Laughing Through the Icky Bits — by Kate Paulk

*When I met Kate Paulk online — eight?  Ten? years ago, the last thing she (or I) could imagine her doing was writing humor.  Kate’s mind tends to take a turn for the dark, then go darker, which is somewhat weird because she has no interest whatsoever in writing horror.  She is, however, a true gateway writer — in fact, she came up with the term — one of those people for whom the stories arrive from some distant shore of the subconscious mind, and MUST be written.  So, some years ago, after she’d been exposed to enough cons, she sent me these (three?) chapters and asked me what I thought of it.  I put it off a little because I wasn’t in the mood for dark and gore, but then I read it, and was shocked.  Oh, there’s dark and gore.  I mean, the main character is a vampire for crying out loud.  But I found myself laughing too, because well…  Well…  It’s funny.  [And then you feel a little guilty at laughing.]  The novel poured out of her and my only contribution was a) pointing out to her the police would be involved unless there was a reason not to be — like magic or something that turned them away — and that she couldn’t have famous people as themselves.  She could have friends thinly disguised, with our permission — Dave Freer and I are rather obvious — but everyone else had to be a composite of at least three people UNLESS the depiction was wildly complementary.  So even though the novels often involve real incidents overheard/seen at cons, you can’t “decode” them like a roman a clef, because each person is three or four people.  The weird thing is how often some incident she described that HADN’t happened, happens afterwards, or someone not written into the books takes on the characteristics of one of the characters.  As she puts it “that universe leaks.”  Anyway, sometime ago she sent me this post about how she manages to make the ick funny, and since I’m working on Noah’s Boy (Might take an extra day.  Looking after a post-operative male takes TIME — dang creatures try not to ask for help and hurt themselves.) I thought this was a good day to put it up.  Our very own TXRed sent me a post which will go up tomorrow about Human Wave History, and then I have about five posts I have to write or burst…  But for now, enjoy Kate, and I go back to Noah’s Boy.  Kyrie just got kidnapped and I have NO idea where she is.  Grrrr.  Argh.*

Laughing Through the Icky Bits — by Kate Paulk

As an author I find one of the most challenging things I have to do (aside from marketing, but that’s because I suck at it) is to describe something truly horrifying in a way that won’t send my readers running for the bathroom or have them turning a delicate shade of green and putting the book down. I want them to KEEP reading, after all.


My preferred tool, as those who have read ConVent and ConSensual will know, is to use humor. The humor offsets the horrible just enough that the full gross impact never QUITE happens, at least until the reader has finished the book and stops to think about some of the things I described. That’s the intention, at any rate.


It’s not the easiest technique (the easiest is called “cheating” and involves not describing anything at all, just having the characters react), but it tends to be worth the effort. Besides, I can’t stop myself from going dark, but I can use a lighter tone to describe the horrible so I don’t end up with second-rate horror.


My first method is to use the POV character’s voice – which is one of the reasons Jim in the con vampire books is such a delight to work with. He’s sour, cynical, and practically defines snark. When he’s in a good mood. He’s also seen just about everything, so he’s not going to freak when he’s confronted by the aftermath of a gruesome sacrificial ritual.


Then I add in the very human tendency to notice and get distracted by all sorts of odd details. In reality these are usually irrelevant – the way that severed finger looks like an undersized raw ox-tail has nothing to do with the essentials of making sure the owner of said finger isn’t bleeding, packing the finger in ice so it can be reattached if you can get it and its owner to a hospital in time, and of course getting the owner and finger to the nearest hospital (in this case that endeavour didn’t result in reattached extremities – it was only a quarter inch or so of finger that got lopped and the 5-some hour wait in extreme heat for the Flying Doctor service to get to the camp plus flight time pretty much eliminated any viability for the operation anyway). In fiction of course, they can be relevant and used to offset the horror of whatever is being discussed.


That’s more or less how the Hello, Kitty bondage sacrifice scene in ConVent plays out. I gave enough detail for an imaginative reader to picture the scene, then had the Bosting spawn arguing that it couldn’t be real because it didn’t look enough like the video games, and Ricky Bosting complaining about things that shouldn’t fit where they obviously had been fitted (further detail omitted to spare the sensitive – if you want to read it you’ll need to buy the book). Rather than dwell on the extremely gruesome nature of the sacrifice, I focused on the characters doing what normal people faced with something horrific will do – they’ll blank the worst of it and focus on some small detail that avoids the worst implications.


I did something similar in ConSensual with one of the bodies, complete with a seriously bad joke ripped (I think) from one of the Achmed the Dead Terrorist routines (“They found him there, and there, and there…”). In that one, the character who cracks the joke is deliberately using it as a way to avoid freaking out. The fact that this character is a werewolf and presumably accustomed to gore makes the impact stronger.


When I read Pratchett, I see him using similar techniques (although he does a much better job than I do – but he’s not writing this post. I am. Nyah nyah) to soften the darkest edges of his stories and let the humor carry the point. Someone who laughs, even if it’s a laughing, “Oh, yuck!” is going to be more favorable towards you than someone who doesn’t. And a point that slides in ever so gently while you’re laughing your anatomy off is one that you didn’t see coming and you might actually get, where if it’s being belabored with a sledge, you’re going to try to avoid it.


(Yes! Go me. I’ll now have people reading ConVent and ConSensual trying to figure out what I’m trying to sell you.)


Sarah’s done this as well in her DarkShip books and the mysteries she’s written as Elise Hyatt, so go buy those as well and study them. It’s for a good cause.

35 responses to “Laughing Through the Icky Bits — by Kate Paulk

  1. I wish I had been going to cons or hanging out in the diner when you did these. i would have loved to be red shirted in either

    • Well… she’s not done with them. We need to pile on make her make more.

      • Yea– Jim wants to come out and play 😉

      • There will be more. I’ve had one of the uglier years on the writing front, and I’m way behind. Plus I just finished the first draft of a new fantasy series that mugged me and insisted it get written before anything else happened.

        • We’ve all had an ugly year in the writing front. Not just my friends. It’s like most of the writers I know hit the wall at speed. It’s enough to make you believe in astrology. Noah’s Boy is now unstuck and moving — but not as fast as I wish. Might be Monday or Tuesday night before it’s done. Mainly, I think, because of the patient-in-the-house. Mommy-me keeps having to check on him. It’s who I am. OTOH it WILL be done in days. And then, after a suitable sleep, will come finishing Blood Royale, and editing for publication the books that are finished. Oh, yeah, and finishing Witchfinder — though that one is going to be a stone bitch to edit and I might have to let it sit a month first.

  2. Sarah, when you wrote “Grrrr. Argh.” at the end of your part of the post, I couldn’t help but hear the Mutant Enemy logo voice saying that. 🙂

    And now the rest of you are hearing it too. :-p

    • Conversely, a way to bring home the seriousness of a situation is when a normally snarky character suddenly becomes deadly earnest. For example, any time Sam Vimes’ internal monologue shuts off.

      • Thank you, WP, for not recognizing that things work just a little bit differently on an iPad. The above was intended to be a comment in its own right. Though, for the record, I also heard the Mutant Enemy . . .

      • Oh, yes. I hope I’m managing to bring that in in the con vampire books. It’s not easy for me to judge how well I do that.

        • It never is: write it, get somebody trustworthy to read it. That’s really the only way I have to get a feel for what I’m actually doing. I keep coming back to that. I write a scene, think it’s crap. I send it to my readers and get rave reviews. Confusing as a thing that is very confusing, but as long as I keep getting those, “why did you stop writing there? I want more!” kinds of comments, I’ll keep writing and sending.

          • Oh yeah. That’s what trusted beta readers are for – they’ll tell you if it actually is crap. Mine, when they have time to read, tend to leave me going “it’s good? Okay, I’ll keep writing it then.”

    • Yes, I heard it, drat you. 🙂

    • Wayne Blackburn

      Even after watching that, I hear it in Pirate-talk instead.

  3. David has a good point about changes in tone. I worked with paramedics for a couple of years, and I knew it was going to be an “interesting” flight when the adult hyperactive joker went still and became terse.

  4. Kate, your books are already on my To-buy list. Now I have to move them up a few notches.

    • They are worth reading naleta–

      • Yes, I actually prefer the Impaler series, but her ConVent series is quite good also. Best I can describe it is, if you like humor with an edge of dark, try the Con books first; if you like dark with an edge of humor, try the Impaler stories first. Also if you like alternate history, with just an edge of the fantastical, you should read Impaler.

        • I read the Impaler series to and she did an excellent job. I still like the Con series better… Of course I write dark so I actually enjoy reading dark humor better. (not gory dark– but dark)

          • Now you guys are making me blush 🙂

          • I got all 3 of them. Finished ConFur, and am reading ConVent right now, with ConSensual ready to start. That will have to be all the new purchases for a while, as this week is the short paycheck from my being sick over New Years. They are fun!

            • Wayne Blackburn

              Yeah, after reading this post, I checked, and found that I had enough left from the gift card my boss gave me to pick up all three.

              Funny. A few weeks ago, I complained that I didn’t have any new books to read because I couldn’t squeeze money from the budget for them, which prompted an offer to send me Beta reading (which I enjoyed, Cyn!), and then my brother brought me two whole series that he had read (21 books in all). Now I have reading material for a few months, anyway.

  5. Writing gore is very like writing sex: too much description distracts, too little doesn’t give the readers’ imaginations enough to work with. Making it the elephant in the room is a very human way of dealing with the challenge of eating a whale sandwich, allowing it to be taken one bite at a time.

    Abuse of metaphors is not an effective solution to the problem of metaphorical abuse, much less the real stuff.

    • Absolutely, RES. You don’t need the blow by blow description in either case (yes, pun intended). And I’m a writer. I abuse metaphors and they like it.

  6. Spielberg’s Large Ill-Tempered Fish Movie had quite a bit of this.

    “Just as I thought — he came up through the Gulf Stream.” [tosses out a license plate]
    “He didn’t eat a car, did he?”

    “Oh, boys — I think he’s come back for his noon feeding….”

    “Back home we got a taxidermy man. He gonna have a heart attack when he see what I brung him!”

    Ever since then, horror movies have been a combination of Splatter, and humor cornier than Oprah Winfrey’s stool sample following a 4th-of-July picnic.

    • Since I don’t write horror and don’t watch many movies (and never horror movies – I can scare myself just fine without them), I wouldn’t know about the corny jokes embedded in horror movies.

      My humor tends towards the very dry and sarcastic: my characters in the situation of the Large Ill-Tempered Fish Movie would be more likely to make comments along the lines of “She went swimming with that out there? Write it up as inadvertent suicide, too stupid to live.”

      • Sort of like my flight medic who observed as he was getting into the ambulance to go pick up the loser in a pedestrian vs. truck contest, “He shoulda’ listened to his Mamma when she told him to stop spreading himself so thin.”

        • Kinda like a report I read after a UP/Pedestrian accident south of Amarillo, TX. The train apparently had a long string of coal cars, was doing about 85 miles an hour, at three-something am. It said the pedestrian’s body was found on the embankment along the side of the rail bed.

          … on both sides.

    • Wayne Blackburn

      If he came through a Gulfstream, why were there no pieces of the fuselage or engines?

    • For some reason, corny jokes and horror have been linked for a LONG, LONG time. The type of corn we’re used to hearing from the “Cryptkeeper” from “Tales from the Crypt” show up in the opening and closing monologues of old radio shows like “Inner Sanctum” and “The Mysterious Traveler”. When you hear the menacing narrator suddenly telling a bad joke — and seguing into a commercial for tea bags along the way — it’s a bit jarring.

      It’s ALSO the tone of the Disney Haunted Mansion ride, come to think of it, but given the Paul Frees connection that’s not all that surprising…

  7. Yeah, like in the OLD Star Trek adventures where you KNEW the new ensign was going to die right after they beam down, and they break for a commercial.