I don’t know if I write folk-horror. I probably do, but in a way it’s more folk-weird, drawing on lore from before the witch panic days and the re-invented druids. Most of my work in this area is set in a Britain where things long forgotten see a chance to make their mark again. When faith is weak, and the half-world wakes. There are shadows on the moors, and in the alleys; the Children of Angles and Corners are hungry. Doubt, despair and your smallest fears are their meat.
I’ve posted folk-weird vignettes a couple of times (such as the summer rook), and I’ve just sold a related story, The Horse Road, to Lackington’s Magazine for publication in the autumn. These stories’ lighter counterparts, poking fun at Enid Blyton, H P Lovecraft, mad cults and village life, can be found in my Sandra’s First Pony series on the site (check the tag cloud, which may be up to date).
Today, dear listener, we share with you the very best comedy horror made for television. To achieve this, we employed a dedicated team of statisticians and social media experts, we spoke to all the people who have ever owned a TV set and we cross-referenced the results with every Internet poll since 1927. But we didn’t like the results, so we picked the five that we most enjoyed. That’s proper science for you.
Comedy and horror often go together like eggs and bayonets, or maple syrup and spiders. When people get the idea wrong, it’s really annoying. Dark comedy sometimes means ‘not actually funny’, and comedy-horror at its worst means stupid, lazy rip-offs of other people’s earlier ideas. And there’s only so much self-referential ‘I’m in a film’ and ‘we’ve all watched horror films’, break the fourth wall etc. that we can take, frankly.
Missing from this post are the older, classic series – The Addams Family, the wry bits in some TV horror series and so on. And we left out the existential horror of Mr Ed, where a man’s life is repeatedly questioned by a talking horse. There are limits to our daring.
We judged our selection against three extremely precise criteria:
Did we actually laugh, even if it was that squirmy laughter which meant it was a bit close to actually scary or insane?
Did the series draw on, expand on, or effectively parody horror tropes and themes?
Were the programmes we selected really series, or had we watched TV while drunk again and got confused when flicking channels? (Quincy ME, for example, is not a sequel to Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman, apparently.)
And the five winners are, in negative reverse order of escalating least unimportant irrelevance:
Both disturbing and funny, this is perhaps dark comedy at its finest, where the description actually delivers. We would include this series merely for the presence of Dawn French, whose performance as a midwife obsessed by a stuffed birthing doll called Freddy is one of her best. Written by Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith of League of Gentlemen fame (see below), Psychoville concerns a group of apparent strangers who receive a note which ties all of them to a dark past.
Hard to speak of this one without spoilers – there are many subtle threads – so the best thing you can do is just watch it. There were two series of Psychoville, with a great Halloween Special which links the two full seasons. The special episode can be watched on its own, and is worth it – a sort of tribute to horror portmanteau films from the seventies.
Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place (2004)
This series, on the other hand, is very funny but not exactly scary. It does however include loads of horror/SF tropes and has to have a place. Obsessively seventies in its approach, it’s a fabulous reminder of every ham actor and every creaking plot you’ve ever seen. Set in a hospital facing almost constant paranormal threat (built on a gateway to hell, naturally), Garth Marenghi himself is a self-obsessed writer of schlock horror, introducing the series completely dead-pan. It harks back to the seventies/early eighties heigh-days of The Omen and Shivers, with Slugs and other British horror novels on every book stand with lurid covers.
Created by Matthew Holmes (Marenghi) and Richard Ayoade, it was adapted from their Perrier award winning stage show Garth Marenghi’s Netherhead. Ayoade plays both Marenghi’s agent and, within the show, the hospital administrator Thornton Reed. Add to that terrific performances from Matt Berry and Alice Lowe (as an oddly psychic medic – cue dreadful seventies special effects), the series follows the adventures of those dedicated staff who must protect Darkplace Hospital at all costs. Those costs being mostly to other people.
They’re all good, though Ayoade is particularly marvellous as an actor who can’t act playing an administrator who can’t administrate. Not to be missed.
Dr Terrible’s House of Horrible (2001)
Almost a one man show by Steve Coogan who, like Matthew Holmes above, plays both the character introducing the tales (Dr Terrible) and the lead character in each episode. This is a direct and unashamed tribute to the films of Hammer, Amicus and other companies, hence the title (the film Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, came out in 1965). Guest stars included Honor Blackman, Oliver Tobias, Simon Pegg and Mark Gatiss.
For this single series, the only continuity is Dr Terrible’s peculiar introductions. Episodes skip from classic vampire shenanigans in the Balkans to a Scottish doctor using a dubious serum to regenerate damaged tissue. And Now the Fearing is a lovely piss-take of The Vault of Horror (1973), for example, whilst Frenzy of Tongs is every tale of every inscrutable, evil Oriental Fu Manchu-type ever written (with a touch of Dr Who maybe – Tom Baker’s Talons of Weng Chiang?).
A totally different show which may not be so popular a choice, but we loved it. This time the parody turns not on seventies horror themes, but on the vampires, werewolves and zombies which crowd the current market. A simple concept – the San Fernando valley is plagued with monsters, and the LAPD have to manage and contain the situation. The show is presented as a documentary, and is enhanced by the running jokes about disposable sound crew and the difficulties of the filming. The sound boom is almost a character in its own right.
Reminiscent of Reno-911, but the laughs are variously more visceral (and bloody), or more subtle in character development. Caity Lotz is great as the overlooked rookie who is probably more capable than most of them, while the police captain descends into briefings which make often little sense.
The peculiar nature of trying to enforce laws on vampires and werewolves is rather neatly done, as well. As we said, Death Valley has the occasional seriously gory moment, some of which are also rather funny at the same time. The thinking person’s MTV. Sadly again there was only one series. Made by MTV.
League of Gentlemen (1999-2002)
A strange entry, but an essential one. The League of Gentlemen contained, in its three series, some of the darkest elements of folk-horror, and created the unforgettable community of Royston Vasey, set somewhere in the Pennines, the North of England. Which confirms our belief that the North is weird. Written by Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith and Jeremy Dyson, the show also stars the first three men in various guises as all the key characters.
We shouldn’t need to bang on about this one, as it’s probably the most widely know of our five picks. It’s very funny, but is also genunely horror-filled, both in the background nuances and in the grotesqueness of some of the characters. Although Edward and Tubs at their ‘local shop’ captured imaginations, we’ll go for Papa Lazarou as our choice.
Played by Reece Shearsmith, Papa Lazarou, the terrifying circus-master, only features three times in the entire series, and yet he leaves behind him an indelible impression. Although he appears as a blacked up clown/ringmaster, that is his real face. He has undisclosed psychic powers, may be unnaturally old, and has been collecting ‘wives’ for decades. His line “You’re my wife now, Dave’” is one of the finest in the show for its undertones of inescapable doom.
The first series is brilliant, the second very good, and the third loses steam a bit. Especially good is the Christmas special, which highlights some of the most bizarre aspects of The League of Gentlemen through the bitter and twisted character of the local vicar Reverend Bernice, who hates Christmas (her mother was carried off by Papa Lazarou disguised as Santa Claus when she was a child).
It’s another portmanteau job, with three tales within a tale. This time you get voodoo, vampirism and a rather neat spoof of Hammer again. Local vet Mr Chinnery confesses that in Victorian times his great-great-grandfather, the finest vet in England, came to Royston Vasey but was tricked into touching a malevolent monkey testicle, as a result of which all succeeding vets in the family have been cursed. Reminiscent of Michael Palin’s Ripping Yarns story The Curse of the Claw, that one.
And that’s it. A choice with which everyone can argue. We shall see you soon…
Exciting End Note: As always, please consider subscribing. The more subscribers we have, the more we can entice cool people here, and it costs you nothing!
Hello again, dear listener. You may have noticed that we accidentally ended up with a week of books – Rich Hawkins and his scary Plague Trilogy; Scott R Jones and his resonating Cthulhusattva: Tales of the Black Gnosis, and lastly Crystal Lake’s Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories. So we’re ending the week with a shout-out for a friend, author Ash Krafton and her YA/New Adult work (see later below), with some memento mori. Not quite the same sort of tales as the aforementioned, but a change is as good as a poke in the eye with a rolling stone, they say.
In other news, noted (-ish) author John Linwood Grant continues to write stuff and struggle with three dogs at the same time. The Ancient One, Twiglet, has developed yet more lumps (as usual) and a strange bald patch on her back, meaning additional vet home visits and the need to write much faster to pay for them. Chilli sleeps a lot due to the minor increase in temperature – she don’t like heat – and Django spends his time chasing flies…
Fiction under way includes a genuine Sherlock Holmes story, without a psychic in sight, more Tales of the Last Edwardian and possibly a bit of unrelated horror. Two new Carnacki the Ghost Finder stories by old greydog himself will be coming out in July, as mentioned last week, one of them almost setting the scene for the coming of the Last Edwardian. Here’s the current cover concept, from Ulthar Press – final details and release date will be finalised soon.
Today on greydogtales, we do indeed discover how to illustrate Clive Barker, Ramsey Campbell and a host of other great writers. We kid you not. It’s another exclusive in our Weird Art theme, with ace artist and designer Luke Spooner of Carrion House, and Crystal Lake Publishing.
We’re a hard-nosed, demanding pack, so when we heard about the new anthology Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories from Crystal Lake, we asked not what we could do for them, but what they could do for us. Instead of delivering a kick up the backside, those nice folk responded most generously with a whole folder of artwork for the book, some of which hadn’t yet been revealed. Which was very cool of them.
And in our usual over-excited way, we went a step further. We bothered the guy behind all the interior illustrations, Luke Spooner, and he went out of his way at short notice to talk to us about his work on the anthology. Sometimes you could almost like people, couldn’t you?
The book comes out this week, and here’s the line-up:
Stephanie M. Wytovich — “The Morning After Was Filled with Bone”
Brian Kirk — “Picking Splinters from a Sex Slave”
Lisa Mannetti — “Arbeit Macht Frei”
Neil Gaiman — “The Problem of Susan”
Christopher Coake — “Dominion”
Mercedes M. Yardley — “Water Thy Bones”
Paul Tremblay — “A Haunted House is a Wheel Upon Which Some Are Broken”
Damien Angelica Walters — “On the Other Side of the Door, Everything Changes”
Richard Thomas — “Repent”
Clive Barker — “Coming to Grief”
John F.D. Taff — “Cards for His Spokes, Coins for His Fare”
Amanda Gowin — “Cellar’s Dog”
Kevin Lucia — “When We All Meet at the Ofrenda”
Maria Alexander — “Hey, Little Sister”
JoshMalerman — “The One You Live With”
Ramsey Campbell — “The Place of Revelation”
The cover art by Caitlin Hackett is striking in itself, but the stories inside also have black and white art tailored to the content. Neat.
So in this feature we show off a dozen of those pieces to excite and intrigue you, accompanied by our interview with Luke. Because we’d like to give Luke and Carrion House the more detailed greydogtales treatment at some point, we’re just here for Gutted today.
greydog: Luke, hi. How did you come to be involved in the Gutted project. On your radar, or a chance encounter?
luke: I have a great working relationship with the author and editor Richard Thomas and it was through him that I got to work with Crystal Lake Publishing, on a collection of stories by Richard called Tribulations. Joe Mynhardt, the man behind Crystal Lake, must have approved of the illustrations I put together for that collection because a month or so later he asked whether I would be available for another; an anthology consisting of many interesting authors and narrative styles which turned out to be Gutted.
He later told me that the likes of Gaiman and Barker were involved which intrigued, and impressed me in equal measure as publishers often use those sorts of big names as lures when trying to recruit people to work on their projects. I also found out that one of the editors on the project was Doug Murano, another past collaborator of mine, so I instantly felt at home as well as confident in the project as a whole.
greydog:It’s a great line-up of writers, with some very established names. Is a job a job, or do you feel more pressured when illustrating people like Neil Gaiman, Ramsey Campbell and Clive Barker?
luke: It will come as no surprise to learn that there is pressure when illustrating for the likes of the names listed above but the weight of that pressure is not due to the renown they carry with them. The most difficult part is trying to ignore all of the other connotations of style and preconceived notions that are triggered in your mind as an artist when you hear those particular names.
The struggle to ignore every visual associated with them is tough but necessary; as an illustrator it is my role to be a translator of the words in each story, I have to help them find a visual form and the reason I am approached is for the style that my work has attached to it. Therefore – if I start illustrating a Gaiman story and constantly try to replicate the style of another illustrator whom I know has worked alongside his work before me to great effect then I am in effect making my involvement redundant, reducing my chance of yielding an impressive, original interpretation.
greydog: This isn’t just a couple of pictures to break up the text, is it? You’ve produced a whole series of really striking images to match the stories. Challenging, or did the images flow easily?
luke: I read all of the stories sequentially, made extensive notes as I went, then sat down to work on the illustrations, also in sequence, allowing each to inform the next as I feel it helps to gives a sense of a series in the end result as opposed to a random assortment of images that are tentatively linked to one another through the fact they all happen to be in black and white.
The stories are all by separate authors and are therefore already disconnected to some degree, however they are in this particular collection for a reason – whether it happens to be tone, theme, character etc. By making a conscious effort to bind them to each other through their respective illustrations in style I am (hopefully) helping to enforce that feeling of a collection and reduce the distance between them.
greydog: Unfair question – any stories which stood out for you, which really hit the spot when it comes to your own tastes in weird and horror?
luke:‘Coming To Grief’ by Clive Barker was a surprising story as it was not what I expected given his back catalogue of work. I am perhaps not as well versed as some in his history and style but I am aware of how he is viewed, respected and received by a lot of people. Due to this I was ready for something quite different to the story contained in Gutted and it served to better my understanding of him as an author which I think is the mark of any good story.
greydog: We’re showing virtually all the Gutted illustrations as part of this feature. Do you have a favourite of your own?
luke:The Place Of Revelation was the only illustration, out of the entire series, that manifested instantaneously once the pencil hit the paper. The story lent itself very well to being visualised, both in language and in content/theme so my job as illustrator was pretty much just to sit back and let it happen. It is also that only illustration that I feel could have acted as a cover illustration to the collection as well as the illustration for its’ respective story had the cover not already been decided; it shows small, fragile humanity staring at something far greater and more incomprehensible than itself or anything it has ever experienced before and that thing is staring right back. It shows a closeness to the dark that I think is present in all of the stories contained within this anthology.
greydog:And finally, would you be up for a full feature on greydogtales, showing the full range of your work, when we get our act together at this end?
luke: Of course. I shall soon be uploading all sorts of new work to my main portfolio and supporting sites so there’ll be lots to talk about.
greydog: Thanks very much for joining us, Luke, and we look forward to seeing more of your great work later in the year.
You can find out more about Carrion House’s art and design work here: