Thursday, April 19, 2012

Comedy and Suspense

Lissa Evans
At one time, author Lissa Evans produced comedy shows. Comedy is all about timing. The humor must be paced exactly right or it loses its oomph. You can see Evans’s exquisite timing play out not only with the humor of her novel but also with scenes of suspense, as you read Horten’s Miraculous Mechanisms, illustrated in black and white by Temujin Doran.

Ten-year-old Stuart Horten must move with his family to his father’s childhood hometown for his mother’s new job. He wonders how he’ll ever meet other kids in the heat of summer. Then he discovers a mystery in his family history—the disappearance of his great-uncle, a legendary magician—and at the same time, a neighbor girl appears and follows 10-year-old Stuart everywhere. Just when he’s feeling like she’s stalking him, Stuart realizes that she is actually three—identical triplets named April, May and June. Their appearance provides comic relief as tensions mount for Stuart—just the way humor can diffuse tensions in a great horror movie.

Later, when a grown-up actually does start shadowing Stuart (he’s not the only one trying to track down Teeny-Tiny Tony Horten), he has April on his side, so it’s not so scary. Stuart is unraveling a serious mystery, but there’s plenty of humor to leaven the proceedings.

When I got to interview Evans recently, I asked her if her background in comedy helped her with the pacing of this novel. She said it did: “A joke has to be exactly right,” Evans continued. “Similarly, with the accuracy of description of suspense, you have to get the phrasing exactly right or it doesn’t do what you want it to do. It’s got to be tight pacing and no flabbiness.” The success of Goosebumps proves that a successful mix of scary and funny will grab even those kids who don’t think of themselves as readers, and fans of mysteries will find much to savor with Horten, too.

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