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Literature: Horrible Histories

In 1993 Terry Deary came up with an idea to make history more interesting to get children to care. There are plenty of history books that tell you about castles, dates, politics, names, things and stuff.

Horrible Histories are full of battles, death, blood, guts, superstitions, gore, murders, comic panels and guts. Pretty successful all in all; not only are there a lot of books but they are quite accurate — not really detailed, but Hollywood History it ain't.

The series proved hugely influential during the nineties and zeros, unleashing a raft of spin-offs and ripoffs, including Horrible Science, Horrible Geography, Murderous Maths, The Knowledge, Dead Famous, What They Don't Tell You About, and various other series of diminishing success.

The series has been adapted into an animated television series which ran from 2001-2002, a radio series and a live action version which finished airing its fifth and final series on Tuesday the 16th of July, 2013.

The list of the books is as follows.

  • The Angry Aztecs - (Aztecs)
  • The Awesome Egyptians (Ancient Egypt)
  • The Awful Egyptians - (Ancient Egypt)
  • The Barmy British Empire - (British Empire)
  • The Blitzed Brits - (The Blitz)
  • Bloody Scotland - (History of Scotland)
  • Cruel Kings and Mean Queens - (The Kings and Queens of England, Britain, and the United Kingdom)
  • The Cut Throat Celts - (Celts)
  • Dark Knights and Dingy Castles - (The history of Knights and Castles)
  • England
  • France
  • The Frightful First World War - (World War I)
  • The Gorgeous Georgians - (Georgian era)
  • The Groovy Greeks - (Ancient Greece)
  • The Incredible Incas - (Tahuantinsuyu - The Inca Empire)
  • Ireland
  • The Measly Middle Ages - (Middle Ages)
  • The Rotten Romans - (Ancient Rome)
  • The Ruthless Romans - (Ancient Rome)
  • Rotten Rulers - (Rulers in general)
  • Rowdy Revolutions - (Revolutions)
  • The Savage Stone Age - (Stone age)
  • The Slimy Stuarts - (House of Stuart)
  • The Smashing Saxons - (Saxons)
  • The Stormin' Normans - (Normans)
  • The Terrible Tudors - (Tudor dynasty)
  • Terrifying Tudors (formerly Even More Terrible Tudors) - (Tudor dynasty)
  • The Twentieth (20th) Century - (20th century)
  • The USA - (The United States of America)
  • The Vicious Vikings - (Vikings)
  • The Vile Victorians - (Victorian era)
  • The Villainous Victorians - (Victorian era)
  • The Wicked History of the World - (Basic history of the world)
  • Wales - (Wales)
  • Wicked Words - (The History of Linguistics)
  • The Woeful Second World War - (World War II)
Deary also wrote the book "Deadly Durham" outside of the main series. It took more of the format of a guidebook to the city of Durham.

The Books show examples of following tropes:

  • A Million Is a Statistic: A consistent theme of the books is attempting to avert this trope. It gets explicitly criticised in a passage in The Frightful First World War, which notes all the flowers left at the Grantchester memorial for the local casualties of the war by poetry lovers in tribute to Rupert Brooke's death, and bluntly asks "Is that fair? What about the other brave men who died?".
  • Artistic License - History: Generally averted, however there are still a few mistakes in the books. Nothing major, generally stuff like widely-accepted historical "facts" that are actually historical legend. They expose a lot of these as well. They're like Snopes for history books sometimes.
  • Black Humor: Oh yeah. The books are made entirely of Black Humor. See also What Do You Mean, It's for Kids?.
    "I say, I say; what did they do when the Forth Bridge collapsed?"
    "They built a fifth."
    • Or:
    In 1622 Turkish Sultan Osman was strangled by his own bodyguards. They led the rebels.
    Sultan Osman: "My own bodyguards ...Choke!"
    In India the mighty emperor Akbar died in 1605 - he was probably poisoned by his relatives. You couldn't trust anyone.
    Emperor Akbar: "My own family ...Ckkk!"
    In England in 1649 the English chopped King Charles I. It was his parliament who signed the death warrant.
    King Charles: "My own MPs ...Chop!"
    • Martin Brown even pulls off a dark joke about the Armenian Genocide in The Frightful First World War, illustrating it with an Armenian amid a pile of corpses asking "What did we do to deserve this?", and another replying, "We were here."
  • Creator Breakdown: In February 2013, Deary—whose work has always been subversive in nature, where the people in power are always portrayed as the bad guys and the hero is the Everyman—went on a huge rant about, of all things, how horrible public libraries are because they allow "the common people" to "steal his work" (ie. read his work without buying it at a bookstore.) It's not hard to guess how people reacted...
  • Creator Provincialism: Deary is from the North East and likes to put in references to historical anecdotes in that area. This is most noticeable in The Vile Victorians.
    • On a greater level, the books focus on the impact of their subject peoples on British history, if such an impact existed; perhaps the most notable example is Rotten Romans. Some years after he wrote that one, he did Ruthless Romans, which focused more on Rome itself rather than Roman Britain.
  • Cruel Mercy: In one of the Horrible Histories books, Terry Deary writes an account of Lambert Simnel, a peasant boy who was chosen to be the figurehead of a rebellion against Henry VII because he resembled the Earl of Warwick. Henry crushed the rebellion and made Simnel one of his servants in a display of Pragmatic Villainy. In Deary's account, Simnel is left shellshocked by watching the rebels being slaughtered, and writes: 'Cruel Henry had the real Earl of Warwick put to death, but cruellest of all, he sentenced me to live'.
  • Dart Board Of Hate: One of the books features an illustration of Kaiser Wilhelm II, Germany/Prussia's leader in World War I, throwing darts at his grandmother Queen Victoria.
  • Death as Comedy: A given.
  • Dreadful Musician: One English king was murdered by a guy disguised as a minstrel. The accompanying image is two guards sitting near a fire saying "What happened to the minstrel wandering around earlier?" "Don't care, long as he's gone-worst singing I ever heard".
  • Eagleland: The USA, Flavour 2, all the way. Seeing how Deary likes pull any culture he happens to be focusing on to pieces, this is not surprising. However, it is still quite unique to see a humorist children's book on the history of the USA to not be entirely americentric.
  • God Save Us from the Queen!: Deary made a nice list of men who tended to drop like flies while in the personal care of Mary Queen of Scots in Bloody Scotland.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Lampshaded and played straight in one scene. The bit about Richard III is all about how his usual portrayal is pure Tudor propaganda, but they unfairly accuse Shakespeare of being responsible when in fact he was only using existing, and biased, historical sources.
    • This is later addressed in the third series of the live-action show (in a song, interestingly enough). However, Shakespeare did make up the phrase "A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse".
  • Hope Spot: While The Woeful Second World War is possibly the darkest book in the series, it does use several examples to illustrate its thesis that war can bring out both the worst and the best in people, and that people ultimately have the choice of whether they want to be heroes/heroines or monsters but are mostly in between.
  • Humans Are Bastards: Some of the horrible facts given are about dastardly rulers. The Roman Emperor Tiberius, for example, rubbed the skin off a fisherman's face with a fish—the very one that the fisherman had wanted to bring him as a present—and then proceeded to do the same again with a crab. Or Gen. Sherman: "The more I see of these Indians, the more sure I am they all have to be killed."
    • Many of the books present competing civilisations as Not So Different, pointing out that they were equally ruthless and nasty. (The Ruthless Romans' introduction mentions that Aztecs conducted Human Sacrifices and the Spanish Inquisition tortured people but both believed they had good reasons to do so, but the Romans killed people for fun and made murder into a sport.)
  • It Will Never Catch On: Happpens frequently. Lord Kelvin was quite good about this, believing that heavier-than-air flight was impossible and X-rays were probably a hoax. (He changed his mind about the second one after he saw the evidence.) In addition, Kelvin insisted that radio had no future in 1897 (he preferred to send messages by pony) and that it would take human beings two hundred years to land on the moon. Horrible Histories put it best when summarising this kind of phenomenon, noting in the section about the predicted short lifespan of talking pictures that "Lord Kelvin was dead by then, so he was not able to tell us that talking films were impossible anyway."
    • The live-action TV series itself got this treatment when it when they won a National Televison Award for Best Documentary Series. "I bet we all saw this coming", indeed.
  • Just for Pun: If this book series could be summed up in two tropes, it would be this and What Do You Mean, It's for Kids?. Just to give you an idea, from the book Frightful First World War:
    • "Tanks!" "You're welcome."
    • "*Cough splutter*" "What's wrong?" "I'm a little horse."
    • "The French are bleeding us of every penny." "So it's sort of a Bled & Breakfast, huh?"
    • "Sweet..." "Sweet and sour..." "Sweet and sour fried lice."
    • "[Kaiser Wilhelm] especially liked to strip the barks off [trees]. So you could say he was barking mad."
  • Mood Whiplash: The Woeful Second World War was much darker than the other books, with quite a few less humorous moments, and alot of very grim, confronting stories. The parts on the Holocaust and Dresden, for example are completely devoid of any humour whatsoever, and are written in a very cold, confronting tone. (Unsurprising given the subject)
    • All the books' epilogues end on a considerably more downbeat note than the preceding text, describing how the civilisation in question's achievements were all for naught in the long run, or how they essentially lived by the sword and died by the sword when more powerful civilisations came along. Usually there's some kind of aesop directed towards the young reader.
  • My Country Tis of Thee That I Sting: The books have a very sarcastic tone and don't shy away from criticizing the British army, royalty and colonial system throughout its historical track record of atrocities.
  • Noodle Implements: "Yay! Our gallant navy has captured the nasty Spaniards with only one small leaking boat, two men, one cannon, a pistol, a sharp stick and a sponge!"
  • Oh Wait, This Is My Grocery List: A cartoon in the Horrible Histories book of the 20th Century parodies the infamous "cranberry sauce" lyric of "Strawberry Fields Forever", with John Lennon reading "Cranberry sauce, strawberry jam, milk and a packet of biscuits. Wait, these aren't me lyrics...".
  • Perspective Flip: Quite common.
    • The Vikings and Normans are presented as the antagonists in The Smashing Saxons, but are treated more sympathetically and in detail in The Stormin' Normans and The Vicious Vikings.
    • The Christians are presented as courageous victims of Roman cruelty and oppression in The Ruthless Romans, but once they come into power they morph into the cruel colonial oppressors of The Barmy British Empire and The Incredible Incas (both of which outright state that native populations suffered much worse under colonial rule, tying into the bullies-become-the-bullied theme mentioned in the latter's introduction).
  • Precision B Strike: The USA has two utterances of "son of a bitch" (in a childrens' history book, mind you), though in both cases the "i" either obscured or censored.
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: Would you believe, that in the very beginning of WWI, Zeppelins bombarded soldiers and towns with bricks and darts?
  • Royally Screwed Up: The main subject of Rotten Rulers.
  • Running Gag: "[gruesome historical fact]. You wouldn't [gruesome historical fact] to [your parent/teacher/friend] over [incredibly petty reason]? (Don't answer that!)"
    • "You can go see [gruesome historical artifact on display at place]... if you like that sort of thing."
  • Sadist Teacher: Deary must have had this as his main motivation when writing these books, mercilessly mocking the British schooling system, the teachers and the school dinners. You could even say It's Personal.
    "Yes, Caesarion was strangled by his own teacher. Would you believe it?"
    Frightened-looking scholar: "Er... yes."
    • From a section discussing claims that Hitler survived the war:
    "The truth is that he escaped to northern England and became a teacher. I know. He taught me."
  • Shaped Like Itself: As pointed out in The Frightful First World War, there is a WWI-era song to the tune of Auld Lang Syne where the lyrics are "We're here because we're here because we're here because...". This was a bit of gallows humour over the fact that most of the troops had no idea why they were there due to the incredibly complex arrangement of alliances and pacts that led to WWI.
  • Speechbubbles Interruption: In the book The Awful Egyptians, the narrator refers to the fact that at times, after great military victories, ancient Egyptians would gather the genitals from dead enemy soldiers and pile them up in public. In a caricature illustrating such a pile, a son says to his father, Look at this huge pile of That's enough, son!
    • It should be pointed out that this is a children's history book, so the mere presence of this trope shows just how dark Terry Deary's sense of humour is.
  • Summon Bigger Fish: Another constant theme in the series, summarised in the introduction to The Incredible Incas which describes history as a succession of bullies who brutalise the weak, only to in turn be subjugated by bigger and nastier bullies.
  • The Abridged History: Pretty much what the books and series provide.
  • The Caligula: Beside the actual Caligula, there are many more examples in Rotten Rulers.
  • Toilet Humour: Oh so much.
  • Truth in Television: These books aren't called non-fiction books for no reason.
  • War Is Hell: A consistent theme.
    In the Second World War it had become easier to kill someone when all you had to do was push a button and drop a bomb. You'd never see the suffering you caused. But the real horror of the war was that so many people were prepared to kill so many others in cold blood.
  • Warts and All: Its tagline is "History with all the nasty bits left in."

Homage to CataloniaNon-Fiction LiteratureHow NOT to Write a Novel
What Do You Mean, It's Not Didactic?ImageSource/LiteratureCasual Danger Dialog
Honor HarringtonLiterature of the 1990sHorrid Henry
Hope Was HereLiterature of the 2000sThe Host

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