Ellen Datlow suggests in her introduction to Supernatural Noir that noir fiction and supernatural fiction, with its roots in the gothic, have a lot in common. The main character in each tends to be a hard-living guy, usually down to his last flask of scotch, haunted by a sexy dame whose middle name is trouble. So it seemed natural to her to combine the two genres for an original anthology.
Despite my general rule that any anthology edited by Ellen Datlow is one I want to read, I resisted this one for a long time. Detectives looking for ghosts? Eh. Not my thing. But when Supernatural Noir was nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award, and two of the novellas contained therein were independently nominated (Lucius Shepard’s “Ditch Witch” and Jeffrey Ford’s “The Last Triangle,” both reviewed here), I decided to take a look. After all, when the table of contents shows writers like Gregory Frost, Laird Barron, Elizabeth Bear, Caitlin R. Kiernan, John Langan and a host of others whose fiction sings to me, I was bound to find something I liked.
And oh, boy, did I ever. This anthology has some of the most exciting fiction published in 2011. This is fiction that will make you uncomfortable, that will haunt you, that will show up in your dreams.
Take, for instance, “Comfortable in Her Skin” by Lee Thomas. Sylvia Newman is a woman who gets sexually excited by rough sex, the more brutal the better. She regularly teases Louis Towne, her married boyfriend, into such a rage that he uses sex as a punishment, not understanding that that’s her preference. When he is killed, the first-person narrator, Towne’s lawyer, steps into the tale, filling us in on the basis for his fear of Towne: it’s not just a normal, physical fear of being a mobster’s lawyer, but also a mystical fear that arises from Towne’s apparent familiarity with the occult. The lawyer fills us in on what happens when Sylvia and her new lover break into Towne’s safe, only to find that Towne still guards it. He knows, because he went to Towne’s office himself a few hours later. What he finds there will curdle your blood.
Brian Evenson, who has something of a reputation of not flinching, so to speak, offers “The Absent Eye,” in which the first person narrator is a man who lost an eye when he was a child. The absent eye continues to see, though; it just doesn’t see this world, or at least, not exactly. This results in the child’s institutionalization for fifteen years of sheer horror, until he learns how to work with the entity that seems to share his body — the entities that seem to share each of ours, actually, though those of us who can see the visual world don’t have to act as those entities would like us to, as they have no means of communicating with us. But when that child grows to adulthood, he must work with his, and he does, through a means strange and slightly wonderful. This is the tale that Dashiell Hammett would have written, had he written about the supernatural.
A new story by Laird Barron is always a treat, and “The Carrion Gods in Their Heaven” is no exception. Lorna is an abused wife who has fled into the mountains with her lover, Miranda. She is terrified that Bruce, her husband and a vengeful man, will find her and do her serious injury, if not kill her; he has already broken her leg by throwing her down a flight of concrete stairs. But the cabin is in a genuinely remote location deep in the woods — though that has its own scariness, especially when Miranda brings home an animal hide that is oddly troubling. Howling wolves seem to magnify the creepiness, and Miranda seems to become ever more remote, disappearing into the woods both physically and mentally. What will become of Lorna? Barron writes of his favorite milieu, the wilds of eastern Oregon, adding to a canon of work that has already made this area as frightening and wild to my imagination as Lovecraft ever made the forests of New England.
Elizabeth Bear’s story of a party at a carousel, “The Romance,” captivated me with its imagery of painted animals and brass rings. Joe Lansdale’s “Dead Sister” is about a private eye who is hired to find out what’s been happening to a woman’s sister’s grave every night. Tom Piccirilli’s disturbing “But For Scars” is about a girl who escapes from a hospital and returns to the house where her parents were murdered, now owned by by the narrator, who feels obliged to help her find the murderer. John Langan closes out the anthology with “In Paris, in the Mouth of Kronos,” a story of what happens to a torturer after the Iraqi prison has been closed down.
Other stories by such excellent writers as Paul G. Tremblay, Richard Bowes, Nick Mamatas and others are all horrifyingly wonderful. The best way to read these stories is one per sitting, to let them turn over in your mind and disturb your sleep before being replaced by a new, equally distressing tale replaces it and makes your imagination run wild. Read them now, while it is sunny and hot and the days stretch on, because when winter comes, these tales will turn your blood to ice.