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Sunday, 6 October 2013

When comedy is the blackest of black

James L Hatch

I recall the chants during limbo dance games, “How low can you go?” In a sense, that’s what it’s like to write gruesome comedy. Yes, black comedy—very black. You get to create your own world of dysfunction where anything goes. I’ve had a great deal of fun doing that in my paranormal comedy series that includes The Substitute; Oh, Heavens, Miss Havana!; The Training Bra and The Trophy Wife. On the other hand, I might have lost a few readers along the way.

Let me explain. I write humor. Not just any humor, but the distorted humor you might hear in a men’s locker room. Flatulence, anorexia, serial killers, fat people, skinny people, dead people, liberals, dismemberment, sewer drowning … even rape—all topics are targets of humor in the right context. I write about hell. It’s not a nice place and the characters that exist there aren’t nice either. Societal norms don’t apply. All I can say is that I try to keep foul language to a minimum and never depict anything sexually explicit.

Still, some readers have difficulty separating what happens in my novels from real life … especially when it comes to rape. To them, I am just a stinking old white man with zero sensitivity. One elderly beta reader even went so far as to call the works “deviant” because some of the events are far outside of the value system of normal society. Well, duh—hell is, well … hell. Those spoil sports are the exceptions; many others like the books. Before I go on, I need to provide an example from The Trophy Wife, just to show a shade of humor in an attempted rape situation. In this ménage à trois, Miss Havana has been kidnapped and chloroformed.

Waldo and Lily removed their clothes and positioned themselves on either side of Miss Havana. Lily unbuttoned the top button of Miss Havana’s blouse. “This little piggy went to market.”

Fred Jr. raised his eyebrows and unbuttoned the next one. “And this little piggy stayed home.” He cupped Miss Havana’s breast through her clothing. “It’s a shame we have to waste her when we finish. She’s a beauty.”

“Don’t get caught up in the fantasy, Fred. We screw her; we kill her. That’s the end of it. She knows who I am.”
He unbuttoned the third. “This little piggy had roast beef.”

Lily shook her head and snorted as she exhaled. “Fuck this.” She ripped the blouse open causing the remainder of the buttons to scatter about the blanket.

Waldo’s host immediately caressed Miss Havana’s exposed bra. “We need to roll her over to undo this thing.”

That’s when they noticed Miss Havana’s ragged, irregular breathing and, as they stopped to pay closer attention, her breathing stopped. Lily sat straight up. “That’s it? She dies before we’re finished with her? That’s just not fair.”

Waldo’s mouth dropped open. “Oh, come on. You’ve got to be shitting me. Is she faking?”

Lily held her hand over Miss Havana’s mouth and pinched her nose. “If she is, we’ll know in a minute.”

But Miss Havana did not move. Lily continued to hold Miss Havana’s nose and mouth. She shook her head and frowned. “The only difference between this bitch and your job is that your job still sucks. She’s as dead as conservative thinking.”

Fred, Jr. slapped his forehead. “Shit. You bitches will do anything to spoil my fun.”

Lily grinned as she looked down at her victim; a little chill crept up her arm as she ran her hand over Miss Havana’s bra. She waggled her eyebrows at Fred, Jr. “It’s not rape if they’re deader than iced catfish. On the other hand, if you slide over here, I can make it up to you. I feel horny as hell.”

Fred, Jr. sighed. “Me too. I suppose you’ll do; necrophilia is dead boring.”

Of course, the humor here fits into the context of the novels. The spirits of Miss Havana and Lucifer have been dueling for three novels by the time I wrote The Trophy Wife. They hate each other and do despicable things to one another. The spirit of Lilith, the daughter of Lucifer and Miss Havana, resides in Lily, and the spirit of a giant shadow creature named Waldo (Lucifer’s BFF) haunts Fred, Jr. Miss Havana and her daughter are natural enemies, and they are working out which one is predator … and which one is prey.

Does Miss Havana die? Of course not. She’s my heroine. Her spirit dips in and out of heaven and hell on a regular basis, and her “surface” hosts die along the way—sometimes in comical ways, sometimes not. As I see it, horror comes in many flavors, from death and rape to carrying the child of God (who, by the way, is subsequently murdered with a nail gun). People in my novels face death in creative ways and are tormented in hell with a touch of ironic depravity. The only constant is that everything happens against a background of comedy. The banter is loaded with barbs, the characters are course and the reader will often be confused about who to root for—the good guys or the bad ones. In fact, Miss Havana can be so evil many reviewers have found themselves in the uncomfortable position of rooting for the devil.

In all of my paranormal comedies, there is also a “biblical theme,” another view of something many readers might believe they’ve seen before. In The Substitute, the attributes of the antichrist are accurate, but presented in unusual ways. For example, the antichrist is supposed to recover from a serious wound so, in my novel, the devil materializes on the “the surface” in the body of a man facing a firing squad, and is sent right back to hell before he can assert any of his powers. Disguising the real story is part of the fun.

Likewise, Oh, Heavens, Miss Havana! is about the Angel of Death, and The Training Bra is about the four horsemen of the apocalypse (they aren’t named in the bible, so they are Macho, Stupid, Scourge and Sin in my book). I went even further with The Trophy Wife, which follows in the mold of Orwell’s Animal Farm. The novel tells a complete biblical story beneath the humor, but the reader has to think fast to catch it.

So, why do I write paranormal comedy? There are several reasons. First, it makes me laugh. There is nothing as uplifting as sitting at your keyboard snickering for hours. At the end of the day, I just feel good. Second, it’s challenging to try to hide a secondary story in the main story, especially one which is the exact opposite of the words in the text. Third, the characters never get boring. If one host sucks, just kill him/her in some despicable way, and let heaven or hell sort out the pieces before the spirit returns to haunt another host.

So, in summary, horror doesn’t have to be horrible. It can be funny and deceptive as well. Thank you for stopping by ... and have a great Halloween.


  1. Clearly I'm another spoilsport as I don't find rape or intended rape a humorous subject nor one that is entertaining in any way. Your excerpt has done nothing to change that opinion.

  2. It's a difficult one, and when I received this to host I was kinda 'eeek!' but it's horror month so I let it in.

    Out of context, the excerpt is shocking but it's part of a collection of books set in hell. And hell, I guess, will be shocking.

    I found the excerpt interesting because rape *shouldn't* be made into a joke, yet in one of my books (A Proper Charlie) my heroine is attacked and as it's chick lit I had to make that funny, and so I was intrigued into how James Hatch made his books humorous.

    But this article has made me question whether some topics *shouldn’t* be turned into comedies. I feel a new month theme coming on! It'd be interesting to hear what others think.

    Thanks for posting, Patsy. :)

  3. For what it's worth, actual rape (vs. attempted rape as in the example in the post), only occurs in hell in the series -- never on "the surface." The characters are evil spirits, not flesh and blood people. It also involves the most despicable character, so one might expect bad things to happen to bad people. The concept that what happens in a factious hell actually translates to something on the surface seemed an odd transference, so I never considered it obscene. It's just part of the "quest for power" that plays out eternally below. In the past, I also wrote a blog about whether rape should be included in my books and requested input from readers. For the most part, the women who responded agreed, in the context of hell, rape could be included. Only one woman disagreed. I wrote that particular blog while "The Substitute" was being finalized because a beta reader brought the topic up. Obviously, I left the rape scene in the book, in part because I believed rape wasn't as bad as dismemberment, disembowelment and other forms of torture that occur in hell and, all too often, in real life. In other words, when the books address horrid social issues, as they do in "Oh, Heavens, Miss Havana!", I did not pick and choose the horrors she addressed. I tried to select the most brutal societal problems, and let Miss Havana rain retribution down on the perpetrators (in her role as the Angel of Death). It is interesting to note there is now a TV series about one of the sins of mankind Miss Havana took on. It's called "The Bridge." I suspect Miss Havana's way of dealing with the people behind the thousands of missing Juarez women is far more satisfying than on TV. So, in the context of the books, rape is never presented as "acceptable." It is, however, part of a gamut of horrors that await those who work hard to arrive "below." It is also part of the eternal struggle for power in the underworld and, when put in context, can be both comical and a less severe punishment than, say, beheading. Just a thought.