Horror Stories by Comedians
Edited by Robin Ince and Johnny Mains
224 pages, Salt Publishing
Review by Pat Black
Laughter and death. Often seen out as a pair, but not the most comfortable of couples. Despite any number of sick jokes you might see on TV or share with your friends on email, the two concepts don’t quite fit together. When you fall into rapport with one, the other tends to tug your sleeve.
Even Billy Connolly’s famous Parkinson couch joke about the uxoricidal husband needing somewhere to park his bike becomes sinister when you stop to consider domestic violence. And yet, the whole country laughed.
Robin Ince and Johnny Mains have a job on their hands, then, putting together Dead Funny, a horror story anthology where mirth lingers like a somewhat unwelcome, but nonetheless compelling dinner guest. So it’s a massive help that they’ve drawn on a talent pool of some of the UK’s best-known comedians to write the stories, with contributions from Al Murray, Charlie Higson, Stewart Lee, Richard Herring, Ince himself and many others.
Horror anthologies of any vintage are to me as anti-freeze is to your neighbour’s cat, and I would have been a lock for this book in any regard. However, I was doubly fascinated by the concept and some of the people involved, and eager to see what fiction they would produce.
First up is “Dog”, by Reece Shearsmith. Shearsmith is co-creator, writer and star of The League of Gentlemen and Psychoville, both of which helped re-define the concept of black humour in the past couple of decades. Both those shows had an undercurrent of pure nastiness and sinister intent among the laughter, and that’s evident in this story. It’s a tale of revenge as a boy seeks to kill the dog which he believes infected his young brother with toxocariasis, a bug which lingers in dog faeces and can result in blindness, as it does here. The two siblings decide to kill the dog that laid the not-so-golden egg... Except, there are a few cases of mistaken identity along the way.
So, children killing dogs; you could say that’s a strong start. You’ll need a robust palate for these flavours, and anyone with a beloved four-legged friend may want to give “Dog” a miss. It calls to mind Irvine Welsh’s recollections of the reaction to Marabou Stork Nightmares, which features a scene where a dog is killed with fireworks. Welsh claims this part gathered more hate mail and opprobrium from critics than the passage later on in the book where a woman is repeatedly raped by a gang of football hooligans. What that says about us as a society, I don’t quite know.
Sara Pascoe’s “A Spider Remember” continues a fine tradition of arachnophobic horror stories. The stand-up comedienne’s tale looks at a boyfriend infected by a strange nervous condition in which he starts to hallucinate tiny spiders running across his field of vision. Imagine if it wasn’t a hallucination, though?
Mitch Benn, a writer of comic songs (and also the author of a science fiction novel, Terra), takes us down a sadistic path with “The Patient”. This story sees a doctor taking care of a special charge in his basement – the drunk-driver who killed his wife and daughter. The doctor undertakes a long-term study into how much pain he can cause his “patient” without killing him. It’s very, very good. Even a few pages in, I thought to myself: “This one would have taken its place in the Pan Book of Horror Stories, easily.”
“Pub landlord” Al Murray, possibly the best-known name in the book, weighs in with “For Everyone’s Good”. For an artist who made his name playing a brash, boorish comic persona, Murray’s story is a composed, curiously sensitive piece. Its most obvious influence being “The Yellow Wallpaper”, this tale sees a young woman institutionalised by her family for being “feeble minded”, and details the abuses dished out, all prescribed by experts of the time, to “hysterical” women in lunatic asylums not so very long ago.
Curious thing: the two stories which most resembled a transcript of actual stand-up comedy material came from Stewart Lee and Richard Herring. Once a double-act, they were a sort of Burke and Hare of early-90s alternative comedy, and even made the breakthrough onto the BBC with their own show and having a hand in The Day Today before retreating back into the fringes. Although both still feature regularly on television and their tours sell out, they’ve never quite broken through into becoming household names on a par with people like Russell Howard, Lee Mack or Michael McIntyre. More’s the pity.
Stewart Lee’s “A View From A Hill” is entirely typical of his material – a kernel of sensitivity towards the tragedies of modern life, stabbed to death and crudely slabbed over with irony. Supposedly told by the author himself, this is a story of a down-and-out he once knew and the pitiful circumstances he gets into. In the background, casting an ethereal atmosphere over the sometimes grubby proceedings, there’s the prehistoric chalk outline of a horse on a hill. Although it’s a study in mockery - of author, reader, subject matter and medium - this story was nonetheless studded with pathos and startling images.
In a similar vein, Richard Herring’s “Woolboy” plays with its theme, seeing a narrator encountering an abandoned shack in the woods, with the strange knitted creature in the title peering out from the window. Herring’s jokes are brilliant – I laughed aloud on a train during his deconstruction of the sign warning trespassers of the “viscous dog” (sic) – but, like Lee’s story, it doesn’t quite follow any kind of conventional narrative, and would have been more at home as a vignette told from the stage.
How odd that Lee and Herring should plough such similar furrows, 20 years-plus after I missed their appearance at Strathclyde University union. Perhaps they could collaborate in future; after all, there’s a lot of horror to be mined from the dangers of wishing for the moon on a stick.
The co-editor, Robin Ince, appears next with “Most Out of Character”. Like The Day of the Triffids and 28 Days Later, this takes on a favourite mantle of uncanny stories, where a character suddenly awakens after a period of unconsciousness or coma to find that the world has changed around him. Except that instead of being befuddled, the narrator finds himself tearing apart a corpse and eating it. What scientific horror could have caused this state?
You may or may not be surprised to find that Garth Marenghi himself has written the book’s most disturbing story. Matthew Holness played the pompous horror writer in Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, a much-loved cult comedy show which helped launch several careers and probably provoked the same feelings in authors like Shaun Hutson or Guy N Smith as Spinal Tap did in members of Black Sabbath or Iron Maiden.
“Possum” is an absolute horror, taking in mental illness, childhood abuse and, fittingly, an evil ventriloquist’s doll. It was quite jaw-droppingly nasty, and the only laughs to be found are of the blackest kind. Like “The Patient”, Herbert van Thal would have stamped “approved” on this one any day of the week. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to eat used fly paper again.
The star of Mongrels and her own Big Ass Show, Katy Brand appears next with “For Roger”, a chilling portrait of a family man in the grip of grim predestination. The man in the title finds a diary in his loft one day. It’s apparently written in his own hand, and seems to presage the date his wife will die, and whose abrupt conclusion points towards the day of his own passing. What would we do with such knowledge? Can these events be avoided? Or could another Roger, in another dimension, benefit from a kind of forewarning?
It’s hard to say why this story chilled me so much. There was a weird coincidence of sorts, as at roughly the same time as I’d been reading this, I was trawling the BBC’s Radio Times Genome project. It features the listings in every single edition of the Radio Times, scanned into an easily accessible database, giving the TV and radio schedules for every single day back to the genesis of broadcasting in Britain. Drawn by the same compulsion which makes me read nasty fiction, I had a look at the listings on a day in which tragedy blighted my own family, many years ago.
Hours before it happened, I have a recollection of watching a documentary on BBC2 about Scuba divers exploring dank underwater caves in the UK. Then, as now, my young mind fizzed with the possibilities such a scenario could offer to fiction. Why, there might be monsters lurking in such caves, I thought to myself. I might write a story about that… Later on in the day, such fantasies of monsters and mysterious beings were exposed for the playthings they really are in the face of true horror, genuine tragedy; but I always remembered watching that show, being fascinated with it, and wondering whether I’d ever find out what it was called.
Thanks to the Genome project, I discovered what the show was called – it was Hidden Depths, filmed by Sid Perou – and in checking out all the other shows which I recalled watching during the numb days that followed, I had a small flavour of what Roger felt when he came upon the diary in his loft.
Danielle Ward’s “In Loving Memory of Nerys Bag” shares the same themes. Ward creates an unsympathetic character, a bit of a waster struggling with hangovers and trying to give a monkey’s about her miserable job and dead-end lifestyle. There’s a catch, though – Nerys knows the day she is going to die, predicted by a Ouija board when she was a teenager. The date soon draws closer, with no great fanfare or drama – similar to the final days of most of us, our last experiences will most likely be mundane. Nerys keeps telling herself that the Ouija board thing was a prank carried out by one of her friends, and that everything will be fine… We know fine well, of course, that it won’t.
If one or two stories in this book seem like a stand-up comedy anecdote, then Tim Key’s “Halloween” is the equivalent of a one-liner. The award-winning comic puts together just four paragraphs, although they are horrifying enough. As for the comedy, extra points must be awarded for creative use of a footnote.
Rufus Hound’s “Fixed” was the most cerebral tale in the book. A veteran of panel shows and a familiar face on television, Hound takes the idea of premature burial to some strange places. “Fever dream” is the phrase I’m trying hard not to use, here, but it’s the most apt.
Comedian and performance poet Phill Jupitus, the man who’s stuck out Never Mind The Buzzcocks above and beyond the call of duty for almost 20 years, is another familiar face to British TV viewers. With “Anthemoessa”, he examines some very modern horrors, inflicted on society by a relatively small group of people within one square mile of the City of London. It sees rookie trader Steve Webb, a young man determined to make his way in the world of high finance, scoring early triumphs and upsetting the established order in his firm. The scene is set for an entirely different story, a bildungsroman which might see Steve winning renown, fame and fortune… but the seas of high finance are haunted by many Sirens.
Stand-up comic Michael Legge’s “The Dream of Nightmares” again played with themes of predestination we’ve already seen in the book. This one followed a woman whose husband suffers brain damage, and as he recovers he mutters things in his delirium. Gwen realises that these apparent nonsense phrases are in fact the solutions to various crimes she’s seen featured on the evening news. Gwen begins to act on these somnambulistic tip-offs and soon earns a reputation as an ace amateur crime-fighter, solving mysteries, finding kidnapping victims and unearthing criminal conspiracies often before the police even know they’ve happened. It’s a merry old jaunt, until Gwen’s husband mutters something about a crime about to take place much closer to home.
Neil Edmond’s “All Warm Inside” was of a feather with Robin Ince’s story, and again features a man shaking off unconsciousness to find himself in strange circumstances, with no memory of who he is or what he’s been doing. Nasty things, as it turns out.
The grand finale, then, is Charlie Higson’s “Filthy Night”. Although he has published widely, Higson reached wider acclaim as a novelist over the past decade with his Young Bond novels. Of course, to many of us, he will forever be associated with The Fast Show, which has a reasonable claim to being the funniest television programme ever made. His characters, Ted and Ralph, Bob Fleming, Colin Hunt, Swiss Toni and Johnny Nice Painter (“Black… black, all of it black!”) can trigger off a flood of memes and comic riffing among people within a certain age bracket down the pub.
In fact, if you’ll indulge me, here’s something of a horror story. A stand-up comedy friend of mine was once compering a bill featuring some up-and-coming talents, all in their teens or early twenties. They fell into conversation about their comedy influences, and my friend told them: “Well, I always loved The Fast Show.”
He was met with blank stares. One of his young charges said: “Mate… what’s The Fast Show?”
Higson’s story, “Filthy Night”, isn’t the scariest in the book, but it’s the most accomplished. It sees an elderly former star of British horror movies invited into the house of a younger fan. He is clearly based on the old classically-trained troupers who would turn in creditably gamey performances in the Hammer Horror movies of the sixties and seventies; there’s also a dash of thespian roguishness in the mix, a la Oliver Reed or Peter O’Toole. Hastings is a fruity delight, sending himself and his profession up with some wonderful lines (“Carla was a vision, with knockers like she’d been torpedoed in the back”). And yet there’s something rather needy about the old boy, just as there’s something a little off-kilter about the horror memorabilia collector. All will be revealed when Hastings is led down into the cellar…
This is a fine collection and a worthy addition to the growing trend of horror anthologies, bridging the gap between the classic collections from Pan and Fontana and the present day. No great shock, this, but there’s plenty of laughs amid the bloodshed. I should like to see a sequel. Mark Gatiss, surely, would contribute at a moment’s notice. And can you imagine a horror story penned by Frankie Boyle?
Dead Funny does what it says on the coffin lid. And if, in life, you should snigger somewhere you’re not supposed to, don’t feel too bad about it. Taboo is such a lovely word.
Read the interview with Dead Funny editor Johnny Mains here.