NUTS & BOLTS: Interview With Bitter Karella, Creator of The Midnight Pals
By Tom Joyce
The Midnight Pals microfiction series started as a simple but inspired running gag on Twitter. Storytellers gather around a campfire a la Nickelodeon’s Are You Afraid of the Dark?, except they’re real-life horror authors past and present — Stephen King, Clive Barker, Mary Shelley, etc.
Its author, Bitter Karella, has managed to find surprising depths in that premise, delivered almost entirely in dialogue. Midnight Pals features complex, interweaving storylines, recurring characters, and trenchant social commentary, all while remaining consistently hilarious.
Since 2019, Midnight Pals has picked up nearly 50,000 followers on various social media platforms, attracting fans including Brian Keene, Nick Mamatas, and Neil Gaiman. Bitter Karella has picked up two Hugo Award nominations, and successfully crowd-funded three collections of the series, which is being adapted as an audio podcast.
In this month’s edition of Nuts & Bolts, Bitter Karella discusses topics including personal branding, dialogue as a story-telling technique, and using humor to address serious issues.
Q: How did Midnight Pals come about?
A: My wife was reading a book by Dean Koontz and she wasn’t very impressed; she kept reading passages to me and saying “This is like something from Are You Afraid of the Dark?” I thought, huh, that would be pretty funny if Dean Koontz actually WAS around the campfire like that, he’d probably be telling stories with other famous horror writers. I thought it was a funny idea, so I wrote a few quick gags about it on my personal Twitter. The thread went viral, so I just kept adding to it. People seemed to enjoy it, so eventually I just spun it off into its own thing! It was really a complete fluke that it’s gone so far, but I’m very humbled and gratified that so many people enjoy it!
Q: How did you find a readership for it?
A: I like to think that Midnight Pals grew entirely organically because I’m just so funny, but obviously luck had a lot to do with it! I hit at the right time, when indie horror was also starting to boom, so that helped a lot that there was a real hunger out there. I read a lot of horror, so I like to think that when people read Midnight Pals they could sense a little bit of that depth of knowledge, it wasn’t just the same old jokes that you always hear, it’s something that comes from a real familiarity with the material. Early on, it attracted some notice from big name horror writers, like Brian Keene, Nick Mamatas, and Neil Gaiman, and their endorsement really helped a lot! Horror fans obviously had good reason to trust their taste, so that helped a lot with getting my footing! I found a very useful thing to do was to piggyback on current events, so that whenever a horror creator suddenly got some major attention — like when Joyce Carol Oates posts about her foot or really anytime that Joyce Carol Oates posts about anything — I could grab a few extra readers by quickly making a joke about it.
Q: Can you give us some tips on marketing and building a personal brand?
A: One thing that’s worked for me — and I’ve seen it work for other writers as well — is to take one thing and just make it your thing. People like things that they’re already familiar with and they like to see things that they expect to see. It’s hard to get noticed online, but if you can get people to associate something with you, even something really silly or small, it’s a really big step toward getting them to remember you and come back to you. Like, if you have that one aunt who really likes cats, so everytime that you see a picture of a cat you feel like you have to let her know? John Scalzi did that with burritos, Chuck Wendig’s thing is apples, Gail Simone talks about bears … it just creates an instant heuristic in people’s minds so that they think of you whenever that particular topic happens to come up! People want to feel like they can approach you online and knowing that you have a “thing” that they can always tag you about helps them feel less timid about that … and we’re all about forming those parasocial relationships online these days! It’s doubly helpful if your thing is something that might pop up in the news on a regular basis. For example, I started goofing on JK Rowling and now, every time that her name starts to trend, people will come to Midnight Pals to find out what she’d done. In general, I find that posting consistently and on theme are the big things to watch for. Being funny and likable are also big positives, and if you feel you can’t be funny, then just be twice as nice!
Q: What advice can you give on writing humor, and writing humorous dialogue in particular?
A: My best advice is to listen to the way that people talk — the way that we stutter when we get flustered or repeat ourselves or change sentences in mid-thought. All the little mistakes that we make while we’re talking reveal so much about our inner lives, but I feel like we as writers are often too eager to clean that all up to make for smoother reading. Obviously, a big reason that we don’t transcribe realistic dialogue is because the way that people talk in real life is boring in print; peppering your written dialogue with constant “ums” and “ers” can get annoying really fast! But I think knowing when to let mistakes bleed through can really add some flavor to your dialogue. In Midnight Pals dialogue, I often intentionally leave out punctuation or capitalization because it feels like it more naturally captures the chaos of conversation that way. Just being on the Internet, most of us can feel that there’s a subtle but palpable difference between someone saying “What?” and someone saying “what”
Q: Horror has served as source material for some great comedy over the years. (Midnight Pals, What We Do in the Shadows, Young Frankenstein, The Cabin in the Woods, etc.) Why do you think that is?
A: Humor and horror are natural bedfellows, because they’re both often reactions to something that we can’t fully comprehend. In this modern world of 2023, when we’re daily confronted with new man-made horrors beyond our comprehension, it feels like you have to laugh or you’ll just go insane. I think that’s especially why we’ve seen such a boom in horror recently that straddles the thin line between absurdist comedy and existential Kafka-esque horror — things like Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared, Scarfolk, or Awful Hospital. Horror and humor are also both “affect” genres — unlike most other genres, they aren’t defined by thematic narrative elements so much as the emotional reaction that they elicit in the reader.
Q: Can you give some advice on using humor to address serious topics, such as racism and transphobia?
A: Every comedian likes to think that they’re the one person who’s good at addressing serious topics in their comedy, because too often they regard that as a badge of honor — they think that if they can tell a bigoted joke that’s so funny that even the target of the joke will be forced to admit that it’s funny, then that’s a testament to their prowess as a comedian. I think a lot of comedy writers fall into that trap and then, when the targets don’t laugh, they think “Well, the problem was I wasn’t funny enough. If I make the joke MORE BIGOTED, then it’ll be funny!” Tackling these topics can be tricky in humor and it’s easy to misstep — I think it’s important to know when you’ve crossed a line instead of doubling down. I’ve goofed up a few times and gotten called out on it, and my first instinct is usually to say “Well, you’re wrong, obviously the joke was funny and you’re just too sensitive.” But on reflection, I have to ask myself: Is it worth it? Am I going to take the L on this or am I going to make being mad about this my personality forever from now on?
Often people say that good comedy shouldn’t punch down. I generally agree with that, not just cuz it’s mean-spirited but mostly cuz that kind of humor is kind of lazy. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to find the most common slurs and just repeat them, and you’ll always find an audience willing to laugh at that. Comedians, of course, are free to tell any kind of jokes that they want and punching down might be frowned upon but it’s often a very good way to get popular. Of course, if you’re going to do that, you’ll have to understand what kind of audience you attract. I think to some degree, you will need a little bit of distance to joke about these topics. There have been times when I had to abandon a joke because it was getting obvious that I was just getting too mad about the topic and couldn’t focus enough to make a coherent punchline.
Q: Humor aside, it’s impressive how Midnight Pals manages to convey entire narrative arcs using little but snippets of dialogue. Do you have any pointers on story-telling?
A: One of the most powerful parts of storytelling is leaving things unsaid. A well-timed pause or a deflection can say so much — about what a character is thinking, their emotional state, what they want to say but can’t for some reason, what inner demons they refuse to confront, what blind spots they’re not even aware of. These are the moments that really let the reader ponder what’s going on in a character’s brain and I think letting the reader try and figure out for themselves what is going on gives the whole affair a bigger impact than if the writer just spells everything out for them. Because we live in a social media world where we’re all understandably nervous about getting yelled at online, I think many writers today feel uncomfortable with the idea that a reader might misunderstand them and they feel compelled to answer every question before it’s asked. I struggle a lot with that as well … when I write a punchline, I want to write it so that there’s no ambiguity about what’s happening, so that everyone can get it. But sometimes the phrasing that hits best is also going to be the phrasing most ripe for misinterpretation or sometimes it’s just funnier (or more interesting) to leave something out. You just have to trust your reader to connect the dots for themselves, sometimes!
Q: Do you have any projects that you’d like HWA members to know about?
A: The third collection of Midnight Pals microfiction successfully funded on Indiegogo last year and will be available for purchase soon! (In the meantime, you can purchase digital versions of the first two collections on my itch.io page.) I’m also at work on my first horror novel and adapting the Midnight Pals into a full-cast comedy audio podcast, which will debut later this year! You can also catch me on my non-horror podcast A Special Presentation or Alf Will Not Be Seen Tonight, all about comic strips that got adapted into television specials!
Q: Where can people follow you online?
A: You can find me on Twitter as @bitterkarella and Midnight Pals on Twitter as @midnight_pals! We’re also on Tumblr, Bluesky, Mastodon, Patreon, and Substack … or just check out my personal website!
Bitter Karella is the writer and creator of the Hugo-nominated microfiction comedy account @Midnight_Pals which asks what if all your favourite horror writers were to gather around the campfire and tell scary stories like in the classic Nickelodeon series Are You Afraid of the Dark? @Midnight Pals has had three successfully crowdfunded collections and is currently being adapted as an audio podcast. Karella writes gonzo psycho-sexual body horror with a grotesquely humorous edge. Her short story Low Tide Jenny, originally published in Seize the Press magazine, was a winner of the Brave New Weird award for best new weird fiction of 2022 by Tenebrous Press. His work has also appeared in Bag of Bones’ Step into the Light, Tenebrous Press’ Your Body is Not Your Body, Ghoulish Books’ Bound in Flesh, and From Beyond Press’ The World Belongs to Us. He’s the author and artist of three graphic novels, including a comic adaptation of the Malleus Maleficarum, and co-host of the podcast A Special Presentation, or Alf Will Not be Seen Tonight about comic strips adapted into TV specials.
Tom Joyce writes a monthly series called Nuts & Bolts for the Horror Writers Association’s blog, and creates videos for the HWA’s Tik Tok channel featuring interviews about the craft and business of writing. Watch for upcoming interviews in which comics artist and writer J.H. Williams III, who’s created significant works for D.C. Comics, Image Comics, Amazon, and Marvel, will discuss story-telling techniques from comics that you can adapt into your own writing; and HWA Mentorship Program manager J.G. Faherty gives advice on getting the most out of your beta readers. Please contact Tom at TomJHWA@gmail.com if you have any suggestions for future interviews. For more about what he’s looking for, see here.