My introduction to alternate history was a funny one. No, literally. My first encounter occurred in 1997 with Dave Barry Slept Here—an oddball comedy gem masquerading as a history book. Written by Dave Barry (surprise!), DBSH’s crowning delight was that the more you knew about history, the funnier it got.
I could appreciate that.
Coincidentally, about that same time I began watching Hysteria!, a Looney Toons production that didn’t run nearly long enough for my liking. Hysteria! was a smart, funny show with an alternate-history/parody base from the creators of Animaniacs (a true classic, to be sure). While Hysteria! was genuinely informative, it also had a tendency to run rather cleverly off the rails—granting history’s players unexpected quirks, paths, challenges, and comparisons. My personal favorite episode remains the one wherein the Justice League is populated with FDR as Batman and Truman as Robin. Eleanor Roosevelt was Wonder Woman. Et cetera.
And I think I loved it so much because it surprised me. Anytime you watch or read something with a historic bent (if you know anything about the real-life events) you have expectations about how it’ll play out. Then those expectations are thwarted, and voila—you get humor…
…Or something else. I’ve long maintained that the difference between humor and horror is nothing but context. A man hits another man over the head with a hammer; is it the Stooges or Stephen King? The mechanism is the same either way. You react because you’re surprised.
Anyway. As my most recent novel demonstrates nicely, I’m still interested in alternate history, and for the very same reasons. It still surprises me, and delights me how it can go very wrong, or very interesting. Sometimes it’s funny, and sometimes it’s godawful—like how I dragged out the Civil War for nearly two decades in the Clockwork Century universe. But I always find it cool to start with a known quantity and muck it up.
For inspiration—or usually just for giggles—I’ve started following Today in Alternate History, a site/blog that plays it so straight that sometimes it takes me a minute to sort out where, precisely, the real story ends and “alternate” bit begins. Scroll through their archives and find the best of “what if” and the worst of “it could’ve gone down this way.”
Some people insist on the butterfly effect, and others insist that the flow of history will always find a way to correct itself. The truth is, there’s no telling. But it’s plenty of fun to speculate.
Cherie Priest is the author of seven novels from Tor books and Subterranean Press, including the award-winning Eden Moore series, Dreadful Skin, and Fathom. Her most recent book, Boneshaker, was released on September 29th by Tor Books.