The New Black: A Neo-Noir Anthology, edited by Richard Thomas, is a collection of twenty dark and twisted tales from assorted genres: horror, crime, fantasy, science fiction, magical realism, and the grotesque (available May 13, 2014).
I tend to not get bogged down with defining genres. I’m sure some would question whether all or even any of the 20 stories in this collection can rightfully be called “noir.” But although I write about noir fiction I’ve never tried to define it, and when I hear or read someone else doing so, generally close my ears or turn the page or leave the computer screen. So whether these stories are truly noir is up for debate if anyone cares to have that discussion. Truthfully many of them just read like literary fiction to me, albeit with decidedly dark tones to them. They’re dark, for sure. Twisted. Macabre. Horrifying sometimes, surreal at others. If they made me think of older writers it was Edger Allen Poe, Jorge Luis Borges, Shirley Jackson, et. al., more than, say, Jim Thompson or David Goodis.
One common thread in many of the various tales is family dysfunction. I don’t mean family dysfunction like basic sibling rivalry or a household where the parents don’t get along so well; I mean problems like an overgrown infant who feels his mother up and threatens his father with deadly objects, a man who keeps getting sexually drawn to teenage girls including his own niece, a father and son possibly becoming cannibals while lost out in the woods, etc.
Check out this segment from Kyle Minor’s “The Truth and All Its Ugly,” in which a substance-abusing man shares some of his junk with his teenage son, after the wife/mother has abandoned them both:
I must have left the door open a crack, because I saw Danny there, just outside, watching. He knew it was a thing I was doing, but I don’t think he ever saw me do it before.
I knew good and well that wasn’t the type of thing I wanted him to see. Any other time I would have thrown a shoe at him if I caught him spying like that. But when you take your the truth and all its ugly medicine through your nose, it hits your bloodstream fast and hard. That’s why you take it that way. So my first thought was to throw a shoe, but before that first thought was even gone the juice hit my bloodstream, and there was my boy, his eyes looking at mine through the crack in the bathroom door, and if I ever loved him I loved him more in that now than in any ever, and right alongside that first thought was the second, which came out my mouth the same time it came into my head, even though I knew it was wrong as I thought it and said it. “Boy,” I said. “Come on in here and try a line.”
The writing in the book is smart and fluid throughout, as you’d expect from a list of writers with publishing credits as impressive as those of the featured scribes. As I read along I was constantly aware of poring through the work of people who have full command of their pens. All this, yet at times the stories didn’t make me feel as much as they could have. Some of the pieces came off to me like particularly tasteful wallpaper: nice to look at yet just there. Others affected me more deeply, though. One such selection is Benjamin Percy’s “Dial Tone,” which concerns a mentally unbalanced telemarketer whose depersonalizing work on the phones seems to be doing his head in. Listen to him:
Sometimes, when I go to work for yet another eight-hour shift or when I visit my parents for yet another casserole dinner, I want to be alone more than anything in the world. But once I’m alone, I feel I can’t stand another second of it. Everything is mixed up.
This is why I pick up the phone sometimes and listen. There is something reassuring about a dial tone. That simple sound, a low purr, as constant and predictable as the sun’s path across the sky. No matter if you are in Istanbul or London or Beijing or Redmond, you can bring your ear to the receiver and hear it.
Sometimes I pick up the phone and bring it to my ear for the same reason people raise their heads to peer at the moon when they’re in a strange place. It makes them—it makes me—feel oriented, calmer than I was a moment before. Perhaps this has something to do with why I drive to the top of the hill and park beneath the cell tower and climb onto the hood of my Neon and lean against the windshield with my hands folded behind my head to watch the red light blinking and the black shapes of birds swirling against the backdrop of an even blacker sky.
I am here to listen. The radio signals emanating from the dial tone tower sound like a blade hissing through the air or a glob of spit sizzling on a hot stove: something dangerous, about to draw blood or catch fire. It’s nice. I imagine I hear in it the thousands of voices channeling through the tower at any given moment, and I wonder what terrible things could be happening to these people that they want to tell the person on the other end of the line but don’t.
One of the most disturbing stories in the collection (and that’s saying something, trust me) is Matt Bell’s “Dredge.” This one is about an unemployed factory worker who has a violent familial past worthy of a Poe predicament. He happens upon a drowned teenage girl in a pond and, instead of calling authorities, takes her corpse to his home and stuffs her in a freezer in his garage, having decided to keep her body from the police while he attempts to investigate her death, and avenge its perpetrator, on his own. Feel like getting creeped out? Tune in on his thoughts after the electric company shuts his power off for lack of payment, and he panics about how he will keep the dead girl’s body frozen:
Back in the garage, he works fast, cracking the blocks of ice on the cement floor and dumping them over the girl’s body. He manages to cover her completely, suppressing the pang of regret he feels once he’s unable to see her face through the ice. For a second, he considers crawling inside the freezer himself, sweeping away the ice between them. Letting his body heat hers, letting her thaw into his arms.
What he wonders is, would it be better to have one day with her than a forever separated by ice?
Chances are, different readers of this anthology will be moved (or freaked) more by selections other than the ones that affected me the most. But one thing I feel pretty sure in stating: most people, when they’ve turned the last page, will be reaching for whatever and/or whomever makes them feel safest. And they probably won’t be looking forward to that night’s dreams.
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Brian Greene's short stories, personal essays, and writings on books, music, and film have appeared in more than 20 different publications since 2008. His articles on crime fiction have also been published by Crime Time, Paperback Parade, Noir Originals, and Mulholland Books. Brian lives in Durham, NC with his wife Abby, their daughters Violet and Melody, their cat Rita Lee, and too many books. Follow Brian on Twitter @brianjoebrain.