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Supernatural Noir edited by Ellen Datlow

Supernatural Noir edited by Ellen Datlow (Dark Horse Books, 2011) is an anthology that conflates two different subgenres as its theme. We’re all familiar with the notion of the supernatural, so the more important element to understand is the reference to the word noir. For me this is indelibly associated with the pulp style which reached the maximum quality in the work of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. I suppose the primary characteristic of classic pulp is that the PI or detective is always a tough guy but smart. That way, he can take being hit with a sap, get up, dust himself down and, in due course, nab the villain. The implicit reference to darkness (noir is French for black) comes from the works which get past melodrama into worlds without pity where we see through the eyes of the victims and the criminals. In such stories, there’s always less hope for the safety of those involved. An introduction that brings us to the first story as an example of the problem inherent in the anthology’s theme. “The Dingus” by Gregory Frost reminds us of a truth. When you torture and kill a young woman, you’d better be sure she hasn’t got a sister with the power to take revenge. As seen through the eyes of an old boxing trainer, now driving a taxi, this is a case of people being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The idea is compelling, but I think the language and tone apes the period style just a little too well. I would probably have loved this fifty years ago. Today, it feels a little tired.

“The Getaway” by Paul G. Tremblay is the story of a simple heist that goes inexplicably wrong. It should be so easy to knock over a pawnshop but, as the three robbers and their driver discover, nothing is easy. This is hardboiled with a modern voice and increasingly powerful as the driver tries to outrun their fate. “Mortal Bait” by Richard Bowes sees humans caught up in a supernatural conflict. This nicely captures the sense and feel of the immediate post-WWII America with a veteran trying to make a living as a PI. In this, he has an edge given his link with the fey except, of course, having any kind of attachment leaves you potentially vulnerable should the enemy be looking for leverage. “Little Shit” by Melanie Tem is a disturbing story about the entrapment of paedophiles. It succeeds because, when you consider the facts, it’s obvious why Lourdes would be in a relationship with the titular Little Shit, yet not so obvious why someone with mind-manipulating capacity would not realise that reason. “Ditch Witch” by Lucius Shepard is a marvelous atmosphere piece in which imagination (and a liberal quantity of street drugs) combines to convert a hitch-hiker into someone who, when provoked, might just be able to do magic. It charts the sense of menace as the driver begins to see the world in a slightly different way.

Ellen Datlow — one of the best editors working today

“The Last Triangle” by Jeffrey Ford flirts with pulpy language but has enough modern sensibilities in tone and plot to make this an outstanding effort. With a runt of a protagonist as the point of view, we see an addict more or less getting clean with the help of an old but determined lady. Unfortunately, as he gets more healthy, this pitches him into an attempt to avert a possible murder, tracking the man who might kill. What makes it so successful is the fact there’s no actual evidence of anything supernatural. It could just be a man with delusions derived from reading all the wrong history books. Jeffry Ford masterfully exploits the uncertainty to keep it a more traditionally noir story. In exactly the same vein, “The Carrion Gods in their Heaven” by Laird Barron details a battered wife on the run with the emotional support of her lover. They take up residence in a cabin in the woods. There are tales about an earlier occupant, but it’s only slowly the couple realise how believable old tales can be. Again the story is firmly rooted in reality although there are ways in which the mind can play tricks and no-one could be entirely certain where the battered wife ended up. “The Romance” by Elizabeth Bear is an elegant story about relationships: the ones you can see in the now, and those that may by some uncanny means, transcend time. I think it a very good supernatural tale but am less convinced it’s genuinely noir. “Dead Sister” by Joe R. Lansdale has the author’s trademark style which always tends to be noirish in spirit as a PI bites off more than he can chew when a vampish lady pays him to watch over her sister’s grave. This soon develops into a meeting of interested parties at an old sawmill where the rollicking adventure is terminated in an appropriate way. “Comfortable in Her Skin” by Lee Thomas changes the mood quite dramatically darker. Some people are shaped by things done to them. Other shape their own lives, while a very small percentage are able to shape others in their own image. This rare ability proves a powerful partnership is possible when interests match. “But For Scars” by Tom Piccirilli continues in darker vein as a criminal finds himself persuaded to look into a six-year-old murder case by the unexpected return of the victims’ daughter from a mental hospital. Again we have a fundamental truth about human nature. Once you get past the scars and under the skin, most young criminals are the same.

“The Blisters on My Heart” by Nate Southard asks and answers the age-old question of what a jealous man will do if his girl is humiliated in a way that challenges his prowess. “The Absent Eye” by Brian Evenson is a particularly fascinating story. I’m not sure it’s noir except that it does have a man who becomes a kind of detective, but it does offer an interestingly secular, rather than the more traditionally religious, view of the soul. “The Maltese Unicorn” by Caitlin R. Kiernan is terrific fun as our bookseller gets caught up in a con and then has to find a way out of it without dying in the process. I suppose it’s raunchy noir as our more open view of sexuality bends the pulp rules in a way that would never have been possible fifty and more years ago. “Dreamer of the Day” by Nick Mamatas is genuinely and delightfully creepy with a contract killer who can recite even the minutest details of the way in which the whole death scenario will play out. This is an outstanding effort. Finally, “In Paris, in the Mouth of Kronus” by John Langan shows us how two who made the headlines as torturers for the US Army in Iraq try to make a living in civilian life. Again, I think this works well as a supernatural story but I’m less convinced of its noir qualities. As the title suggests, we are into ancient gods and the scale of the problem confronting our duo lifts it out of the pulp subgenre for me. Somehow, I always feel true noir lies in more intimate details.

So there you have it. Ellen Datlow has put together another outstanding anthology. While I might differ slightly in my interpretation of the editorial brief requiring a noir tone, I take nothing away from the actual stories included here. They are all of a high standard with one or two outstanding. By any standards, this is an anthology to savour.

As an aside, I can’t say I like the jacket artwork by Greg Ruth very much. Although the idea of a raven is OK — it is, after all a noir bird with Poeish supernatural connotations — but the perspective has been bent to make the eyes fit vis-a-vis the bird. This leaves the head in the wrong position which just goes to show how subjective all this editing, publishing and reviewing business is.

For reviews of other books edited by Ellen Datlow, see:
Alien Sex
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume One
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Two
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Three
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Four
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Five
Blood and other cravings
Lovecraft Unbound

For the record, the 2011 Stoker Awards have been announced. The anthology was shortlisted for Superior Achievement in an Anthology. It has also been nominated as Best Edited Anthology in the 2011 Shirley Jackson Awards. “Ditch Witch” by Lucius Shepard and “The Last Triangle” by Jeffrey Ford are nominated as Best Novelette in the 2011 Shirley Jackson Awards.

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