There was a time when fantasy for grownups was thin on the ground. Once you’d finished Lord of the Rings, that was about it. There were a few re-tellings of folktales such as The Mabinogion, and older fiction like E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros (which was really hard going), but you really had to scratch around to find something to read. There was plenty of horror, and ghostly fiction (which of course I wrote almost exclusively for 20 years), but if you wanted elves and orcs, well, tough luck. Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn (1968) was one of the rare exceptions to the rule, not that it had elves and orcs in it, but at least it was fantasy. It also had a fair smattering of humor, which helps to make it enjoyable even today. And that was a first, I think. Though there are comic moments in LotR, one could never call it funny. I wonder if Terry Pratchett ever read The Last Unicorn? The first Discworld novel came out in 1983. With one stroke, Pterry not only reinvented a neglected genre single-handedly, he made it laugh-out-loud funny, much as Joss Whedon would later do for the horror genre. (It’s amazing to realize that Buffy (the series, not the movie) first aired in 1997.)
At the time my first ghost story (the much-anthologized An Incident in the City) was published, my model was the great M.R. James. Though humor is present in his work, it is always fleeting and usually gentle: little bubbles that evoke a smile rather than a laugh.
“Mingled suspicions that he was keeping the old man from his déjeuner, that he was regarded as likely to make away with St Bertrand’s ivory crozier, or with the dusty stuffed crocodile that hangs over the font, began to torment him.” – Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook
It was James, doyen of the English Ghost Story tradition, who introduced the idea that humor is legitimate even in the most creepy of tales, much as Shakespeare’s gravediggers in Hamlet were intended to give light relief and contrast with the tragedy (something which every writer understands, even if it isn’t for them). In being influenced by James, I tried to emulate this technique of his.
“‘I’m on me tea break,’ he announced with a blast of mephitic breath, brandishing a mug to prove it. If tea is amber-colored and made in Scotland, he spoke truth.” – What of the Night
Thus I was primed from my very first published story to admit the light side as a contrast to the dark. With James as the original template, and admiration for novelists as diverse as Raymond Chandler and P.G. Wodehouse stewing in my brain, then tossing Joss Whedon’s oeuvre into the mix, I came with Captain da Silva to inhabit a sub-genre which the Australian writer Rick Kennett has dubbed “Weird Noir”– the narrator who is utterly honest about himself but deeply cynical about the rest of the world, and survives with humor that is often dark.
“From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away.” (Chandler)
“She jerked away from me like a startled fawn might, if I had a startled fawn and it jerked away from me.” (Chandler, but doesn’t it sound like something from Buffy?)
“Nobs like to have an entourage. I think they feel undressed without people to wipe their asses, tie their bootlaces and knot their bow-ties.” – Unfinished Business, published in Poe’s Progeny (ed. Gary Fry)
“The first [thug] had a bald pate and a bushy beard which made him look as if his head was on upside-down.” – Magnetic North, published in The Vengeance Jar
To quote Jim Rockwell in All Hallows: “Not that these hints of Chandler in any way suggest slavish imitation. The elegance-amid-mire that characterizes Chandler’s prose is replaced here by the salty, choppy diction of the seaman, Marlowe’s tendency towards ethical ruminations are almost completely absent from da Silva’s personality (if we except his scruples over resorting to necromancy), and the captain shows no compunction against violence, resorting to it in an instant when he deems it necessary: Since Luís da Silva is no underdog, he is also less prone to make wisecracks, preferring to comment ironically on what he says by flanking spoken statements with asides. The man, his actions, his statements, and how he presents them to us seem natural outgrowths of each other.”