Monday, June 6, 2011

Supernatural Noir

My late father read a lot of mystery and detective stories, but I've never been much interested in them.  I read Sue Grafton because the character of Kinsey Millhone amuses me, but otherwise I'm unlikely to pick up a piece of crime fiction.  Nonetheless, I admire the noir sensibility, which in the hands of the right writer can explore urban grimness and psychological dysfunction in a way that no other fiction can.  Ellen Datlow's new anthology takes that sensibility and adds a dark twist.  The protagonists of these sixteen stories must face not only human infirmities but deeper, more inexplicable terrors.  Mobsters and monsters, gunmen and ghouls: the world of Supernatural Noir is indeed an unpleasant one.

The protagonists and scenarios and the anthology are often familiar from non-supernatural noir: a relative seeking revenge for a murdered innocent, criminals who find themselves unable to escape the acts they've left behind, private detectives caught up in events beyond their understanding.  In a few of the lesser stories, the authors can't quite enliven these tropes, and the attempt at a hard-bitten voice with insight into the sorrows of life falls flat, feels almost maudlin.  In the main, though, there's enough craft and imagination to give the stories bite.

In Paul G. Tremblay's "The Getaway," four criminals who think they've escaped a robbery discover that somehow, impossibly, they haven't.  The mysterious and sudden nature of the fate that finds them makes this story eerier than a more straightforward menace would have, and the narrator's understatedly sad family background contributes to the tragic atmosphere.  Offering another well-rounded protagonist, Richard Bowes uses a detective with a connection to otherworldly wars to reinvigorate the sense of the indifferent universe that haunts much noir fiction, in the story "Mortal Bait."  And Melanie Tem introduces the reader to a tough-as-nails young woman with an unlikely job and an even more unlikely gift in "Little Shit," a story about loneliness, depravity, survival, and social work.

While some stories stick too close to traditional noir to distinguish themselves, others spin striking variations on it.  Caitlin R. Kiernan's "The Maltese Unicorn" might sound like a spoof, and if I told you what the title object was you'd probably laugh, but the story creates its own world and makes it credible, and Kiernan captures the dry humor and laconic voice of noir perfectly, adding her own brand of weird transcendence.  Elizabeth Bear's "The Romance" might, by a strict accounting, not be noir at all, but its story of a birthday party and a carousel makes a nice contrast with those around it, and the conclusion is, if not noir, in the same thematic ballpark.

Even the weaker stories in Supernatural Noir are eminently readable, solid tales both of crime and of the dark fantastic, and the prose styles are true to the hard edge of noir without becoming monotonous.  For fans of horror open to noir, and readers of noir who can handle horror, this is a fine anthology, coherent, atmospheric, and compelling. Two kinds of bleak, cynical, stylish fiction at once: what's not to like?

I was sent a review copy of this book by the publisher.

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