March Noir: The Complicated Love Affair Between Horror and Noir

Posted by on Mar 14, 2013 in Apex Publications Blog: Matters of SF, Fantasy, and Horror | 0 comments

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It’s noir month here at Apex, and that means, uh, noir. Unfortunately, I rarely read noir, and double unfortunately, this is my very first blog post here. I was intending to sound impressive and stuff, but like most of my attempts in that arena, it looks like I have to settle for being moderately unremarkable instead.

Noir Fiction’s Long, Strange Relationship with Horror

So bear with me while I explore one subject in noir that I’m actually capable of discussing, which is its long, strange relationship with horror. Now, at first glance, the two might not seem to have much in common, except for dames with sweet gams and headless people that only speak backwards. Wait, I think my notes got mixed up.

What I meant to say was this: Consider the origins of the detective story. Before Holmes and Poirot, there was C. Auguste Dupin, created by none other than Edgar Allan Poe. Both horror and the detective genre grew out of short stories and serials published on the cheap. Both were critically panned and given unflattering names (penny dreadfuls and pulp, respectively).

Despite their shared growing pains, they didn’t experience much overlap in those early decades. Sure, they appealed to the same crowds. William Gaines and EC Comics (publisher of titles like Tales from the Crypt and Crime SuspenStories) knew that. But despite this, the two rarely mingled.

Maybe it’s just because of the nature of the two genres. Noir is rooted in reality. A darker, grittier reality, of course, but the fear is from a world spinning out of control into corruption and violence. It’s a human kind of fear. Horror is more about the allegory. Everyday fears are reinterpreted as monsters. It’s not the nature of existence and our struggle to understand our own realities, both inside and outside of our own minds, that we’re afraid of. Instead, it’s squid monsters from outer space.

C. Auguste Dupin

Illustration of C. Auguste Dupin in The Purloined Letter

(An aside—One of my favorite deconstructions of horror creatures is S. Peter Davis’s amazing essay on how vampires and zombies now represent the fears of the two wings of the U.S. government.)

In modern times, however, we finally have them together. They’re not quite the peanut butter and chocolate of genre fiction (that would be sci-fi and horror), but maybe they’re like… crispy rice and chocolate? Yeah, that works. Noir is kinda crispy, I guess. Anyway, paranormal and horror easily cross over with investigative and mystery stories these days. In fact, you can’t really swing a dead cat in a bookstore horror section without hitting a few dozen books of the “psychic detective” or “paranormal investigative government agency” variety (Also, you can’t swing a dead cat in a bookstore more than once, so save it for a special occasion), and we owe it all to The X-Files, which successfully blurred the lines between horror, sci-fi, and the good old detective story. It paved the way for dozens of similar shows, movies, video games, and yes, fiction.

Even the hardboiled private dick stories are starting to pop back up with a new coat of horror paint. Right around the same time as The X-Files’ debut, Stephen King wrote the 1993 short story “Umney’s Last Case” which did a nice, horrific deconstruction of the hardboiled genre. Since then, he’s written two novels for Hard Case Crime—The Colorado Kid (which became Syfy’s Haven) and the upcoming Joyland.

The Colorado Kid

The Colorado Kid by Stephen King

And a giant name like King aside, there are plenty of other writers carrying the torch that Raymond Chandler laid down. Will Christopher Baer’s Phineas Poe series (starting with the amazing Kiss Me, Judas) is pulp detective to the gills, purple prose included, but includes the horrors of mental institutions, organ theft, and drug abuse. Craig Clevenger’s The Contortionist’s Handbook and Dermaphoria walk similar ground, especially in regards to the drug abuse. And Warren Ellis, English comic book auteur, has written two novels, Crooked Little Vein and Gun Machine, both of which I would describe as a transgressive, gothic-industrial kind of hardboiled.

So, despite nearly a century of having a lot in common and several mutual friends, horror and noir merely flirted at best. It was like they couldn’t commit to one another. Noir couldn’t be tied down and horror was just into too much strange shit. But now, they’ve put their reservations aside and have started being seen together. Maybe there aren’t exactly wedding bells in their future, but they’re more than happy to have the occasional dalliance, which we can all watch and enjoy. Wait, this metaphor got really weird.

From Modern Noir Master Tom Piccirilli
What Makes You Die by Tom PiccirilliScreenwriter Tommy Pic fell hard from Hollywood success and landed in a psychiatric ward, blacked out from booze and unmedicated manic depression. This is not the first time he’s come to in restraints, surrounded by friends and family who aren’t there.

This time, though, he also awakes to a message from his agent. The first act of his latest screenplay is their ticket back to the red carpets. If only Tommy could remember writing it. Trying to recapture the hallucinations that crafted his masterpiece, he chases his kidnapped childhood love, a witch from the magic shop downstairs, and the Komodo dragon he tried to cut out of his gut one Christmas Eve. The path to professional redemption may be more dangerous than the fall.

…This is what makes you die.

Order What Makes You Die by Tom Piccirilli

M. Asher CantrellM. Asher Cantrell is the pen name of M. Asher Cantrell because he doesn’t understand how pseudonyms work.

Ashe was born in Nashville, TN and received a B.A. in English/Writing from Middle Tennessee State University. He now lives near Nashville in an apartment that is smaller than the inside of many automobiles. He has been featured on sites like Cracked and Mental Floss, and his first book, The Book of Word Records, is available soon from Adams Media.

You can contact him (work offers welcome) by e-mailing or, if you’re lucky and within about a 100 yard radius, you can try shouting his name loudly.

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