Born in Texas and currently wandering somewhere in Utah, David Dunwoody writes subversive horror fiction including the EMPIRE series, HELL WALKS, THE 3 EGOS, and the collections DARK ENTITIES and UNBOUND & OTHER TALES. His fiction has been published by outfits such as Gallery, Shroud, Dark Regions, Belfire, Evil Jester, Permuted and Chaosium.
In this post, Dunwoody takes on a subject near and dear to my heart: humor in horror fiction.
About a decade ago when I was first published, I wanted to be known for dark, dark fiction. An eight ball at the bottom of the ocean at midnight, that kind of dark. I wanted readers to come away from my novels feeling drained. And I still do, but I’ve come to realize that there’s such a thing as balance, even in a realm of writing where doom and gloom pervade. Especially then.
There are few involuntary responses which we all share. Two are the belly laugh and gut-twisting dread. Though they may seem strange bedfellows at the onset, humor and terror often complement one another quite nicely in fiction. When thinking back over some of the darkest, scariest works I’ve ever read, I can’t help but notice that many feature moments of black humor and even laugh-out-loud bits. Some of the funniest people I’ve ever met are horror writers (they’re also by far the most normal, but that’s another blog). So how do scares and chuckles work together without being jarring?
Sometimes the jarring effect is exactly what works. The levity of a humorous moment, followed by a radical shift in tone, strikes one hell of a contrast. That may sound like the anatomy of a cheap scare, but I think it’s all in the execution. Perhaps the main thing to consider in such a case is whether you’re doing it for the story or the future reader. Are you in the moment? You’re not a short-order cook, after all and you, of course, write for yourself first.
While you don’t want to manufacture forced scares in service to your prospective audience, you don’t want to stand in your own way either when it comes to humor. Follow your gut on these questions of tone. Most of my novels are apocalyptic in nature and there are many tremendously dark moments, unrelenting moments when I am unable to step back and catch my breath. When they have their place, bits of levity can be a welcome respite and a chance to explore other aspects of my characters.
With regard to characters, humor can also work well when following terror, or a scene of intense sadness or hopelessness. In life, we often deal with such feelings by cracking wise. It’s a coping mechanism and one of the things that makes us human. It makes characters human too. (Or let’s say relatable, for those non-human ones.)
Just as fear takes different forms, and encroaches by varying degrees, so too does humor. From outright absurdity, to inside jabs between friends, to the all-too-true sentiment that elicits a sardonic smile, there is a lot to work with.
I’d never say that everyone should always try to inject humor into their dark fiction – but I will say that, if your muse is suggesting you do it, don’t shy away. Don’t worry that it’s going to water down the product. Follow your gut! A grin in the dark only makes its surroundings that much darker.
Learn more about David Dunwoody's work at http://empirenovel.blogspot.com/ . See the trailer below to learn more about The 3 Egos.