What is Weird Noir?

Cover art © S. L. Johnson

People ask me all the time, what’s your secret? I assume they don’t mean the secret to my fine cheesecake (Holowczak’s sister’s recipe as adapted by Ted Yamada, but I didn’t tell ya), but the secret to my fabulous life. It’s simple: surround yourself with fabulous, creative people and introduce them to each other. Incredible things are bound to happen. That’s the short answer to why Weird Noir came about.

But what is it, you ask me.

I’m glad you asked, because I’m looking at the page proofs (and they look sweeeet) and I’ve decided to share the introduction with you all so you know where we’re coming from and why I am so excited about this project (short answer: fabulous, creative people who have all been introduced to each other). Out just in time for Halloween if all goes according to plan.

What is Weird Noir?

There’s been a lot of discussion about the concept of the ‘Weird’—largely an enterprise of the VanderMeers, Ann and Jeff, who do an admirable job of quantifying just what the genre (or sub-genre or non-genre) is, and their award-winning anthology The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories established the benchmarks of the genre. Its parameters were deftly encapsulated by Stephen Graham Jones’ flowchart.

I can’t say when it was that I decided to pursue the idea of ‘Weird Noir’ but I slipped into its waiting tentacles without much thought of escape. I had been drifting into crime like a penniless ex-boxer down on his luck. I blame Paul D. Brazill who lured me into writing a story for his Drunk on the Moon anthology. Once you have your way with a werewolf detective, you never go back.

But there are others in this dark wood, though some closer to the edges than others: John Connolly who blazed a trail of supernatural crime and Sarah Pinborough who lit the fire behind him. And looking back, what are Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence stories but a kind of supernatural detective fiction (and the direct inspiration for the comic I did with Elena Steier, Jane Quiet). And what about William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki, The Ghost Finder. Once I started to make connections, there was a lot more there to discover, including an awful lot of television: Kolchack, The X-Files and more modern fare like Supernatural and Grimm.

I’ve always had a bit of problem with crossing genres; a problem not for me, of course, but for a lot of editors, publishers and readers who don’t like that sort of promiscuous wandering back and forth across the tracks. I have written and do write mimetic crime fiction, but it’s as if the landscape of my mind slopes down toward the weird and I find my steps returning to its uncanny streets. I love noir because it’s as much about mood as what happens in the tale, though it’s likely to be something bad and characters will end up damaged, or dead. Atmosphere defines noir. But what about weird?

I’m not really the flowchart type; I’m more of a duck test woman. So if it walks like it’s weird, quacks like it’s weird and wraps itself in a trench coat, it’s Weird Noir for me.

When I wrote up the pitch for the Weird Noir anthology, I used this description:

‘On the gritty backstreets of a crumbling city, tough dames and dangerous men trade barbs, witticisms and a few gunshots. But there’s a new twist where urban decay meets the eldritch borders of another world: WEIRD NOIR. Featuring thugs who sprout claws and fangs, gangsters with tentacles and the occasional succubus siren: The ambience is pure noir but the characters aren’t just your average molls and mugs—the vamps might just be vamps. It’s Patricia Highsmith meets Shirley Jackson or Dashiell Hammett filtered through H. P. Lovecraft. Mad, bad and truly dangerous to know, but irresistible all the same.’

Honestly, I had no idea what I’d get for submissions, but the results exceeded my expectations. This is a lean, mean, uncanny collection of tales that surprise, alarm and delight. The stories have oodles of atmosphere and just the right chill of the uncanny.

Of course once we had the fabulous cover image by S. L. Johnson, everything fell into place.

As soon as I read Chloë Yates’ little freakshow tale, ‘A Kick in the Head’, I knew it had to  kick off the collection. She’s got a way with salty language that will make you laugh out loud rather than simply type the three letters LOL. You’ll find her dentally-challenged main character as bracing as a plunge into polar waters. The voice is audacious and reckless, careering into surprise and change without warning and yet remains completely believable within the weird world she’s created.

The elegant Mr Glamour himself takes the next slot with his seductive ‘Violet and Furs’. Richard Godwin evokes a dark and sensual London that hides a multitude of secrets. You can scent the blood in the air even as you sway to the music—and you know that everyone’s not going to make it to the end.

Karina Fabian offers a cynical PI who just happens to be a dragon. He mutters like Marlowe, but the problems he faces have a lot more to do with magic than anything that gumshoe ever faced. Add the first set of brothers into the mix and the world starts to lose it cohesiveness; sometimes we have to pay for ‘Sins of the Brother’.

On the dusty border between Texas and Mexico, a brujo kneels in the dirt by a tree that bears remembrances of those who have disappeared. I love the magic worker in Hector Acosta’s ‘Across the Border’ because he’s something of a confidence man—not because magic isn’t real, but because it’s hard work and he wants to take the easy way out.  Of course that’s not going to go wrong, right?

People tend to think of noir as dour, but there’s often a streak of black humour running through it. Jan Kozlowski’s ‘Corkscrewed’ captures that perfectly: even the name is utterly brilliantly funny. The realistic portrayal of the emergency med tech’s life slips seamlessly into the surreal with chilling ease.

I’d like to see Andrez Bergen’s ‘East of Écarté’ filmed by Dario Argento. In my head it was as I read it—though with far better dialogue than his giallo ever manages. There’s a teasing play with the conventions of the hard case shamus and an elegant turn to ballet. Bergen’s a writer after my own heart: rules? Boundaries? Who needs ‘em?

The surrealist poetry of ‘3 Kings’ and ‘The Mark’ come from the pen of Carol Borden, who is one of the stars behind the Cultural Gutter—folks who show how the mundane has all the riches of the elite. Monster movies, comics, pulp fiction: these arts traditionally treated as disposable and yet the wreckage is strewed with gems. Look for the sparkle.

What can I say about Mr B? He’s a pal, he makes me laugh and I never would have known him if he didn’t write some damn fine noir that also usually provokes you to laugh out loud at some morbid absurdity or a blackly humorous turn of events. In ‘Black Moon Rising’ we get a little more background for the werewolf PI Roman Dalton, but also for his mates the barman Duffy and his former partner Ivan Walker. The secrets in their past just seem to get darker and darker.

Jennifer Martin takes us into the mundane darkness of any city life, where the young and disenfranchised gather. Her nonchalant serial killer smugly assumes that he’s the only predator in town, but he’s easily cowed by the feral gangs at the club. He needs to find a victim, but kids these days—are they always what they seem?

Katherine Tomlinson’s ‘Identity Crisis’ hits close to the heart for me. Who’s more invisible in modern life than a middle aged woman? But who’s more prepared to make the most of that underestimation? Talk about not judging a book by its cover—oh, the ways we can be surprised.

I have only met Jason Michel in dreams. He has been kind enough to buy me drinks there, so I have nothing but good will for him. Yet I can’t help but think I need to keep an eye on this one, so clearly mad, bad and dangerous to know. His characters are too; lust for power takes all kinds of forms and there are appetites that cannot be satiated. This we know.

Asher Wismer’s ‘Evil and Life’ runs along like a fairly regular PI insurance investigation. There’s a weary recognition of the disappointments of life—not all wrongs can be redressed after all. But the facts don’t add up. The investigation requires a leap of faith that doesn’t come easily to someone grounded in facts, figures and medical reports.

With Michael S. Chong’s ‘Gus Weatherborne’ we step into the mythic, a place I love. Nonetheless we don’t stay there, instead returning to the almost obsessively mundane, where the powers of the gods offer no help. Love undoes us all. Power cannot save you from heartache.

I know that ‘Wonder Woman Walks into a Bar’ sounds like the set up of a joke. Leeyanne Moore runs with the premise and keeps it balanced delicately between realism and the fantastic, between humour and heartbreak. It’s a tough row to hoe, and she manages it with aplomb.

I figured at this point in the anthology we need a big blow out of fun; Christoper L. Irvin’s ‘Charred Kraken with Plum Butter’ rolls in to offer adventure and larger than life characters, tied up with intriguing mystery that gradually unravels into wild turns. Reading this made me run out and get some sushi, too.

Joyce Chng’s elegant ‘Yao Jin’ brings us back down to earth with ethereal violence, passion and mystery. The heat and the humidity seep through the lines and a languor fills your body, as if some enchantment snakes through the pages; you find yourself caught in this world.

W P Johnson’s ‘Train Tracks’ had an uphill climb. When I hear the words ‘coming of age story’ my face tends to look as if I am sucking limes gone bad a week before Tuesday. That’s because so many of them are overly sentimental bromances that drown their narratives in saccharine memoir. Johnson’s tale has no truck with that. And immediately I knew this story would bookend with Yates’ punch in the kisser. This tale is the snifter of cognac by the fire, when the embers have burned down and the truth can be told. There’s the sucker punch of loss, the elusive gold of that first real friendship and the cold reality of the broken heart.

Enjoy. Read them all. Feel free to create your own order, but come back to the start and read them all again.

They’re weird. They’re noir. It’s a genre. Yeah.

9 thoughts on “What is Weird Noir?

  1. cool…. crumbling cities and surreal landscapes ! —- If you’d like to get some fantastic spooky/dark art images (the work of 2 dozen cool artists in full color) grab a copy of my book WEIRDO NOIR — 2010 —
    Chronicle Books ! And — if you’re a Bukowski fan, get a copy of my book BUKOWSKI’S LA on amazon! — also the fabulous Paul David Brazill has given me the chance to write a couple of guest columns on his blog ! — and I write about film for pulpmetal (a zine)….

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  3. This is a great introduction to what I am sure will prove a transgressive anthology of stories that explore the boundaries of Noir. For Noir does that, it shows the interlude, that point where you can hear something between sentences and Kate and Darren have done a great job with this unusual, insightful, contemporary and necessary tribute to the genre.

  4. Pingback: Hail Cult Authors! « Leeyanne Moore

  5. Pingback: Weird Noir | Monstrous Industry

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