Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The challenge of writing comedy-horror

When I wrote Apocalypse Cow, I had never written comedy-horror before. In fact, I didn’t even know I was writing comedy-horror until that is how it came to be defined post-publication. So, now that I am a retrospective expert in this tiny field, I’ve realized what a fine line an author has to tread when mixing the silly and the scary.

The one scene in my book that has prompted most negative reactions, so much so in some cases that people have either stopped reading or said it ruined their enjoyment of the rest of the book, is a scene in which a horny zombie cow humps, stomps and gores a man to death.

The beef (pun intended) is that one should never play such a horrendous scene for laughs, particularly when rape is involved.

Firstly I should mention that the poor gentleman in question wasn’t raped. He had his clothes on, and the bull in question may have had some difficulty in unbuttoning buttons and zippers. He was humped, in the way a randy dog humps a leg. The fact it was a bull doing the humping made the damage more extreme.

Secondly, and more pertinent to this blog post, this scene wasn’t intended to be funny. That’s right: if you didn’t find it funny, it’s because you weren’t supposed to. It was meant to be horrific, and I thought I had made that pretty clear—although I have to admit it’s been a long time since I read the scene in question.

So, this is the interesting part: some people have been put off the book by not finding funny a scene they had assumed was meant to be funny even though it wasn’t meant to be funny.

This shows how tricky comedy-horror can be, and perhaps explains why more authors don’t write it. I believe the problem is down to different interpretations of what comedy-horror is. Some people see comedy-horror as an attempt to make the horrific humorous; comedic horror, if you like. I see it more as comedy + horror. The way I generally approach it is to flit back-and-forth between the two. Death scenes, and the subsequent emotional reaction of the characters, are taken seriously. The comedy comes in dialogue and ridiculous situations in between deaths.

I believe this is a sensible approach. Humour is a classic defence mechanism to awful situations. When terrible things happen, we can either throw ourselves into the misery or try to find a way to keep on living. Often, we cope by making light of the grief and pain life throws at us. The alternative is to face up to the fundamental grimness of life and end up slobbering onto the buckles of your straitjacket.

Anyway, I thought I had created a clear demarcation between scenes that were horrific and humorous, but I have now realized that when a book is billed as funny, people assume the author is striving to be funny all the way through and therefore believe he or she has at best failed, or is at worst is a very sick puppy, in dark scenes where there is no obvious comic relief.

This is not the fault of the reader, but it illustrates why it is so dangerous to work in this field. There is so much room for disconnect between the author and the reader, and most authors are striving to create that connection so they can sell more books and perhaps one day make a living.

I’ve discussed this before, but I am a great believer in variability of tone in books simply because this most closely mirrors life. In our lives, there are funny moments, there are horrible moments, there are beautiful moments, there are thoughtful moments, and so on and so on.

I try to make all of my characters, and their reactions, as real as possible. This means tone will vary as a character reacts in different ways to the many different things that happen to him or her. For me, this is only way to create rounded characters who develop in a believable fashion, and craft a story that is funny without being superficial.

So, I’m not going to adjust the way I write. I’ve learned that an author has to stay true to what he or she believes in. If that means that along the way I lose readers who believe I am a disturbed man who would benefit from a spot of light lobotomizing, that’s a price I’m prepared to pay.

Consider this my manifesto.

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