GALLOWS HUMOUR (Dying of Laughter)

The British have always been good at black humour. An older friend told me that when she was a little girl in WW2, there was a litter bin at her local shops. It had Adolf Hitler’s face painted on it and you threw the rubbish into his mouth. When the name of Osama bin Laden began to strike terror around the world, one of the British tabloids rechristened him, Osama bin Liner.

Irreverence instantly defuses anxiety.

If you read the experiences of the Beirut captives, John McCarthy and Brian Keenan, you soon discover that their very dark humour was vital to their survival, although I’m betting a lot of it was far too rude to go into the books they wrote. I met a woman once who had been in a Nazi concentration camp; she told me people found it uncomfortable to hear that humour had been a part of her life there. It seemed inappropriate to them but it was a survival strategy to her.

Ah yes, inappropriate humour. Er, I plead guilty to that, m’lud. I’m the woman who cracked jokes all through planning her mother’s funeral and at the service, conducted by a jolly old locum vicar who must have been well over eighty and very doddery, I nearly disgraced myself by thinking how lucky it was that the funeral was at the crematorium and not at a graveside. It was a cold, windy day and I knew mum, wherever she was, would have been on tenterhooks lest he fall into the grave with her. I swear I heard spectral giggles when the image slid into my mind.

Back to the books then. When I was struggling to get published an experienced writer told me to work out what it was that always turned up in my writing. ‘There’ll be something,’ she said. ‘What crops up in your writing however hard you try to suppress it?’
‘That’ll be the jokes then,’ I confessed.
‘But didn’t you say you’re writing a murder mystery?’ she exclaimed.
Er, yes.

Let me get one thing straight. Murder isn’t funny. In my books I don’t trivialise either the act of murder or the effect it has on people. What does turn up though, are the everyday little sillinesses that go on cropping up at the most inappropriate moments. A doddery old vicar who falls into the open grave isn’t actually funny, it’s horrifying, but like the proverbial banana skin, the image provokes a hastily suppressed shiver of mirth.

Humour is an outlet for other emotions because it creates a distance from the horror, almost turning it into a fantasy and this is common in a ‘cosy’ mystery. In ‘Spotlight’ by Patricia Wentworth I found this: ‘We’re talking like this because we’ve got to make it all seem like nonsense. It’s like turning it into a play – it stops it being real – and frightening.’

I tell people I write cheerful murder mysteries; there’s no other way to describe them, really. Not laugh out loud, but sneaky humour that creeps up on you and I’m happy to say that readers have commented on my ‘obviously irrepressible sense of humour’ (thank you, blogger Geranium Cat!)

So there you have it: In the midst of doom, gloom, despair and terror, ‘cheerfulness will keep breaking in.’


5 thoughts on “GALLOWS HUMOUR (Dying of Laughter)

  1. Hi Nicola
    Great post. I can hardly bear to write this, I feel so awful about it, even now, but it reminds me of a time my daughter and I sat outside the shopping centre and a blind man, sweeping his cane carefully in front of him. He failed to detect a concrete post and walked smack into it. We looked at each other and for a split second, our mouths twitched in silent, repressed mirth before we jumped up to see if we could help him. Afterwards, we both felt ashamed about wanting to laugh.

  2. Nicola, enjoyed the post re Gallows humour. How would we survive this life if we didn’t have a sense of humour I often wonder. It is essential and when reading a book (whatever genre), I warm to the writer and the story if there is something to tickle me in it. Life and death are funny. You only need to chat with your family or friends to discover an event where, in spite of the sorrow or horror, something starts you off giggling or someone cracks a joke or is a witty observer. I write humour into my books, people are funny. The worse the situation, the funnier they are at times. So do carry on writing it into your books, I am sure you make the reader smile, laugh and cry – all about being human.

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