By Barbara Rein
I take full blame. In the throes of uncontrollable laughter, my friend hiccupped, “My mascara must be down to my knees!” It was. All because I’d told a funny story. The problem? We were at a funeral—a solemn, unsettling place where death tickles us under the chin and reminds us our turn is coming. Eye makeup often flows here—from tears. But from jokes? Consider this: when the horrifying becomes too intense, humor offers a release.
Author R. L. Stine says of humor and horror, “It’s the very same visceral reaction. If you sneak up on somebody and you go, ‘Boo!’ First they gasp, and then they laugh. It’s totally connected. And writing it is pretty similar.” He should know. He wrote joke books before scaring kids, incorporating both in a his wildly popular Goosebumps series.
I write short story horror. Not the bloody Chucky/Freddy/chainsaw kind. The subtle psychological kind. As in, “Gee, that’s creepy. Think I’ll leave the lights on.” I call it “horror light.” And like Stine, I wrote funny first—children’s poems rife with puns and punchlines. Humor runs in my veins, occasionally bleeding its way into one of my disturbing tales.
In my punny “Swan Song at the Hotel Swank,” Franklin, an opera singing dachshund, commits murder. He first knocks out a bumbling human detective with the knob of his cane. Shaped like an anatomically correct squirrel, the cane topper insures that no matter how annoying his rodent nemesis might be, Franklin would always have him by the nuts. He then uses a toilet plunger to finish the job, sucking the air out of the detective until dead. The story opens with Franklin practicing an aria from the Barker of Seville, and we later learn Franklin’s first gig out of Bowowdoin College was as a larvae in Madam Butterfly, the avant-garde version.
Edgar Allan Poe, master of the macabre, wove puns and silly names into some of his lesser knowns stories. In “The Devil in the Belfry,” a devil brutally attacks the bell ringer in a town concerned with nothing but cabbage and clocks. The town? Vondervotteimittis (wonder what time it is).
I’m a dox-a-holic, trotting a dachshund into a story whenever I can. In “The Tail End of Things,” a woman dies in a car crash along with her doxie named Worm. (If the shoe fits… And don’t you hate it when the dog dies?) The woman ends up reincarnated as a mutt, still blonde, never again having to worry about her hair. It’s a love story. Like a legless Kermie, hobbling into a French restaurant on crutches for a date with Miss Piggy. Ewww.
Though I learned humor from a father who could twist words at the drop of a dictionary, my childhood thrived on a good scare. Hans Christian Andersen’s sinister fairy tales. Twilight Zone. The Outer Limits. Tales from the Crypt. I was addicted. But no stent for me. My circulatory system allowed for a two-way flow of funny and fright. My all-time favorite movie, the quirky Little Shop of Horrors, told of an out-of-control Venus flytrap with a penchant for human flesh. Obviously, I was not a fan club of one. The movie went on to become a Broadway musical. I sing the tunes still.
The dynamic duo of humor and horror has kept movie audiences on the edge of their whoopie cushions for years. Frankenstein begat a slew of parodies including the Mel Brooks/Gene Wilder scream, Young Frankenstein. If theaters were still open, cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show would be shown at midnight. Beetlejuice. Ghostbusters. Gremlins. An American Werewolf in London. Box office hits all. Cadres of people out there love a good dance of corpse and comedy. I’m raising my hand.
In my story “Canceled,” a husband is unaware he’s a ghost. His berating wife, who “could slice him like a loaf of French bread and accuse him of making crumbs,” tossed a Bose sound system into the tub. While he was in it. Shocking, I know.
In “Assisted Living,” a clandestine facility caters to the famous, the wealthy, and the dead. (Think Steve Jobs, John Lennon, and Elvis). The families pay gouging rates to have their loved ones brought back to life. Kept at an unrevealing distance, they never suspect the likes of Princess Di are well-engineered inflatables. On a particularly heavy visiting day, the slimy director tells his assistant, “We’re going to be so busy, you’d think we were putting on Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.”
“Go to Hell” is set in a resort called, yep, Hell. An abusive husband takes his wife on a vacation only he would enjoy. Tables turn. The wife has a marvelous time while the husband suffers daily episodes of torture. Aha—it was the meek wife who sent him the enticing brochure. She gets to go home in a limo. He gets a perpetually extended stay.
Throwing a funny bone into a frightening story doesn’t lessen the impact. It makes the nightmare easier to swallow. The balance is to keep up the creepy while the mascara runs down. Horror doesn’t always have to horrifying. It can also be fun.
Barbara Rein debuted her first book series in fourth grade, The Adventures of Cassandra McGillicuddy in Outer Space, complete with stick figures drawings. Admonished by her teacher for doing book reports on her own books (and didn’t she have chutzpah), she put writing aside for years while stories piled up in her head. One day she opened her laptop and out they poured. She’s now an award-winning and Amazon-best-selling author. She lives with her husband and dachshund, traveling with a well-packed suitcase between New York and Florida.
Barbara writes strange, fantastical, and downright weird short stories. Darkly brilliant tales that teeter on the edge of reality. Reimagined nightmares concocted from a childhood diet of macabre fairy tales and endless episodes of Twilight Zone.
She also writes chuckle-inducing personal essays inspired by the quirks and oddities that bounce her way.
For more on Barbara Rein and her “horror light” stories, go HERE.
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