Category Archives: Josh Vogt

Where’s the Humor in Horror?

I’ve always been fascinated by the juxtaposition of humor and horror in our psyches. The two seem oddly linked, both contrasting with and yet complementing one another in the experiences we have and the stories we tell. A saying (I’m unsure of the origins and will probably bungle my attempt at summarizing) that has stuck in my head for years is: “When we’re frightened or horrified, we have two choices—to scream or to laugh.”

Why are they so linked, though? Why do we try to find humor in horrific situations?

Maids of WrathI write an urban fantasy series called The Cleaners, which focuses on the somewhat absurd adventures of magically empowered janitors, maids, and plumbers who work for a supernatural sanitation company. The series begins with Enter the Janitor and The Maids of Wrath, with the third, The Dustpan Cometh, arriving sometime in the next year. Throughout the stories, the Cleaners deal with all sorts of strange situations, such as tromping through mystic sewers, facing down garbage golems in city dumps, or encountering fiendish dust devils in public restrooms. I tend to play up the humorous side of the stories as much as I can, enjoying the ridiculousness of what some might think of as modern-day wizards, mages, and witches taking down the forces of Corruption with mops, spray bottles, squeegees, and toilet paper.

Yet even as there’s plenty of opportunity to laugh or chuckle in the Cleaners novels, there are also plenty of times along the way where the situations they encounter can be truly horrific. People die—oftentimes in rather nasty ways. Creatures lurch and shamble about with all manner of slavering maws and grasping claws or tentacles that would leave a person searching for a clean pair of pants if just glimpsed in real life. There’s supernatural rot that can eat you from the inside-out, beings that embody decay and depravity, and no small amount of insanity-shattered minds that perceive reality through twisted perspectives.

And I have found that by bringing elements of both humor and horror into the series, it has grown stronger. Funny moments stand out more…as do their darker counterparts. Why is that?

I think a big part of it comes down to how we choose to build and release tension within ourselves. One of a writer’s jobs is to create conflict and tension within a story—to generate a growing pressure, whether between one character and another, a character and a monster, or just through the ambience of a particular scene. Yet that tension has to be released at some point. There needs to be a chance for characters (and the reader) to take a breath and gather themselves for what comes next. And humor—be it a side joke, a bit of witty banter, a wry observation of the irony of a situation, or a bout of good old slapstick—provides a readily available “pressure release valve” within a story’s narrative. On the flipside, if all is levity without any sense of consequence or the potential for awful things to occur, then that makes it difficult to get a reader to feel invested in a character or plot.

At the same time, we find solace and safety by employing humor in the face of the horrific. It shields us. It gives us the mental and emotional space we need to process or handle a terrifying or otherwise horrible situation without being overwhelmed and breaking down. And when we can point and laugh at a monstrous threat—even for the slightest reason—it gives us a measure of power over that threat and helps us feel like we still have a measure of control (whether that’s true or not is up for debate). Without even a small smile or soft laugh to break up a string of terrible events, characters and readers alike can become bogged down by relentless dread or dismay.

In another sense, humor and horror “season” one another. It’s like adding contrasting spices to a dish you’re cooking…sweetness can heighten the enjoyment of saltiness, and vice versa. Spiciness can increase our awareness and appreciation of smoother flavors. Humor or horror in-and-of-themselves can certainly be compelling, but when they are experienced together to varying degrees, we can come to see the effects of both all the more.

Now, you may be a writer who prefers to craft primarily horror-oriented stories, or you may be one who leans heavily toward humor. Either is fine, and there are plenty of readers who prefer genres favoring one more than the other. But don’t let yourself be limited by thinking horror and humor can’t coexist, or even enrich one another. If you’ve worked primarily within one of these emotional spectrums, try intersecting them at different points and see if the results don’t turn out better than you expected.

Bring in some laughs to occasionally drown out the screams. Of course, I’ll let you decide whether those laughs come from characters finding the strength to stand in the midst of terror…or from the evil clown chasing them down in the dead of night.



About the Author:

Author Josh VogtAuthor and editor Josh Vogt’s work covers fantasy, science fiction, horror, humor, pulp, and more. His debut fantasy novel, Pathfinder Tales: Forge of Ashes, was published alongside his urban fantasy series, The Cleaners, with Enter the Janitor and The Maids of Wrath. He’s an editor at Paizo, a Scribe Award and Compton Crook Award finalist, and a member of both SFWA and the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers. Find him at or on Twitter @JRVogt.

When All Else Fails, Bring in a Lizard: A Guest Post by Josh Vogt

A Guest Post by Josh Vogt

Enter the Janitor - CoverLast year marked the launch of my urban fantasy series, The Cleaners, with Book #1: Enter the Janitor. The novel focuses on two main characters, Ben and Dani, as they work for a supernatural sanitation company dedicated to protecting the world from magical muck and Corruption (yes, with a capital C).

Now, I’m gonna let you in on a little secret. Gather ‘round close.

Dani used to be boring.

And I don’t mean to beta readers or anything. I mean she bored me. The author. That’s never a good sign. See, I needed a character to act, on some level, as the reader’s proxy into the weird world of the Cleaners, gawking at the absurdity of it, get the strangeness occasionally explained, and generally poking at things while asking, “Does this explode if I touch it?”

Dani did all that, but in such a bland manner, I had to stop almost halfway through the original draft when I started trying to find ways to kill her off. She needed to be a central character! Offing her would basically force me to start from scratch, which I didn’t want to do at all costs. But she, in that incarnation, refused to engage. She had no zest, no zing, zeal, oomph, spice, vigor, vim, liveliness…

*checks the thesaurus*

…or gumption. Let’s end it there, as I’m sure you get the point.

So I tried an old trick: the character interview. I sat down and imagined myself interviewing Dani, asking about her life, her passions, her fears, her neuroses, and any other quirks and tidbits she might be willing to offer.

And, boy, did I discover a lot.

First of all, I discovered her manic-obsessive fear of germs and dirt of all sorts, and how she lugged around gallons of sanitization gel to cope. I discovered her tendency to be a teensy bit foul-mouthed when stressed. I discovered she hated being pushed around and could push back just as hard if tested.

“Anything else?” I asked toward the end.

“I also have a pet lizard,” she replied.

I paused. “A lizard?”

“Yes. He’s a bearded dragon and his name is Tetris and I will rip out the heart of anyone who tries to hurt him. And then probably wash my hands for a month.”

“Why a lizard?”

My imaginary interviewee just grinned. “You’ll have to keep writing about me to find out, won’t you?”

Right then is when Dani came alive for me. Right then is when I became eager to stick her into scenes to see how much she could muck things up…and then do what she could to set things right. Because she had a pet lizard, which seemed so at odd with her original self. It presented a mystery (even a minor one) that I now wanted to unravel—and I started to see how other facets of her character could create personality paradoxes that might be both entertain and intrigue. I’ve since used this “mini-mystery” technique to give other characters extra layers, hinting at more convoluted mindsets and motivations than their surface actions suggest.

Maids of Wrath - Copy - 2Now, since Enter the Janitor came out, readers have told me how they see parts of themselves, their friends, or family members in Dani’s antics. She’s not just a reader vehicle. She resonates for some. She makes others laugh. She’s even made a few people worry for her sanity. And I look forward to finding new ways for her to surprise not only me, but everyone who might’ve grown the slightest bit fond of this spitfire.

So maybe next time you want to liven up a character or scene, don’t follow the old adage of “bring in a man with a gun.”

Bring in a lizard, instead.

Dani’s adventures with the Cleaners continue in Book #2: The Maids of Wrath.

About Josh Vogt:

Author and editor Josh Vogt’s work covers fantasy, science fiction, horror, humor, pulp, and more. His debut fantasy novel is Pathfinder Tales: Forge of Ashes, published alongside his urban fantasy series, The Cleaners, with Enter the Janitor and The Maids of Wrath. He’s an editor at Paizo, a Scribe Award finalist, and a member of both SFWA and the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers. Find him at or on Twitter @JRVogt.