When it came to toys, I was the luckiest child. I didn’t have a Six Million Dollar Man doll or an Action Man tank, there was no Stretch Armstrong or Mousetrap, but I did have a real sheep’s skull, with a candle dripped into it. It was just like the ones on the covers of collections of black magic stories and it was real. My love of horror fiction began shortly after my eighth birthday. I used my book tokens to buy Alan Frank’s Horror Movies, heavy with images of Peter Cushing looking enigmatic, Christopher Lee trapped in hawthorns, and Lugosi and Karloff creeping each other out.
I was a morbid child, hanging around graveyards before The Smiths had even formed, terrified that I might get rabies, keen on melting the faces of my Action Men, constantly re-enacting car crashes like some baby-faced JG Ballard.
My horror love took up less of my time as my obsession with alternative comedy and more realistic fiction of human anxiety took hold. I would still go to each new John Carpenter, but had little interest in gore for gore’s sake genre. I like my imaginative fiction to imagine more than just the most bloody and disgusting way to release someone’s brain from the confines of their skull.
I read less James Herbert, but still returned to Edgar Allan Poe and MR James.
A few years ago, at a gig in Norwich, I met Johnny Mains, a horror aficionado and archivist. We kept in contact, and every so often, I would receive some entertaining 70s pulp fiction from his teetering collection. I had also taken to reading out from Guy N Smith’s superbly entertaining giant killer crab novels with live jazz accompaniment.
Hey, that’s variety.
While we were drinking one night, Johnny suggested a horror anthology made up of horror stories by stand up comedians. I was confident that a number of my friends could be easily persuaded. Comedy and horror go well together, as the work of the League of Gentleman and Simon Pegg & Edgar Wright have shown. Many stand ups have found their niche via an outsider position, not necessarily the most bullied at school, but rarely the most popular or captain of the football team. They are keen to retreat into a world of their own imaginings, whether that is to create stand up or stories. Many wish to take the world we live in and twist it, so horror is a natural fit. Horror was a place where many of us outsider kids hid, then comedy was the place where we found we could show ourselves.
The greatest horror for the authors was that the deadline occurred during the Edinburgh Fringe festival, an all immersive time of the year where you kid yourself that you can have some other form of life beyond perpetually showing off on a variety of stages in airless rooms. The squalid nature of the closets and cellars that come to life as Venue 7154 for the month of August echoing tales of Poe and HP Lovecraft. As I bumped into authors as we crossed over venues, their eyes would widen as if there was a murder of zombies on the horizon when I said, “I need the story by Tuesday”.
The end results mix gore and jollity and bleakness, surprisingly few tales involve the disemboweling of a critic, a sigh that the deadline was within the first week of the fringe. I have been told mine is rather disgusting, I hadn’t thought it was too fetid and morbid, lucky I am committing these crimes on paper.
The horror short story has some similarity to a routine, some are shaggy dog, some twisted observations, many have a punchline, though rather than slipping on a banana skin and hitting the lamp post, it is sliding on offal and falling into the satanic monstrosities mouth.
Why are so many comedians are attracted to horror? Is it that Many worlds interpretation of existence, another way of scrutinising all the what ifs, a relief that our world seems free of Cenobites, but the fizzy excitement that maybe there is one about to look right back at you when you close the bathroom cupboard. Even the rational can get a little antsy if walking alone through cemetery at midnight, how quickly those tombs take the shape of vengeful nuns when caught in the corner of an eye.
Horror and comedy are both ways of dissecting the world and holding it up to the light, sometimes viewing it with disgust, sometimes laughter, sometimes both. The comedian and horror writer can be shy rebels, they’ll never lead the revolution, but they’ll sadistically taunt the status quo and normality with words and twisted concepts.
Now some stand ups have revealed the devilment and tortured images in their mind, I wonder if that may put off the heckler a little more. You may not get a out down on the night, but rather end up in a re-enactment of The Vanishing with swanee whistles.
Dead Funny is available now http://saltpublishing.com/shop/proddetail.php?prod=9781907773761
I am doing lots of Christmas science shows, some with Brian Cox HERE
Some with Tony Law, Mary Beard, Stewart Lee and all HERE
This article appeared, with better punctuation, in last week’s Big Issue.