becoming more “cinematic”, this has resulted in major changes – some good, some bad- in the style, techniques etc.. of the modern horror genre.

3) Novelty: Horror fiction has existed for over a century at the very least. But, transgressive, shocking and/or ultra-gruesome horror fiction only really started to become a thing from the mid-1970s onwards (with James Herbert’s 1974 novel “The Rats” being one of the earliest popular examples). Back then, this type of horror was something new.

It was shocking because it was so different from the horror fiction that had come before it. It was a type of horror fiction that would have been pretty much unthinkable in the 1950s or 1960s. And, as such, it was something that authors were eager to explore and readers were eager to experience. It was the literary equivalent of ID Software releasing the original “Doom” at a time when computer games were mostly cartoonish platform games aimed at children.

Of course, novelty doesn’t last forever. Over time, “shocking for the sake of shocking” lost some of it’s appeal. The readers became jaded and the authors probably wanted to expand their repetoire. So, transgression and shock value went from something that a horror novel could rely on to being just one ingredient of many that horror authors can use. And, with the novelty value lost, authors also felt more free to look back at the older elements of the genre and find ways to bring them up to date.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting πŸ™‚

What Can A Computer Game Teach Us About Writing Horror Fiction That Focuses On One Type Of Horror?

Although good horror fiction relies on using multiple types of horror to frighten the reader by keeping things unpredictable, there is something to be said for focusing on one type of horror. This was something that I was reminded of by a computer game, of all things.

Although it might be a while until I review it, I’ve been occasionally playing a modern survival horror game called “Remothered: Tormented Fathers” (2018) recently and, unlike many of the survival horror games I played during my youth, it is terrifying. Literal heart-pounding, adrenaline-pumping, panicked “I shouldn’t be this scared by a game!” terrifying. Yet, the game mostly focuses on just one type of horror. Suspense.

This is a screenshot from “Remothered: Tormented Fathers” (2018) showing the main character hiding beside a bookshelf. And, yes, I’m using the low graphics settings.

A lot of what I’ve played so far involves sneaking around, hiding and/or constantly worrying that danger is nearby. Yes, the game includes other types of horror (eg: jump scares, gory horror, ominous horror, creepy locations, creepy characters etc..) but the main type of horror here is suspense. Everything from the relative lack of weapons, to the scarcity of save points, to the sound design is designed to create a constant feeling of suspense. And it is terrifying

But, what does any of this have to do with horror fiction?

Well, horror fiction and horror computer games are two very different mediums, but this game can teach us a few things about focusing on one type of horror. The first is that everything in your story should be set up to emphasise that one type of horror. The characters, the premise, the plot and even the writing style need to emphasise this type of horror.

For example, if you’re focusing on psychological horror, then you should think about using things like unreliable narration, settings that will unnerve the reader, characters that don’t seem entirely trustworthy, subtly creepy descriptions etc…

All of these elements may not be directly related to the main plot, but they will help to emphasise the psychological horror elements of your story. They will make the reader feel constantly on edge because everything in your story seems to be a potential source of psychological horror.

The second thing that this game can teach us is that focusing on one type of horror doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t include other types of horror. Again, good horror fiction relies on multiple types of horror. If you focus on one type of horror, then you still need to include small amounts of other types of horror too. These don’t have to be the main focus of the story, but they need to be there to keep the reader on their toes.

Not only that, including a brief moment of another type of horror will make it even more dramatic because your reader won’t be expecting it. A great literary example (SPOILERS ahoy!) is Ryu Murakami’s 1997 novel “In The Miso Soup”. This novel mostly focuses on suspenseful horror and character-based horror, so the novel’s one scene of gory horror is considerably more shocking because of its suddenness.

The brutal grisly violence of this scene has much more impact than similar scenes in splatterpunk novels for the simple reason that the reader has got used to other types of horror and isn’t expecting gory horror. So, remember to include other types of horror occasionally.

The third thing that this game can teach us is the value of allusions and knowing your chosen type of horror. Amongst other things, the game possibly seems to take inspiration from 1970s/80s “giallo” horror films. Everything from the style of the settings, the characters, the focus on suspense and even the style of acting made me think of the time, when I was about fourteen or fifteen, I tried to watch Dario Argento’s “Suspiria” on TV and stopped after about half an hour because I was too scared to watch any more.

So, know the type of horror that you are focusing on. Know how and why it works, know what the cliches are (and either play with them or avoid them) and find ways to subtly evoke other things in the genre that may have terrified your audience in the past.

If done well, subtle allusions to other works in the genre will make the reader feel scared without knowing exactly why and, if done less well, then it’s still a fun little easter egg for fans. A way of saying “I’ve seen this horror movie too. So, you’re going to enjoy this…

Finally, the game can teach us about the value of pacing. In short, less can sometimes be more when focusing on one type of horror. For most of what I’ve played of “Remothered: Tormented Fathers” so far, there isn’t a terrifying murderer in sight. Yes, you’re constantly worried that one might appear, but there are long stretches of time where the nearest murderer is several flights of stairs away. This means that the moments when one does appear and you have to run for your life are considerably more scary.

One of the reasons why horror writers are often advised to use multiple types of horror is because too much of one type of horror will desensitise the reader and make them more difficult to scare. For example, the first gruesome moment in a novel that focuses on gory horror will be shocking. The twentieth one will just be “oh, this again”. This is important to remember if you’re focusing on one type of horror.

So, choose your moments of horror carefully. Be sure that there are more subtle moments of horror between the stronger moments of horror. Give your reader a little bit of a break, so that your more dramatic moments of horror will actually be shocking.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚

The Complete “Slasher” – The New Halloween Comic by C. A. Brown

Well, in case you missed any of it, I thought that I’d collect all seven pages (including the cover) of my recent Halloween comic into one easy-to-read post.

If you want to see some of the previous Halloween comics, they can be found here: 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018. And, if you want to see more of Harvey’s investigations, they can be found here, here, here and here. You can also find links to many other comics featuring the characters from this one here.

As for this comic, due to being busy with lots of things, it ended up being slightly shorter than usual. Even so, it turned out better than I’d originally expected and it also allowed me to use elements from an unused idea (involving all of the characters ending up in the afterlife) that I’d originally had for 2017’s Halloween comic.

Anyway, here’s the comic πŸ™‚ Enjoy πŸ™‚

As usual, all seven pages of this comic are released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence. You can also click on each page to see a larger version (although, it might be worth looking for the “view full size” option after you’ve done this)

“Slasher – Cover” By C. A. Brown

“Slasher – Page 1” By C. A. Brown

“Slasher – Page 2” By C. A. Brown

“Slasher – Page 3” By C. A. Brown

“Slasher – Page 4” By C. A. Brown

“Slasher – Page 5” By C. A. Brown

“Slasher – Page 6” By C. A. Brown

Top Ten Articles – October 2019

Happy Halloween everyone πŸ™‚ As usual, here’s a list of links to the ten best articles about writing, reading etc.. I’ve posted here over the past month (plus a few honourable mentions too). Plus, in keeping with the occasion, most of the articles linked here are about the horror genre πŸ™‚

As regular readers of this site probably know, this month’s book reviews have also had a bit of a horror theme too πŸ™‚ Although, thanks to reading some longer books, I only reviewed twelve books this month. Still, the best ones were probably: “The Mall” by S. L. Grey, “The Ritual” by Adam Nevill, “The Rats” by James Herbert, “The Vampire Armand” by Anne Rice, “Resident Evil: City Of The Dead” by S. D. Perry and “The First Days” by Rhiannon Frater.

Anyway, here are the lists πŸ™‚ Enjoy πŸ™‚

Top Ten Articles – October 2019:

– “Why Your Horror Story Needs To Include Moments Of Wonder
– “Four Advantages That Horror Film/Game Novelisations Have Over The Source Material
– “Three Basic Tips For Adding Horror Elements To Other Genres Of Fiction
– “Is Horror Fiction About Perspective?
– “Three Reasons Why Horror Writers Shouldn’t Just Read Horror Fiction
– “Three Thoughts About Re-Reading Novels
– “Three Ways To Survive A Horror Publishing Drought
– “Three Tips For Making Your Horror Stories Re-Readable
– “Three Innovative Scares To Use In Your Horror Story
– “Why First Novels Aren’t Publishable – A Ramble

Honourable Mentions:

– “How Formal Should The Narration In Your Horror Story Be?
– “Horror Movies Vs. Horror Novels – A Ramble
– “Three Reasons Why The Zombie Genre Is So Appealing