Supernatural Noir

Supernatural Noir
Edited by Ellen Datlow. 2012.

We’ve been moving all week, to a temporary apartment, while our house gets renovated. The extent of the work requires that we move everything out; we’ve at least managed to clear the two rooms that will be completely demolished next week, after the workmen finish digging back part of the hill that takes up most of our backyard. There is still way more to do, and I’m leaving for another business trip next week. Funny how things line up exactly the wrong way.

Most everything goes into storage, of course, including almost all of my books. I’m left with whatever reference books I absolutely need for work, whatever books were scattered around my bedside table (for once reading 50 hojillion books at the same time actually works in my favor), and what’s on my iPad and hard disk. I guess home renovations are another argument in favor of ebooks.

Today we took a break from moving and unpacking, and investigated a new comic book shop that opened up in our neighborhood. We are lucky enough to have several excellent comic book shops in San Francisco, and Two Cats looks like it will fit in just fine. I picked up a trade paperback of Steve Niles’s Cell Block 666. It’s from his series of stories about Cal McDonald, a private detective who specializes in supernatural cases. The supernatural detective genre has been around since at least the days of Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence stories, to varying degrees of quality, but I enjoy it. Niles’s work is up and down, in my opinion — he also wrote the 31 Days of Night comic, which I liked, though the franchise went on waaay too long. The Cal McDonald stories are among my favorites from his work, so it should be a pleasant read.

Supernatural Noir is a collection of prose short stories. It’s published by Dark Horse Press, which is primarily a comic book publisher, hence the book’s presence in the shop next to the Cal McDonald trade paperbacks. The most recognizable author (to me, at least) in the Table of Contents is Joe Lansdale, of Bubba Ho-Tep fame. I’ve read several of his mostly East Texas based short stories, and a couple of his novels (all in a box right now!), so his name on the list of authors struck me as a good sign. And the premise of the collection is promising, don’t you think?

Noir is an attitude, a stance, a way of looking at the world. Paul Duncan, in his concise book Noir Fiction, defines it as a term “used to describe any work, usually involving crime — that is notably dark, brooding, cynical, complex, and pessimistic.”

— Ellen Datlow, in the Introduction to Supernatural Noir

What I also find interesting about noir is that California is its natural home. Bright, sunny, supposedly superficial Cali. Double Indemnity, The Thin Man, The Maltese Falcon. The Big Sleep, The Postman Always Rings Twice, D.O.A., Sunset Boulevard (which I count as noir). Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, The Continental Op. Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler. The main exception that comes to my mind right now — though I’m sure I’ve forgotten tons — is John D. MacDonald: Travis McGee was based in Fort Lauderdale. Which is also a bright, sunny, allegedly superficial place.

The observation above is, maybe, obvious; but it was an epiphany to me. I always associate New York or Chicago with crime stories. Those stories, though, are mostly gangster tales, or police procedurals, rather than noir, with its loner, antihero, disenchanted private detective. I suppose the difference is that Chicago and New York have reputations for being tough, crime-ridden cities. Naturally dark, in a sense. Noir — “cynical, complex, pessimistic” — seems to depend on the contrast between the bright, pretty surface and the dark underbelly of human vice.

And the wisecracking. Double Indemnity, anyone? Or the Thin Man? Snappy dialogue and outrageous metaphors delivered at machine gun speed are the stereotypes of noir, along with cheap whiskey and hot dames. We get the whiskey and the wisecracking and the dame in Joe Lansdale’s story, “Dead Sister”. We get some pretty good metaphors, too, though I think that this is inherently Lansdale, not just the noir theme.

In “Dead Sister”, an underemployed private detective in a small East Texas Town is hired by a young woman to investigate why someone keeps desecrating her sister’s grave. The answer turns out to be both supernatural, and icky. I enjoyed the story — but it didn’t really feel like noir, in spite of the trappings.

“Dead Sister” was the only story from the collection that I’ve read today (I am still making my way through American Gothic Tales, among others). Flipping through the authors’ bios in the rest of the book, I wonder if they will feel the same as Lansdale’s did, to me. The authors are primarily horror and weird tale writers, not crime writers, and I suspect that the “elements of noir” that the editor asked them to add to the story will be, like Lansdale’s, mostly trappings.

That’s okay. I like the supernatural crime genre on its own merits, and I knew when I bought the book that it was a fun, commissioned theme collection. I’m not actually expecting Chandler. What I expect is to be able to sit down amongst my yet-unpacked boxes with a tumbler of bourbon — the good stuff, not the cheap kind — and relax with some good quality light reading. Here’s hoping that I’m not disappointed.

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