Dead Funny, edited by comedian Robin Ince and macabre master Johnny Mains, is a collection of 16 works of short horror (bizarre, brief and absurd like the tales in Night Shift by Stephen King or Smoke and Mirrors: Short Fictions and Illusions by Neil Gaiman), with some wonderfully dark surprises in its pages. Stewart Lee, Richard Herring, Phill Jupitus, Reece Shearsmith (The League of Gentlemen) and Matthew Holness (Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place) are all present, plus a few names you wouldn’t expect, namely Katy Brand and Al Murray. The way in which each contributor tackles the genre is vastly varied. It’s those who approach it through the scope of contemporary social commentary that arguably produce the best results.
No one does this better here than Stewart Lee, who opens up “A View from a Hill” with a fictionalised account of himself being arrested for ‘arson, assault and grievous bodily harm’ on Christmas Eve. It is instantly reminiscent of political satirist Hunter Thompson, who frequently framed an article with a fictionalised and consciously sensational account of himself in order to heighten the institutions he was attacking or satirising (excellent examples of this literary technique include “The Kentucky Derby is Decedent and Depraved”, “Memo From the Sports Desk & Rude Notes from a Decompression Chamber in Miami” and of course both parts to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream). Lee even states early in “A View from a Hill”: ‘I have a simple and repetitive comic formula, which I dispatch in the voice of a semi-fictional version of myself.’ Lee dares the reader to draw the line between satire and genuine opinion, and then goes on to wage a violent vendetta against a wide selection of contemporary capitalist and consumer symbols, including everything from Paddy Power to London’s corporately-controlled mainstream press. These witty and hilarious snipes, jibes and pokes, which are loud and deliberately unsubtle, seem to also draw influence from the works of Bret Easton Ellis (Less Than Zero) and Martin Amis (Money) in a rejection of what can be summed up in this short story as ‘grubby commerce’. The fact that Lee’s Christmastime rampage is triggered by the pressures of promoting his stand-up DVD, being forced to write in a ‘punchy lad-mag style’ for a ShortList article in order to appeal to a wider, younger audience, proves that this story is an outright rejection of media-controlled promotion and advertising (which is something Richard Ayoade made an excellent example of in a recent interview with Krishnan Guru-Murthy while promoting his own book on live television). The ending even echoes tones and themes from the likes of Edgar Alan Poe’s “William Wilson” and Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. In short, this is work of skilfully-crafted dark satire that thrives on the tension between its literary influences and its jeeringly unrepentant social commentary.
Richard Herring’s offering, “Woolboy”, is like a Grimm brothers’ fairy tale set in South England (‘In Hertfordshire, just like in space, no one can hear you scream’), and Phill Jupitus’ drug-fuelled and American Psycho esque “Anthemoessa” are also notable highlights, but above all else, Dead Funny as a collective emphasises the quality, depth and audacity of British comedy. I would have liked to see Charlie Brooker, who proved his horror chops with Dead Set, and the always dark Chris Morris put their horror-writing skills to the test, but there are still an enormous amount of surprises here — who would have thought Al Murray could write a beautifully bleak short story like “For Everyone’s Good”?