Mark Sykes’s Sixth Sense of Humour


From Issue 19 (Mar 2012)

SURELY ONE OF THE best things about reading short fiction is waiting for the twist at the end. Not every short story has to have one, and some do very well without them, but they are delicious when they’re done properly. And could there be more fitting genres for them than sci-fi and horror? For a start, things are already pretty bad (Armageddon, oxygen running out, zombie apocalypse, etc) – and when the twist hits, they get even worse! It’s like the powerful aftertaste of a lemon fizzball: you know it’s coming, but you just don’t know how strong it’s going to be, or when it’s going to hit.

Ending a great story with a suitably brilliant twist is tricky, to say the least; not only does an author have to be able to weave together a captivating plot, but they also have to turn the whole thing on its head in a plausible way that leaves your head spinning. My favourites are the ones that rattle around in my head for days after I’ve finished reading, and I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that a choice few still give me goosebumps to this day – over twenty-five years after first reading them (It goes without saying that I’ve lost count of the times I’ve re-read them). One of those stories is Stephen King’s ‘The Jaunt’ (which got a prominent mention in this column a couple of months back), but most of them are the work of someone I’ll come to a bit further down the page.

Even though a good twist can make a story indelible in the memory, its effectiveness is, of course, dependant on the set up, which makes up about 80-90% of the work; then there’s a short transition, where you start to realise that something is very, very wrong (or at least, more wrong than normal), and what you’ve been reading so far isn’t, in fact, what’s really been going on… and then POW! The boxing glove leaps out of the last paragraph – or in some cases, the last sentence – and socks you one on the side of the head. Job done.

When it comes to revealing the twist, the author needs to convince you that everything is a certain way for as long as possible and, just like a stage magician, uses misdirection to let you think you know what the twist will be, so it’s really all about guile and cunning on his part. He’s a hunter laying a trap for you. Not only does he have to make it invisible, but he then has to convince you to walk down the path – one that you know has something nasty at the end. What can it be? A demon? Quicksand? A disintegrator field? Oh wait, it’s… oh my god, it’s a fluffy little kitten! There’s a kitten at the end of the path, and it’s mewling for milk! Mushkins! Your pace picks up as you head for the poor widdle puddy, and just before you get to it, you realise that it’s going to change into a slavering alien kill monster! You pull out your .357 Magnum, aim it at Tiddles – and that’s when the giant snake above you closes its jaws around your stoopid head.

Ask a handful of short-story readers which author they think of first when you say the words ‘twist in the tale’, and you’ll probably get a different answer every time: Philip K. Dick, Kafka, Asimov and King will definitely be mentioned. Ask me, and I’d have to say Roald Dahl. And if you think that I’m straying from the horror genre by mentioning him, then you’ve obviously never read stories like ‘Georgy Porgy’, ‘William and Mary’ and ‘Pig’. These stories, and others, would fit very snugly into the pages of Something Wicked, simply on horror merit alone, and all without a trace of the supernatural. Sometimes, what ordinary people are capable of doing to other ordinary people (and themselves) will keep you awake at night far longer than, say, a monster under the bed or a vampire floating outside your window, begging for entry.

When I was fourteen, I was given More Tales of the Unexpected as my English literature reader. I’d never read Dahl’s adult fiction before, and from the first page of the first story (‘Poison’, a tale of a man in bed with a deadly snake), I was wide-eyed. By the second story, the unforgettable ‘The Sound Machine’, I was truly in awe of him. (Up until then my only exposure to Roald Dahl had been Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, my school reader in the UK only four years previously. Now I was reading a stories about an elderly landlady who practices taxidermy on her lodgers and a man who collects severed fingers.)

I was an instant convert, dedicated to finding anything and everything that Dahl had written. As I did so, I wasn’t surprised to find that his stories had had the same effect on a great many people, although there were a few who had decided, after reading stories like ‘Pig’ and ‘Royal Jelly’ that they ‘weren’t able to handle him’. I know that if Dahl himself had heard that, he would have given an avuncular chuckle of pride in his work.

One thing I adore about Roald Dahl (aside from his supermodel granddaughter, Sophie) is the way his writing style so often veers towards the childlike, as though his protagonist is an innocent, barely aware how he came to be in his situation. He seems to be simply going with the flow, ushered along by an invisible hand down fate’s path… at the end of which lies the inevitable twist (because the story up until then wasn’t twisted enough). Sometimes it’s a horrifying discovery, or spousal treachery, or just a slow, lingering death. The narrative itself is made up of simple, unassuming language that gives little indication of the sheer malice and iniquity in the minds of some of the characters, or what they are capable of doing. As life lessons go, it’s a pretty good handbook on what to look out for in adulthood.

Needless to say, if you haven’t read Dahl, you are missing something utterly unique and special. He really is up there with the greats.

Now, if I were a brilliant writer, who could just toss this stuff off daily, I’d be able to put an appropriate end to this piece by giving it a twist of its own… but I’m not, I can’t, and I don’t have one. But wait… maybe that’s the twist – there is no twist!

Nah, sucks. I’ll leave it to the professionals.

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Mark Sykes

What can be said about Mark Sykes?

Film actor, world traveller, model, novel writer, piano and violin player, ballroom dancer, deep-sea diver – he is none of these things.

Actual achievements include the odd play or musical, avoiding death by starvation through singing to people around London, and completing all three Halo games on ‘legendary’ level.

Literary influences include Philip Pullman, Carl Hiaasen and Iain M. Banks. Favourite activities include vacuuming, buying stationery, applying sun lotion to total strangers, catoptromancy, going to Paris to see his brother, getting lost in Derbyshire, and trying hard to tell the truth at all.

After being Something Wicked’s “Man In London” he now lives in Cape Town and is enjoying the sun.

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