*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.