Column: Writing the Mythos: Funny Mythos: Comedy & Tentacles

By G.W. Thomas

A new comic book called Arcane Secrets by Angel A. Svoboda (Amigo Comics) got me thinking that there aren’t many Lovecraftian comedies out there. In fact, did HPL ever write any comedy? The only example I can think of was the parody tale, “The Battle That Ended the Century,” a long in-joke for his friends he wrote with R.H. Barlow in 1934. And that’s about it. And this is why Arcane Secrets is so unusual. Does cosmic terror lend itself to comedy?

Funny horror got its start on the radio with I Love a Mystery (1938-1944) (which would inspire Scooby Doo 25 years later). In the movies, there was The Ghostbreakers (1940) with Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard, the Abbott & Costello horror series (beginning 1948), and later, Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin remaking The Ghostbreakers in Scared Stiff (1953). Charles Addams brought a ghoulish smile with his cartoons in The New Yorker (1956), of all places. These became the television show, The Addams Family (1964-1966), and its clone The Munsters (also 1964-1966). And Scooby and the gang showed up in 1969. But none of these are Mythos. What was the first?

That might be The Real Ghostbusters episode “The Collect Call of Cathulhu” (October 27, 1987). Michael Reeves wrote the cartoon much like “The Battle of the Century,” with plenty of in-jokes for fans. HPL, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, Ted Kline, August Derleth, and Karl Edward Wagner all get references, along with a pile of arcane books and monsters. “Anything that looks like Godzilla wearing an octopus hat shouldn’t be hard to find” is the level of humor, but it’s a fun episode all the same.

Cast a Deadly Spell (1991) starring Fred Ward and David Warner, and Cast a Deadly Spell 2: Witch Hunt (1994) starring Dennis Hopper and Julian Sands, were the second ones to try Lovecraftian humor. Taking off from the fact that Philip is the P in HPL, the writers made that Howard Philip (Marlowe) Lovecraft, and set the story in a noir 1950s. With so much to work with, parodying both hard-boiled detectives and the Mythos, the results were pleasurable to fans but perhaps a little obscure for outsiders.

And then … not much.

So, let’s take a serious look at funny Mythos. First off, all of the examples above are basically parodies. Parodies of Lovecraft are not new. They’ve been appearing in fanzines since HPL’s time. They range from scathing to tongue-in-cheek. Parody only works if the reader is familiar with what is being parodied. This is why we read Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1703) with annotations. So we can get the jokes. The unfortunate downside is that only fans of what you are parodying will enjoy this work. The good news – most Mythos fans are pretty knowledgeable about Lovecraft, etc., so you have a small-but-ready audience. Try it once. You may like it, but I doubt you’ll write more than one or two. The material you can satirize is limited and ultimately, you’ll run out or grow tired of it. In Fantasy circles, there is only one Bored of the Rings (1969). Why would we need two?

Other forms of comedy are harder. Could we write a comedic Lovecraftian tale that is not a parody? Imagine a sitcom about an old Arkham family of sorcerers. A goofy show about a Mi-Go and a Snake man who go into business together. The dating ups and downs about a girl from Innsmouth. (I’m slipping into parody, myself, here.) Comedy is a character-based venture. We find characters funny. Situations can be funny, but it is how the character reacts to them that is really the draw. Lucy in the assembly line bit comes to mind.

Lovecraftian horror is not a character-based form of writing. Name one memorable character by HPL? Wilber Whately. Herbert West. Randolph Carter. All are tragic characters in different ways. Not a laugh in the lot. (Unless you think of the campy Reanimator movies with Jeffrey Coombs.) So, how do you do it without falling into parody? I think the only writer who could answer that is Ray Bradbury. His book From the Dust Returned (2000) returns to the world of his Dark Carnival (1947) stories from Weird Tales. Not a humorous novel, per se, but it does present a boy living in a world of monster relatives in a light and non-horrific way. This is another definition of comedy – being the opposite of tragedy. Bradbury’s book does not attempt to frighten but enlighten. It’s not Mythos, but lies very close to it. Bradbury could have slipped off into The Munsters-style parody, but does not. (The book was, very appropriately, illustrated by Charles Addams, though.)

So, there’s your challenge. Tell a funny, heart-warming tale of the Mythos. Make people laugh, but not at the expense of the material. Perhaps it will be an homage to everything you love about genre fiction, like Roger Zelazny’s satirical A Night in the Lonesome October (1993). Maybe you’ll write a weird combination of elements like Gene Wolfe’s An Evil Guest (2008). Perhaps you’ll be the one who breaks through and shows us all how to be funny and Mythos. Good luck.