Steve's Reviews > Supernatural Noir

Supernatural Noir by Ellen Datlow
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's review
Oct 24, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: crime-badness-noir, horror
Read in October, 2011

I have to admit, I had some reservations over Ellen Datlow’s Supernatural Noir. Oh, I definitely wanted to read it since it contained stories by a number of writers I admire. But the whole thrust of the collection – Supernatural Noir – reminded me a bit of Datlow’s previous effort, Lovecraft Unbound, which contained a number of great stories, along with about a 100 pages of filler. In that effort, Datlow set out to have a collection of Lovecraft stories that were not, on surface at least, identifiably Lovecraftian. No pastiches please. A nice goal, I suppose, but the strongest stories in that collection were the ones touched base with various Lovecraftian tropes. And then there was the boring and bad. A backfire.

With Supernatural Noir, I could foresee a similar scenario playing out: A narrowly focused anthology, and not enough good material. Well, I was wrong. Most of the writing here is very strong, and the idea of Noir is elastic enough – without editorial boundaries – to allow the writers to rock. Only on two occasions could I find stories that I didn’t consider Noir. Elizabeth Bear’s “The Romance,” and “The Absent Eye,” by Brian Evanson, but I’ll touch on those stories below.

One brief comment on Noir and Horror (which may be more accurate than “Supernatural”), I think they are indeed kissing cousins of a sort. Both rely often on atmosphere, the idea of the labyrinth, and losers (well, the last is more specific and necessary for Noir). One thing I had in mind as I started reading this was Otto Penzler’s comment regarding Noir (from a recent anthology he did with James Ellroy). Penzler said (and I’m paraphrasing here), that Noir is not Detective Fiction, and he did not think that Chandler was necessarily a writer of Noir. That’s a controversial statement, but I see his point. No White Knights. What Penzler also said, and that scored with me, is that Noir is basically about Losers. Well, Datlow’s collection has quite a collection of those, and atmosphere to burn. A few comments on the stories (*Means worth reading again):

“The Dingus,” by Gregory Frost. My first encounter with Frost, and it’s a good one. It’s a period piece (1940s?) set in New York (I think). It’s about an ex-boxer, taxi driver, who stumbles into gangsters, revenge, and a witch from the old country. It’s pure pulp – and I loved it.

“The Getaway,” by Paul Tremblay. I’ve been hearing good things about Tremblay, and after reading this, I can see why. A robbery gone bad, memories, fate, and a blurring reality. Great atmosphere.

“Mortal Bait,” by Richard Bowes. Something about elves and detectives. I couldn’t get into it.

“Little Shit,” by Melanie Tem. Very gritty story about a midget (?) who can push people with her mind (I think), who is also in college (a prodigy is seems). Oh, and she helps cops capture pedophiles. I’m still not sure what I think of this story. The voice is compelling, but I didn’t like the ending. I may need to re-read this one. There’s certainly enough good here to make me want to. I wonder if this story would have worked better as a longer piece?

*“Ditch Witch,” by Lucius Shepard. A couple of hookers (one male, one female) on the run, with a stolen car, stolen money, and a bag of coke. They stop at a secluded hotel in the Pacific Northwest, and encounter evil Nazi elves. One of my favorites stories in the collection. A wild mix of hallucination, Noir, and Horror. Outstanding.

“The Last Triangle,” by Jeffery Ford. A loser hooked on drugs, is befriended by an old lady on the eve of a magician war. I really liked this one up until the end, which I wasn’t crazy about. But the loser here is a great character, and there’s some darkly funny moments.

*“The Carrion Gods in Their Heavens,” by Laird Barron. I think Barron is one of the greatest writers of Horror today, and I wasn’t disappointed here. An abused woman and her lover flee to a bad house in the woods. There’s a lot going on here, one of which is Barron moving Noir out of its comfort zone – an urban environment with its mean streets, into an even meaner zone, the Wilderness. My only bitch here is that I think this could have been a longer piece (a novella – a form that Barron is an expert in). But it’s totally nasty, totally dark. One of the best stories in the collection.

“The Romance,” by Elizabeth Bear. Bear can clearly write, but I didn’t like this story. It’s about a haunted merry-go-round, a birthday party, and pot brownies. Does that sound like Noir? It isn’t.

“Dead Sister,” Joe Lansdale. Set in 1958, it’s about a detective who is asked by some beautiful woman to check into the desecration of her dead sister’s grave. Lansdale is a great writer of pulp, but he phoned this one in. Button pushing pure and simple. There’s some good freaky moments, but the whole time you’re reading it, you know he’s done better.

*“Comfortable in Her Skin” by Lee Thomas. Good God! Imagine a “Sopranos” episode scripted by Clive Barker in his Books of Blood days. But I doubt HBO would ever of aired this episode. One of the best stories in the collection, but it’s as dark as it gets.

*“But for Scars,” by Tom Piccirilli. If there is such a thing as Supernatural Noir, Piccirilli would be viewed as one of the founding fathers, since he’s mixing it with these genres for some time now. Very pulpy, and very good story about murder, motorcycle gangs, and mental illness. You can’t help but think of the “Sons of Anarchy” while reading this. If that show was indeed an inspiration for this story, it’s way better, and more original, than the overly ballyhooed SOA effort/homage by Stephen King and Joe Hill from a couple of years ago.

*“The Blisters on My Heart,” by Nate Southard. I’m not sure I got the whole blisters/heart thing, but that may have been due to distracted reading on my part. That said, I liked the mean economy of this story. A jealous lover, a demonic rival, and a lap dancing beauty in the middle. Pulp the way it should be.

*”The Absent Eye,” by Brian Evenson. Evenson is one of the most interesting writers in speculative fiction today. I went through the trouble of saying up above that this was not, to my mind, Noir. It’s Horror, it’s Literature, and it’s good. A boy suffers a childhood accident, losing an eye. Unfortunately, it opens up a strange universe of pain and dark wonder. I’ll say no more.

“The Maltese Unicorn” by Caitlan Kiernan. Kiernan is one the very best writers of dark fiction out there. I think her recent Red Tree is a Horror classic. However, here I wasn’t won over. It’s a period piece, set in the 1930s. Kiernan’s great at doing the historical stuff, but I thought this story was too long, and tried to do too much. The cracking wise by various characters always seemed to go on an exchange too long. All of that aside, there’s some good stuff. When you find out what the unicorn really is, you can’t help but laugh at the outrageousness of it. An OK story from a great writer.

“Dreamer of the Day,” by Nick Mamatas. Good story about a woman who wants her husband dead. A good balance of the two genres. The Dreamer will creep you out.

*“In Paris, In the Mouth of Kronos” by John Langan. Langan is one of the most versatile writers of dark fiction today. I’ve not always been on board with his efforts, but I can clearly see he’s got a full quiver of literary arrows to fire. Here he totally surprised me. It’s kind of like Robert Ludlum writing a Cthulhu Mythos story – but it’s considerably better than that. Beyond the story itself (which is about ex-soldiers trying to kidnap a former “associate”), Langan has some things to say about torture, Iraq, and the price for entering such darkness. One of the best stories in the collection.
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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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message 1: by Ann (new) - added it

Ann Schwader Excellent review. This is the sort of thing Goodreads needs more of. Thank you for taking the time to prepare this!

Steve Ann wrote: "Excellent review. This is the sort of thing Goodreads needs more of. Thank you for taking the time to prepare this!"

Thank you!

Clint Awesome review, dude. Clive Barker is the first thing that sprang into my mind when I read "Comforatble in Her Skin."

Steve Clint wrote: "Awesome review, dude. Clive Barker is the first thing that sprang into my mind when I read "Comforatble in Her Skin.""

Thanks, Clint!

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