Why I turned from horror to humor during a pandemic

Mark Leslie

When this author tried out a different genre in the midst of a global pandemic, even he couldn’t have predicted what happened next.

by Mark Leslie

Some think it’s funny that my pen and my musings have long been macabre.

For some reason, whenever I wrote, I always found myself attracted to the things that lurked in the shadows, to the mysteries of the darkness, to the eerie sounds in the night that I couldn’t explain. From the earliest tales that flowed from my pen, I was always exploring the “what ifs” that typically led down dark, deserted pathways.

My elementary school teachers pondered the disturbed mind of the seemingly innocent child who turned in dark and terrifying tales of sinister secrets, supernatural monsters, and wicked humanity. My mother, who was a romance reader, continued to ask me why I couldn’t just write a “nice” story.

I think I was drawn to write about scary things because, to be honest, I was always afraid of the monster under the bed, and his cousin, the creature under the basement stairs; you see, they each had long arms and lightning-quick reflexes to reach out and grab your feet if you weren’t quick enough to race up the stairs or leap into your bed. Let’s not even talk about the bogeyman who peeked out at me from the closet door that was cracked open ever so slightly.

My elementary school teachers pondered the disturbed mind of the seemingly innocent child who turned in dark and terrifying tales of sinister secrets, supernatural monsters, and wicked humanity.

I have always had an overactive imagination. And, as such, my fiction has long explored such things. Maybe it was a type of therapy. Perhaps it was the desire to not suffer in my fears alone. Perhaps, if I wrote about those fearful things, I could then share them with my readers, who might just understand the eerie things that dwelt just out of sight in the shadows.

As Douglas E. Winter said, “Horror is not a genre, it’s an emotion. It is a progressive form of fiction, one that evolves to meet the fears and anxieties of its times.” Odd, then, that when I was actually safe (except in my frightened imagination), I relished in horror.

But then, early on in the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, I found myself blocked and unable to write. Ironically, one of the more recent short story sales I’d experienced had been a short story in a post-apocalyptic–themed anthology. It seemed easy to write when the world was normal. But in the midst of a plague sweeping around the globe, a story like that seemed more like it would be an essay or article rather than a work of fiction.

My mother, who was a romance reader, kept asking why I couldn’t just write a “nice” story.

I came to realize that I embraced horror because it allows me to control the terror, the fear, the horrors. When a reader finished the story or closed the book, they were safe, and all about them was again normal. Or, even better, within the pages of the stories I spun, I was in control. I could have the heroes triumph over the villains. Good could defeat evil.

That was good to know. So why did my writing dry up in the spring of 2020?

And where did I find the release that so burned through me all those previous decades? I had, after all, written about things I’d been afraid of before. In both fiction and non-fiction I explored the ghosts and the dark shadows, and happily took readers along with me, cackling with glee at their terrified reactions.

But it comes back to that quote from Douglas Winter about horror being an emotion, not a genre. In times of true real-world horror, I realized I needed to help inspire emotion, but wasn’t so interested in the emotion of horror. There was already enough.

What felt right to this storyteller was the emotion of humor, of laughter.

Because inspiring chills and fears is satisfying when someone is already comfortable and secure. But inspiring a distracting laugh to help someone forget the anxiety around them is just as wonderfully powerful.

It came from one of the exercises I have regularly engaged in as a writer my entire life. Sometimes, to warm up, to flex those creative muscles, I’ll begin a day’s writing session by composing parody lyrics to either a popular song or perhaps even a classic poem. I have long relished in that warm-up and have even gone on to publish several of them over the years.

But this time, I showed the lyrics of a song I wrote about the pandemic that was inspired by the Stealers Wheel song “Stuck in the Middle with You.” In my version of the story, which is sung as a duet, I have a man and woman who find themselves trapped in quarantine during a pandemic and are trying to overlook the various annoying habits of their partner. I called my version of the song “Stuck in This House Here with You.” Through the song, they learn to overlook those little pet peeves and realize that they’re lucky to be stuck with one another. Who better, after all?

Inspiring a distracting laugh to help someone forget the anxiety around them is wonderfully powerful.

I showed the lyrics to my partner, and she was so inspired by it that we not only recorded the song (which I had never done with any of my previous lyrics) but we also created an accompanying video to go with it (link below). And we did this, incidentally, to help pass the time on Easter weekend, which we would normally be spending with our amazing adult children. We created a distraction for ourselves that ended up being a wonderful distraction for others to enjoy.

It was a huge hit. And it even got picked up by a CTV affiliate in Ottawa during their “Lighter Side” segment. Folks were itching for more. Music to the creative person’s ears, of course.

Liz and I had collaborated to create something that inspired an emotion: laughter. And the storyteller in me was as fulfilled as it normally was when I know that a story I have written has moved someone.

So we did it again. We co-wrote and composed another parody, again themed on the pandemic. And then I went on to create a series of “dad joke”–inspired fake short films, as I tested and explored this other form of visual storytelling.

And somewhere, in the magic that happened when I was satisfying the part of my soul that needs to entertain as a storyteller, I rediscovered that lost flow of ink from my writerly pen, and composed a series of horror, science fiction, dark humor, and thriller stories, not to mention a new urban fantasy novel that was released in February 2021. This one, interestingly enough, continues a series that has long combined my love of supernatural things with humor.

It was a bit of a roundabout way to realize something integral about the storyteller that drives me, but also a wonderful way to come to terms with the fact that I’m as at home inspiring laughter and humor as I am inspiring thrills and chills.

Because ultimately, I’m a writer and storyteller. My role is to inspire emotion in those who consume my stories. Horror, humor, and everything in between. It’s the dance I so enjoy taking the lead on.

Mark Leslie is a writer, storyteller, and professional speaker who lives in Waterloo, Ontario with his partner, their fur family, and potentially a few hidden monsters under beds and in closets. He is the author of the novels I, Death, Evasion, and A Canadian Werewolf in New York, and author and co-author of the true ghost story books Haunted Hamilton, Spooky Sudbury, Creepy Capital, Tomes of Terror, Macabre Montreal, and Haunted Hospitals.

You can learn more about Mark at his website. His latest novel, Fear and Longing in Los Angeles, the second book in his Canadian Werewolf series, was released in February 2021.

Be sure to check out Mark’s music and “Dad Joke” videos:

Stuck In This House Here With You (Music parody of “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel)
Isolation Parody Songs K-Tel Covid-19 Quarantine Spoof
You Call Me Fever (Parody of “Fever” Little Willie John, Peggy Lee, Elvis Presley)
There Is No Mash (Parody of The Monster Mash)
Pandemic Christmas 2020: A Corona Kinda Christmas (K-Tel Parody)
Mark’s Tavern: Pilot Episode (A Cheers Parody)
Under Attack – A Stupid Dad Joke Short Film
Dramatic Exit: A Stupid Dad Joke Short Film

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