Horror and comedy can make for pleasant bedfellows for reasons that aren’t immediately clear. It may have something to do with our customary reactions to surprise. Jokes, witticisms, even prank-falls and slapstick all depend on an element of shock. A character uses the wrong word or behaves in a way wildly inappropriate for a given situation. A plan goes ridiculously wrong, and someone suffers for it. The difference in many of these situations between comedy and terror depends to a great degree on just how awful the consequences of these missteps or sudden shifts in perception are. The difference between the two, more darkly, can also depend on our distance from those experiencing these situations.
Comedic legend Mel Brooks once said, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” Comedic horror often works by playing with that distance. The difference between a sympathetic and a deeply unlikeable character suffering the same horrible fate can prompt opposite reactions. Another way that many of the following novels elicit a mixed reaction of fear/disgust and amusement is by exaggerating a normal situation into absurdity. And finally, a story of fear can turn funny when a typical horrific trope is turned inside out or cross-spliced with a wildly different set of stereotypes.
At any rate, they say a joke dies when you try explaining it, so I’m going to try to get out of the way and let you see for yourself how terror and comedy can make an excellent pairing. I won’t claim that each of these books is laugh-out-loud funny, but they all amused me at least as much as they disturbed me.
Dead Babies (1975)
This, British author Martin Amis’s second novel, follows a group of mostly wealthy young good-for-nothings as they party at an estate in the country. They plan on getting wasted and shocking country bumpkins. They plan on having lots of meaningless sex. They plan on tormenting the least of them, the unfortunate Keith Whitehead. What they don’t plan on, though, is the mysterious presence of the prankster Johnny, someone who clearly has a bone to pick with all of them. The dead babies of the title, by the way, are the brief and horrible moments in which reality cuts through their nihilistic glee and presents them with the existential horrors they are trying to evade.
Amis’s prose is stylish, sharp, ironic, and sometimes breaks the fourth wall to speak directly to the characters. His future as a deeply ethical writer is visible even through this screen of cruelty. Don’t expect to like a single one of these depraved creatures: they are monsters, vain and mean and arrogant. The fun of the book lies in seeing Amis dissect these creeps with his authorial scalpel, not to mention in watching what dark Johnny has in mind for them. Schadenfreude is the name of the game in Appleseed Rectory for this novel’s clueless victims, its shadowy villain, and the ironic author hiding lurking behind them all.
Good Omens (1990)
Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s end-of-days novel, recently adapted as an excellent TV series, could be classified as any number of things, from fantasy to theological speculation, but it builds itself on a situation familiar to most horror fans: the arrival of the Antichrist and the beginning of the Apocalypse. Unlike in Rosemary’s Baby or The Omen, however, here the Antichrist was switched at birth, and instead of being raised by properly Satanic and uber-wealthy parents, Adam Young gets a good upbringing by ordinary British folks.
When an angel and a demon tasked with bringing about the end of days go searching for the Satanic child, they find a confused but generally kind kid who has been using his powers willy-nilly to make his wishes come true. Satanic nuns, the descendant of a powerful witch, the Four Horsemen, and Adam Young’s motley crew of kid friends round out the cast in this madcap, satirical, and sweet-tempered take on apocalyptic literature.
The Count of Eleven (1991)
Ramsey Campbell’s novel is a murderously slapstick story of a good man driven to bad deeds by an obsession with crummy luck. Jack Orchard, owner of a video store and a devoted family man, encounters a string of terrible events after he fails to send on one of those stupid chain letters that people used to get by snail-mail but are now relegated to the Internet. After Jack rectifies his mistake, his fortune seems to take an even worse turn, forcing him to wonder if the letter’s recipients have failed to continue the chain. And that’s when this pun-loving, generally good-hearted guy gets an awful idea: maybe he has to force the chain to continue in order to save his family.
Campbell replaces the subtle cosmic horror found in most of his other books with misunderstandings both banal and twisted and intersperses the narrative with dialogue and actions Jack is revealed to only have imagined, cleverly disrupting our expectations. And when the violence begins, this novel reads like a horror story written by the Three Stooges. A classic of the comedic-horror subgenre.
Best known for his novel Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk has in subsequent years written several out-and-out horror novels and short stories. Lullaby was arguably the first of them and it combines a supernatural plot with the satirical edge he always brings to his stories. Carl Streator is a reporter who has recently lost both his wife and his child. While investigating a series of sudden and inexplicable child deaths, Streator realizes that a deadly lullaby lies behind not only these tragedies, but his own as well. The lullaby kills anyone who hears it spoken out loud. Worse for Streator, he soon understands that the deadly poem has seared itself so deeply into his mind that he can now kill anyone by merely thinking it at them, even unintentionally.
After finding a few others who have seen the power of the lullaby, he and this group set out to destroy every copy of it. Or at least, that’s what he thinks his compatriots intend on doing. For a horror novel that starts with the deaths of several children, Lullaby is surprisingly funny, particularly in its portrayal of Streator’s fellow book-hunters. While I wouldn’t call it slapstick, the story consists of a series of absurd experiences and mordant reflections by its characters.
My Work is Not Yet Done (2002)
Thomas Ligotti isn’t wildly known, not yet, nor is he commonly thought of as a funny writer by those who know his work. Reading often like the monstrous child of Franz Kafka and H. P. Lovecraft, he usually plumbs the depths of existential horror, writing in an arch and grimly lush style. Ligotti, though, can be pretty witty once you get past his nihilistic disdain for life. Or rather, once you accept his view provisionally. You may especially enjoy his work if you appreciate Vladimir Nabokov’s brand of sly, ironic wit and wordplay.
In this collection of a novella and two shorter stories, Ligotti turns his bleak eyes on corporate culture, mining it for both humor and absurd darkness. In the title novella, Frank Dominio is a misanthropic corporate manager who is ousted by some of his work rivals. Or at least so he thinks. After discovering new psychic powers from some unknown source, Frank hatches a diabolical revenge plan. The other two stories continue this corporate theme, gradually branching out into what can only be described as a comedy of cosmic errors.
Darkly Dreaming Dexter (2004)
This is, of course, the first in the Dexter Morgan novels which went on to serve as the basis for the acclaimed Showtime series. While the show retained some of the humor of Lindsay’s novel, his books lean far more into comedy than that program did. Dexter Morgan is a serial killer who targets other killers, as well as rapists, child molesters, and other criminals who have in one way or another avoided legal punishment. While Dexter’s escapades are sometimes funny in themselves, involving demented and sometimes absurdly evil characters, the primary source of comedy in the novels is Dexter himself. Dexter is a sociopath, albeit one who has had a sense of mission implanted in him by his father, and he just cannot understand most of the motivations and emotional reactions of regular human beings.
The show went some way to humanizing him, but Lindsay’s Dexter is a far more ambiguous, even feral creature. As these novels are told from his first-person perspective, we see him struggling with the most basic concepts of good and evil. While Showtime’s Dexter is somewhat inconsistently a caring human being, often led by his concern for his sister, his found family, and even his co-workers, the novels’ character often has to remind himself not to murder those who annoy him, including all those people with whom he has a supposedly loving relationship. This makes for some rather dark comedy at times and keeps readers from identifying as strongly as they might with the Dexter played by Michael C. Hall.
One bonus for fans of the show series who haven’t tried the novels yet is that after this first novel, the two series diverge completely, meaning fans have an entirely new set of murderous adventures to enjoy. Lindsay’s books even introduce elements of the supernatural to spice things up.
Mister B. Gone (2007)
In this, Clive Barker’s only comedic novel to date, we are introduced to Jakobak Botch. Jakobak comes from a poor region, is often abused by his cruel father, and vents his rage in fantasies of cruelty and revenge. Oh, and Jakobak is a demon living in one of the more squalid circles of Hell. After he is drawn up out of the Inferno by occultists, Jakobak finds himself free for the first time, free to wander Medieval Europe sowing pain and destruction as he pleases.
Throughout this short novel, Jakobak continually breaks the fourth wall, encouraging his readers to burn the book they are reading before a dark fate befalls them, making this metafictional horror as well as a satire. His intersection with human history involves him in an invention of most powerful new tool, one that both the demonic and angelic orders are eager to control. If you like this vicious little tale, I’d encourage you to also read Barker’s short story, “The Yattering and Jack,” with which it shares some literary and tonal DNA.
John Dies at the End (2007)
David Wong/Jason Pargin
David Wong/Jason Pargin’s debut novel is the horrific equivalent of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, featuring zombies, clueless ghosts, and interdimensional beings in place of Douglas Adams’s bizarre aliens. Dave and his buddy John are a pair of stoners who become paranormal investigators after encountering a drug known as the Soy Sauce, a drug that enables its users to see through the veil of the ordinary world. Unfortunately, the drug also seems to allow whatever’s on the other side to look back at them.
This novel throws everything at you: gore, puns, ridiculous characters, cults, Elder Gods, and bungled exorcisms. It can feel episodic and disconnected at times, having originally been published serially online, but I think that adds to the zany tone of the piece. John Dies at the End also works as a piece of meta-fiction, churning through the genre’s cliches and spitting them out at a frenetic pace. I also highly recommend the movie adaptation by the director of the Phantasm series. It is a heavily abridged version of the novel (there’s just too much story there to squeeze into 100 minutes), but it perfectly captures the fun.
The Cannibals of Candyland (2009)
Carlton Mellick III
If you haven’t read anything from the subgenre known as Bizarro fiction, this is a fun place to start. Many of the slim novels in this category are gross and random for the sake of being gross and random, but this book by Mellick develops its central conceit with laser-sharp focus, providing an unforgettable experience for anyone prepared for its candy-colored carnage. Briefly put, a race of cannibals literally made of candy live in caverns below us and have lived there for millennia. Not only are they made of hardened sugar, their world is decorated with lollipop trees and gingerbread houses. At night, these monsters creep up into our cities searching for their favorite prey: children.
Mellick takes this cracked concept and goes all out with it, dragging his hapless protagonist into these depths and forcing him to depend on the kindness of an especially beautiful cannibal-woman. Mellick packs a good amount of cartoonish violence and unusual (to say the least) sexuality into this short novel, but if your tastes run to the outrageous and outlandish, you’re going to have a good time with this one.
Grady Hendrix has in only a few years carved out a spot for himself in the genre as someone both well-versed in horrific tropes and determined to upend them hilariously. In this relatively short and illustrated novel, Hendrix introduces us to the IKEA-like ORSK stores. One location, staffed by manager Basil, aimless and penniless Amy, as well as their goofy co-workers, has begun to show signs of some sort of paranormal activity. Wares are found smashed, cryptic graffiti appears referring to “The Beehive,” and the workers manage to get lost in the store despite knowing it in dreary detail. Sick of this weirdness, members of the crew decide to stay overnight and conduct a séance to see if they can dialogue with the store’s invisible inhabitant.
Horrorstör weaves skillfully between Superstore-like comedy and authentic chills and even manages to say something interesting about a very real horror embedded in our civilization. Bonus: the book is itself fashioned after a catalog and contains illustrations of furniture that only get more disturbing as you proceed through the book. Don’t flip ahead, though, as these drawings can spoil some of the novel’s secrets.
SEE ALSO: Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, I Am Providence, Company, Practical Demonkeeping, Damned, Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, My Sister, the Serial Killer, The Third Policeman, American Psycho, The Slynx, Nailbiter, Haunted, Resume with Monsters