Monday 22 February 2021

Round-table: Progressive Speculative Noir

We will be publishing a Noir-themed issue of The Future Fire later this year, guest edited by TFF associate editor Valeria. To get us into the mood, and to help prospective authors think about what the intersection of Noir and TFF’s interest in progressive speculative fiction might look like, we have invited a handful of authors, editors and other friends of TFF to discuss the questions and think about examples. Welcome and thanks to M.L. Clark, Benjanun Sriduangkaew, Mame Bougouma Diene, Fábio Fernandes and M. Bennardo. Valeria will kick us off…

Valeria Vitale: Thank you all for joining this virtual round table. We can take the discussion in any direction we like, but I’m particularly interested in speculative noir fiction, and in how a genre that has often hosted the ugliest stereotypes about gender, race, sexuality, disability can be (and has been) used to tell progressive stories, without losing its distinctive character.

I’ll introduce myself briefly: I am one of the editors of The Future Fire magazine, and I have co-edited some of the Publishing anthologies. I discovered Noir through cinema in my teens, and I’ve fallen in love with it since. I think that what attracted me to the genre then was how it seemed to break all the rules about what a successful story should look like: there was no happy ending, no catharsis, no redemption. And yet they were immensely popular and resonated with a very large audience. I think I liked how they put the spotlight on our fragilities and our mistakes. Maybe they made us a little bit kinder to ourselves.

Let’s start with this question: Why does Noir fascinate you?

M.L. Clark: I’m struck by the positivity in your view of Noir, Valeria; mine bears quite the opposite. For me, Noir initially arose from growing cynicism in public institutions, along with mounting anxieties about the loss of secure life prospects for traditional masculinity—both concerns being heavily informed by how The Great Depression shaped the US economy. From classic 30s through 50s films and books of the type, to resurgences in the 70s and 80s, to recent additions like True Detective, Noir consistently depicts a smart, disaffected outsider to the whole facade of ‘normal’ life, who knows (or learns) too much about how broken the world really is to feel that he can do much for it… except maybe fix this one small thing, solve this one little case. And yet, along the way femme fatales, queer-coded men, and other disruptions of a lost ideal (usually “innocent,” nuclear-family America; in speculative variants, often the loss of the fully “human”) leave him wondering if even that one small thing was worth fixing at all. Noir fascinates me because it’s an extremely dangerous storytelling mode, most commonly reinforcing the idea that our damaged world can’t really be healed, even if some of us feel compelled to try anyway. The genre’s remediation is, for me, not an easy task—which makes it all the more interesting a challenge.

Benjanun Sriduangkaew: Noir is traditionally rooted in gender roles of the most restrictive, frequently misogynistic sort. But I find there’s a lot of potential in the aesthetics and atmosphere of it, because bleakness interests me (and I find catharsis in the bleakness itself), and I got really fascinated by the (rare and few) lesbian Noir I’ve come across. The Noir detective is very much a social outcast, who feels othered from social conventions and the social contract; a queer one seems like the obvious choice. And at the same time the Noir format refuses didacticism, the idea that characters have to ‘grow’ and ‘change to become better’ by the end, which is an idea I’ve always found simplistic and stultifying.

Mame Bougouma Diene: I usually think of Noir as a visual genre before being literary, probably because my introduction to it was through Out of the Past with Robert Mitchum. I was struck by the cynical, witty, I-don’t-give-a-f repartee and the bleak outlook on life. Noir is very much the anti-Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Broken characters who usually can’t see the happiness that is right at bay. Kazuo Ishiguro does that a lot: the reader sees all that the character is missing, because his own trauma gets in the way. I like it because there is an absence of idealism that is very common in real life. Most people don’t change, it’s very difficult as individuals to break with our outlook on life, pull a 180 and drag ourselves out of the hole. Mindfulness is not prevalent in real life, even for mindful people, and that realism works for me; often my characters are that cynical, disabused person, whose ideals are motivated less by utopia than sheer spite. A lot of cliches are attributed to Noir: the femme fatale and a lot of 60s gender ideals, but it doesn’t have to be. When people are hurting, even the most beautiful people, how does that play out? I think Noir ask essential questions about happiness, but from the other angle: when you start so low, how far do you get? Not how far can you get. How much control we have over our own lives, is it the events that influence us, is it our past and never shaking it?

Fábio Fernandes: I’ve been kind of fascinated by Noir lately less because of its time-honored stereotypes than because of the possibilities still untapped that steer the narrative out of the usual scenery of gumshoes-and-femme-fatales, of rain-soaked seedy streets at night and all that. I discovered recently the Surf Noir subgenre when I was invited to write for a Brazilian anthology, and I found that I could play with some Noir stereotypes while dismissing others and changing things a lot in the process. I took what fascinates me more about Noir: its rich characters. At its best, Noir presents the readers with fun, snappy dialogue from people from all walks of life, and usually you don’t get to know much about them—all is presented by the writer on a need-to-know basis, a thing which I’m totally fine with, even though I always want to know more. So I tried to put more flesh in these characters, or more color. That’s what fascinates me in Noir: the fact that most of it is in black-and-white only on the surface, but very colorful deep inside.

Valeria: Thank you for your replies. It’s great to see how a genre that is considered so notoriously formulaic still resonates in slightly different ways with each of us. I wouldn’t say my vision of Noir is positive, but, like Mame, I also find Noir often closer to life than other genres. And, even if the main character is usually disenchanted or even cynical, they can’t help trying to fix that one small thing that really starts bothering them, as ML said, even if it may turn out to be impossible or pointless. I like the fact that Noir protagonists never seem to learn. Again, pretty much like us.

I’m not surprised that in a round table with quite a few writers, you’re drawn to the challenges: deciding how much information to devote to the investigation/resolution of the mystery and how much to character development; how to play with the tropes but avoid the cliches; how much to push the witty dialogue without making it obnoxious. But also by the rewards of telling a story that breaks some worn expectations.

Let’s move forward with the second question, that Fabio has already introduced: What does Speculative Noir look like? How has the genre evolved over time, thanks to the interaction with other literary genres and traditions? What are the most interesting cross-contaminations? The most natural as well as the most unexpectedly good?

For me, having grown up with a taste for the gothic and the macabre, the most obvious encounter was with ghost stories and, in general, with the supernatural. I was also introduced to Noir through cinema first, and Hollywood was disappointingly very cautious about adding any non-realistic element. The corpse-narrator in Sunset Boulevard is more a narrative device than an actual supernatural touch. And even though the supernatural element in Vertigo is a part of a con, I always thought it worked well enough as a gothic story in its first part of the movie. The Curse of the Cat People is the only Noir with an explicit non-realistic element I can think of, from those years—though the underlying xenophobic narrative makes it a bit hard to watch. The first novel I read with Noir taken completely out from its familiar contexts was Zoo City. With that I discovered that Noir and magic could go very well together, and I have become a sucker for any good example of this cross-genre that I can find!

What about you? What does Speculative Noir look like?

M.L.: Funnily enough, I’m re-watching The Expanse Season 1 at present, and of course fedora-flaunting Miller is a perfect example of contemporary speculative Noir. Miller is cynical and wise, with a soft spot for petty criminals just trying to get by, and a hard line for those who exploit the vulnerable. He also has a “cute missing girl” he just can’t shake, even when his boss tells him to drop the case, and it leads him to folly the way Noir so often does. His social context is also established through the genre’s two most common reference points for “seedy underworld” (brothels and bars), although he’s figured as a friend rather than an exploiter in both realms.

Just as classic Noir insinuates that the world has been made hopeless by the loss of traditional U.S. white-heteronormative stability, so too does speculative Noir thrive on its own notions of What We’ve Lost. In early cyberpunk, these were shaped around strong loss-of-empire anxieties (i.e. white-coded protagonists adrift in bleakly Asiatic high-tech futures). In a great deal of sci-fi Noir today, transhumanist anxieties persist alongside fascination with new-tech itself.

To my mind, Miller is the best traditionally coded character in the contemporary subgenre—a hapless fallen angel bearing witness to a broken world—but do we need to keep using traditionally coded characters in speculative Noir? Not at all. The real potential of the subgenre, as others have already alluded to and will surely expand upon, lies with altering the nature of its detecting protagonists, along with the “What We’ve Lost” component shaping each story’s moral backdrop.

Mame: I was thinking of how The Expanse started off as well, I liked the detective vibe, and I’m realizing that most of the Noir I wrote has either that detective or seedy underworld thing, perhaps I can’t imagine much beyond what I know, but looking at running TV shows I find that Doom Patrol epitomizes what spéculative Noir can do.

It opens as classic Noir with the Nazi doctor in South America but it’s what it does with the characters. There is that almost inevitable investigative plot but I like how it takes broken and diverse characters and explores how their own attitudes got them where they are. It is witty, dark and cynical, and laced with unresolved genuine feelings. I like how Rita comes to look back at how she was molded into a femme fatal, and the show questions that. Larry was closeted and never came to terms with it. I am glad they explore the complexity of what it really means to be Cyborg, and only as human as he feels he is.

That’s where I see potential for Noir and spec fic. By sublimating the characters, and imbuing them with powers, you detach them and almost force them into being self reflective and question old cliches through the show. I hope it doesn’t get too hopeful though, Noir has to stay noir

Benjanun: Ergo Proxy (2006) is an interesting neo-noir show, centering a female protagonist living in a dystopian shielded city that’s located on a post-apocalyptic Earth. The show opens with her dealing with rogue AIs but of course it soon turns into much more—she uncovers the truth of her city and the world outside, and of the immortal artificial beings that have been created to guard the decayed world. Being an anime it doesn’t engage or have any interest in orientalist tropes, and the visual quality still stands up surprisingly well. It inherits a lot of sensibilities from the 1995 Ghost in the Shell and pushes at the questions of state surveillance, what existence is like when you’re essentially state property. Re-l, the protagonist, dresses a lot like the traditional Noir detective: lots of black, carries a big gun, is technically a cop. She is privileged but also alienated from her society (and, as she later discovers, she’s a clone of one of the world’s immortal guardians). She is empowered and outwardly cold, but at the same time subjected to the genre’s misogyny (is it really necessary that she’s attacked in her bathroom, though thankfully she’s clothed at the time?), positioned as someone close to finding the truth but also too sheltered to confront it. And, unfortunately, heterosexual because despite the show’s self-conscious avant-garde approach it’s still written by people who don’t have much conception of queerness.

But it’s still, to compare to a very low bar, much more interesting and much less misogynistic than say The Dresden Files and its copycats; simply making the protagonist—the very first person who introduces us to the world—a woman rather than a man changes a lot. Here the Noir anxieties are woven into the nascent sapience of ‘infected’ androids, and the truth of the world being too terrible is literalized: everyone in the dystopian cities have been lied to, and no one’s identity is what they think it is. The show concludes on an ambivalent note, part catharsis and part hinting that what comes next will be genocidal war. The scope of it is much bigger than traditional Noir, and its speculative elements give the story a lot more freedom (and a lot less restrictions in gender roles).

M. Bennardo: I was excited to read Valeria’s views on speculative Noir, as she mentions several of my favorite Noir classics. But I have a bit of a different reaction to the cautiousness regarding outright fantasy that she describes. Just as speculative fiction can have a complex relationship with reality, so often does Noir. I wouldn’t like to argue that Noir is a subgenre of speculative fiction (it obviously isn’t), but there are certainly elements of Noir that can scratch the same itches for me that some SFF stories do. Importantly in Noir, the fantastic must exist comfortably alongside the “real world” and cannot break the sense of underlying reality. But rather than disappointing, I find this approach endlessly fascinating because it mirrors how the fantastic fits into my own life. I have certainly had extraordinary experiences that have shaken my views of reality or my own identity, but like the inhabitants of Noir stories I still have to find a way to go on living in the everyday world.

Many others in this conversation have already noted how Noir (anti)heroes are separated or outcast from the “normal” world in various ways, which is a theme that’s right at home in much speculative fiction as well. Others have also mentioned the stunning and distinctive aesthetics of Noir. Noir films, almost by definition, take place in a world where patterns of light and dark, rainy city streets, cocked hats, and clouds of cigarette smoke reflect the moods of the characters and hint at dark conspiracies glimpsed obliquely. When this kind of expressionist visual style reaches extreme heights, as in the famous river sequence from Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter, there can be moments in which Noir drifts into a mode that feels closer to fantasy than reality.

The same kind of tweaking of reality happens in Noir-era crime writing as well. The French writers Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (writing together as Boileau-Narcejac) had an extremely prolific and successful partnership in the 1950s writing the novels that would be adapted into Vertigo and Les Diaboliques, as well as the screenplay for Eyes Without a Face, among others. Just from that list of credits, it’s obvious that they hardly shied away from mixing crime, horror, and fantasy themes into the same story. Reportedly, their writing method involved Pierre Boileau outlining wild plots full of fantastical twists and turns (like the apparent reincarnation of a dead woman in Vertigo), while Narcejac would then write the stories out in the most realistic way possible. As Boileau described it in an interview: “[Narcejac] turns a witch or a ghost into someone you might meet on the Metro.”

If you’re willing to squint, there are many other potential connections between the themes of Noir and SFF, given how often the genre deals with changing identities and dark doubles (see: Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr Ripley), or revelations that splinter a previously mundane reality (see: the already-mentioned Out of the Past or Vera Caspary’s Bedelia), or questions about the truth of our perceptions (see: Vertigo or Otto Preminger’s Bunny Lake Is Missing, based on Evelyn Piper’s novel) or the ensnarement of an innocent person in a bewildering world of crime and conspiracy (see: any wrong man thriller). Of course, any suggestion of true fantasy is usually explained away by the end… and yet, in these cases and many others, the feeling of the fantastic is often what lingers for me even after the explanations have been given, only heightened by the carefully-drawn reality with which it coexists.

Fábio: The Expanse has already been mentioned here, and, though I’m really enjoying the series (haven’t got to the books yet), its contribution to the Noir subgenre is basically the archetype of the sad, broken gumshoe, but this time in space. I just started rereading one of my favorite Iain M. Banks’ novels, Use of Weapons, and, even if we can’t call it a Noir novel, it certainly shows a few aspects of this subgenre that I enjoy hugely. To wit: the down-on-his-luck spy, Zakalwe, who is called to another mission and does it, even if reluctantly; a dark secret of the past; a femme fatale (though here the concept is quite subverted), Diziet Sma, whose relation to Zakalwe is never made clear, and she doesn’t quite seduce him, but rather prods him in the direction she wants him to go. There’s one moment, halfway through the story, where Zakalwe acts pretty much like David Bowie’s Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth, and this cloak-and-dagger business is not that different from what Philip Marlowe did in The Big Sleep, for that matter.

Valeria: Thank you again for your replies. And also for feeding my reading/watching list! I really enjoyed your takes on how Noir themes became intertwined with sci-fi, cyberpunk, gothic and speculative fiction tropes more generally. You mentioned quite a few interesting examples, but I’m sure there is still a lot of room for exploration.

Our third (and last) question focuses on progressive Noir. We have all noted how often Noir is built on retrograde narratives. But I believe that these narratives are not prescriptive of the genre, and that they are not a necessary ingredient to recreate the “feeling” of Noir. If an author thinks there is no Noir without misogyny or racism, that probably tells more about the person writing than the Noir aesthetic. There are excellent noirs with women detectives, for example, like Sarah Paretsky or Nicola Griffith’s novels. One of the things I appreciate in those books is how no one seems especially surprised about it. I see more and more noirs that, instead of simply avoiding offensive stereotypes, actively tell progressive stories, exposing racism or xenophobia, for example. The most notable example is probably Walter Mosley, here. What I have been quite enjoying lately in Noir is a certain tenderness towards those “seedy underworlds,” not because they are picturesque/exotic or because they make us feel patronisingly superior, but because they are populated by people who have dignity and deserve respect, and maybe even a loser detective who is ready to listen to what they have to say. What I would really like to see is a Noir story where everything goes wrong, of course (it’s still a Noir after all), but a group of dropouts decide to stick together while they go through it.

Now, over to you: What can make Noir progressive? Have you come across interesting examples of progressive Noir? What did they do well, and what do you think is still missing?

Benjanun: I loved the Aud Torvingen novels—the detective isn’t just a woman, she’s a fantastically wealthy butch lesbian; she is a rejection of Noir’s misogyny several times over. Aud views the world, at the start of her series, almost purely through a lens of violence. She graphically imagines how she could murder complete strangers with her bare hands, which doesn’t make her very nice but then again, why would she have to be nice? As a character she repudiates both the thought that lesbians must suffer from trauma related to either homophobia or sexual assault, and that queer characters must model good behavior to be respectable and acceptable. It’s still all pretty white, but as far as lesbian power fantasies go it’s potent.

Turning back to visual media, and the speculative in particular, Psycho-Pass is a cyberpunk procedural with a lot of the usual elements of Noir (the police officer turned maverick to hunt the criminal who got away in vengeance, a lot of seedy underbelly). It does something interesting by having a sheltered young woman as the co-protagonist while leading you to believe that the cat-and-mouse chase between two men is the primary driving story; by the end this is subverted—she turns out to be the agent of systemic change. Two of the secondary characters are women in a relationship (and who survive the entire series), and the setting is a sharp critique of state surveillance, border control, capitalism, and the suppression of political dissent. Unfortunately the franchise still stumbles into sexist pitfalls, and there’s a lot of graphic violence—sexual and otherwise—where women are the victims. The treatment of its few trans characters is heinous, so even in more thoughtful mainstream works there’s still a long way to go.

M.L.: When it comes to progressive futures for Noir, I keep thinking philosophically. Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality (1976) makes an important point we often forget because of, well, the kinds of assholes who usually talk about Foucault. In it, Foucault argues that mid-20th-century Western society routinely invoked Victorian mores as oppressive (even though they were far messier and more impassioned than most realize), so that any deviation from them would suddenly make us seem progressive by contrast. In reality, though, the construction of this imaginary Victorianism was just another way of keeping our culture conservative, always pulling us back to a more rigid starting point than we needed to accept in our worldbuilding. We keep putting ourselves in cages, in other words, so that we can seem radical for even just trying to break free.

Noir, I think, falls into this pattern of establishing cages that can make the merest efforts of escape seem radical—which makes a genuinely progressive breakout tough. As I noted in previous responses, there’s a “What We’ve Lost” cadence to huge swaths of Noir, and I think this has to be our starting point for changing the nature of the genre’s “cage”. Rather than fixate on a lost ideal, we need to build Noir that targets a lost commitment to the hard and ongoing work of progress—and the capacity for optimism amid the struggle. I think folks in my North American generation—Gen Y—will resonate strongly with this, too, because when we were kids our TV was strikingly progressive. We had far more mainstream representation of a wide range of cultures and issues, in a wide range of genres, and kids’ shows were allowed to be radically environmentalist in their messaging. 9/11 brought a vicious turn in our media consciousness, very much in keeping with the worst of Noir’s ideas about a “lost white nuclear family ideal” being responsible for the nation’s vulnerability to attack. In the wake of this shift, movies and TV became more conservative, more homogenous and heteronormative, and more stratified. A whole Anglo-Western generation has grown up with that shift to “neutral” and “less political” programming, and only in recent years have we seen more mainstream pushes to reinvent the wheel.

What I want speculative Noir to do today is provide characters who walk through the flaws of the world with pragmatic hope, not cynicism; who look upon the work required to do the slightest good in the world… without despair. To this end, John Wick might be a good example of how such a Noir sensibility can be carried forward—because he’s propelled through struggle by the knowledge that if he dies, the memory of all that was good and beautiful and kind in his love will die, too. That series retains quite a few Noir sensibilities in its criminal hierarchies, weapon and clothing fetishism, and overall filmic aesthetic… but it has love at its centre. I look forward to more Noir with “heart” like that.

M. Bennardo: I love the idea of talking about “the feeling of Noir” as opposed to some circumscribed set of Noir texts that supposedly define the genre. It does feel pretty hopeless to try to find anything truly progressive while limiting a concept of Noir to works produced in mid-century Hollywood, or even works that directly engage with that narrow canon alone. But of course, even in the 1940s and 1950s, that feeling of Noir was impossible to contain in a single neat set of works. There’s always been a big fuzzy halo of noir-ish works created by people from outside that central nexus, and more and more I’ve found it very refreshing to get a different perspective on Noir themes.

These days, I find myself much more excited about the re-release of the 1951 film adaptation of Native Son than about any Humphrey Bogart movie. (No offense to Bogey, but I’ve seen so many of his already!) The adaptation was made in Argentina outside the Hollywood system and stars Richard Wright himself in the main role. The re-release is being marketed specifically as Noir, which I find intriguing and promising as it points to an opening up of the usual understanding of the historical genre.

We don’t usually list Chester Himes’s Harlem Detectives novels or Ann Petry’s The Street as Noir classics either, but they certainly have “the feeling of Noir” for me. Himes’s Harlem is an expressionistic nightmare where violence (both from criminals and cops) always leads to blackly comic chaos. And Petry’s novel about a postwar single mother trying to raise a young child while pursuing a nightclub singing career (and dealing with various lowlifes) has the same bleak view of the American dream as many noirs do.

Other recent reprints that I’ve avidly devoured include a couple anthologies from Sarah Weinman. Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives (Penguin Books) is a collection of short stories by women, all domestic suspense from the 1940s–1970s. And the two volumes of Women Crime Writers from the Library of America together collect eight novels from the 1940s and 1950s written by women. One of those novels in particular, The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, follows a housewife trying to cover up an accidental killing… while simultaneously evading the suspicions and fulfilling the demands of the same family she’s trying to protect.

There’s plenty to find from the same period or the decades after from outside the west as well. Japan has its own long tradition of crime fiction, some of which feels very noir-ish to me. Among my favorites are Akira Kurosawa’s kidnapping police procedural High and Low, and the corporate espionage thriller The Informer by Akimitsu Takagi. Rafael Bernal’s The Mongolian Conspiracy is a raucous brawler of a book about a profane Mexico City hitman trying to stay alive amidst a bewildering possibly-international conspiracy. And Heda Kovály’s Innocence, or Murder on Steep Street details the dehumanizing fallout from a deeply corrupt murder investigation in communist Czechoslovakia, in which the mere presence of the police is enough to ruin everyone’s lives.

The point is not that any one of these works is perfectly “progressive” in itself. (Though I think at least a couple of them get close.) And neither am I prepared to argue with a literary historian that they are all absolutely Noir. But I do think the more we have a broader understanding of what Noir could have been like in the past (if only Hollywood and the critics of the time had been less exclusionary!), the clearer we may see what a more progressive type of Noir might look like in the future.

Mame: Matt’s response has me thinking of Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines. Goines less so but Slim’s novels would certainly count as Noir. Not speculative in the least but Mama Black Widow is about a gay black man in the south. I wouldn’t call Slim’s work progressive. It’s violent, underworld, and machistic. But it does offer a great counter perspective to white Noir (hahaha) and the historical perspective ranging from WWI through the sixties etc is fascinating. Slim is self reflective especially in Pimp, trying to understand the psychological issues that got him where he is. Perhaps there’s something progressive in that. Without excusing the individual, still appreciating the introspection?

Fábio: There’s a whole lotta pieces we can move on the Noir board. We can do gender-swapping, for instance; we can get rid of the racist and sexist stereotypes (we must!), and we should be more Marxist, since Noir is about the troubles and tribulations of the working-class, poor detective. We should be subversive and very antifa in the future Noir. That, of course, is my take on things. That’s the kind of Noir I want to see in SF, and I’ve been thinking of a few stories I want to write in the near future.

Valeria: Thank you all so much for all these thoughts, recommendations and hopes for speculative or progressive Noir. I have no doubt this conversation will be inspiring, and the suggestions for reading and hopes for new stories are exactly the sort of thing we’re looking for in TFF-Noir. You’ve done a better job of explaining it between you than we could have in a detailed call for submissions.

Dear readers: do you have further comments, questions, examples of speculative or progressive noir, or anything else to add to the discussion above? Please leave your comments below this blog post.

If this conversation inspires you, or if you also write Noir-adjacent fiction that intersects with the speculative or the progressive (or even better both), please consider sending something to our Noir-themed CFS this year.

Saturday 13 February 2021

Interview with Margrét Helgadottír

Margrét Helgadottír, editor of the Books of Monsters series, is an old friend of TFF: we have reviewed several of the previous volumes (European, African, Asian, Pacific), and interviewed many of the individual authors and contributors (Michael Lujan Bevacqua, Tihema Baker, Brian Kamaoli Kuwada, Raymond Gates, Iona Winter, Isabel Yap, Yukimi Ogawa, Eve Shi, and Margrét herself), and she wrote about the series for our Making Monsters anthology. The seventh and final volume in the award-winning series, Eurasian Monsters, appeared in December 2020, featuring 17 authors and including seven translated works.

Margrét joins us today to talk a bit about this new anthology, and the series, and monsters.

TFF: Could you tell us a bit about the thinking behind editing a volume of Eurasian Monsters specifically, since it’s a slightly different concept from the other six volumes in the series? Were there gaps in the European and Asian volumes that you designed it to fill?

Margrét Helgadottír: The book embraces the vast region stretching from the Chinese border (but not including China) to eastern parts of Europe. The profile of the book is the same as for the first six volumes, it’s just the geographical area that is different. It’s been challenging since it is actually covering two continents. This is the book in the series I have spent most time on preparing. I was forced to make decisions, and I chose not to include stories from the Asian parts covered in Asian Monsters. I also chose not to include stories from the Baltic, or from the western parts of Balkan, mostly because that would mean including 5-10 more stories, if done properly. There seems to be different definitions of what is Eurasia, but I hope I am forgiven to have included a few stories from eastern Europe, a part neglected in the first monster volume covering Europe. I struggled most with locating authors from Central Eurasia, but I managed to get stories from Georgia and Kazakhstan. I am also proud to have stories from Russian authors from several parts of the huge country, not just Moscow. So all in all, I hope the readers feel they get some glimpses of some of the cultures within this vast region.

TFF: Can you describe the process of commissioning and editing Eurasian Monsters? For instance, did you have a call for submissions, or was everything commissioned or reprints? Did you have to deal with translators, or did you only look at work that was already in English?

MH: I worked with tracking down authors and artists to Eurasian Monsters the same way as for the other monster volumes. These books have been invitation-only anthologies. I had a number of available slots, I wanted a balanced representation—mostly covering as many countries in the region as possible, but also gender, sexuality, indigenous backgrounds etc. So what I did was carefully send out the invitations, only one at the time, building up the table of contents slowly, to make sure the representation became good. For some books I have used 4-5 months before being able to finish the contributor list. Some times I had a story I wanted to publish before contacting the author, but mostly I’ve invited the authors to write a new story within a set of guidelines.

We have had translations in several of the volumes. I have had no other choice than using the translator tools available, just to get a feeling about the author’s voice, and to be able to consider if the story fits the anthology. In Eurasian Monsters I had seven translations by four translators, six stories exclusively for the book. Of these a few reprints but also newly written stories. So that has been challenging because I have not been able to start the editing work until the translation work is done. I have learned a lot, and I do hope the translators feel happy about how the stories turned out.

TFF: Now that you’ve been around the world in eighty monsters, are there any patterns that you have noticed in stories and beliefs about the mythological creatures, or does each region have its own unique kinds of monsters and relationships to them?

MH: It is a difficult question. In general, humans of all times have created stories and myths about beasts, dark creatures, and monsters. You can find traces of them in old texts, architecture, art, in legends and myths, and even in old sea maps. Monster folklore is passed down from generation to generation, and these stories are not just for fun, but often teach a lesson as well, or make sure that curious people stay away from specific areas (like haunted houses). No matter where you are in the world, monsters have been there to take the blame when bad things happen—like shipwrecks or sudden deaths, or they can be a way to explain frightening phenomena like thunder and lightning.

Some monsters are universal. You will always find the shapeshifters, the flesh-eating walking dead and the great monsters of the lakes and sea. But just like the everyday lives of humans are influenced by whether their home is at the coastline, in the desert, in the jungle, or in the mountains—the monsters attracted to these different geographical conditional possibilities are also different. A vampire avoiding the sun might not find it pleasant to stay in the Sahara desert, nor would the hyena shapeshifter thrive in the Arctic either.

It might be a coincidence but I do believe I’ve spotted some regional differences, while editing the monster volumes. To name a few observations: Magic is for instance a strong theme in monster narratives from Africa and South America, though it manifests in slightly different ways. The volume focused on North America has many human-made monsters, or monsters with human-like attributes. The Africa and the Pacific volumes have more beasts, when compared to the other volumes in the series. These two volumes and Eurasia also have a multitude of dark creatures from the wilderness or oceans, or with a connection to natural forces such as thunder storms. In both the Eurasia and Africa volumes several of the stories are concerned with place and origin, about immigration and going home. But Eurasian Monsters feels closer to the feeling of home created in the Asia volume, where it is not so much about the place but more about the family itself and the strong relationships between loved ones—dead, living or absent. The spirits, ghosts and demons create an almost floating atmosphere.

TFF: What about the oral tradition of sharing scary tales? Do you think that an anthology is its natural descendant, or that we are missing out on something?

MH: That is an interesting thought. An themed anthology like this could indeed fill some of the need to share the scary tale by the camp fire, both because short stories are shorter snippets with different author voices, and here you would have voices from different geographical places telling you tales about frightening creatures you’ve never heard about. What you would miss out is the sharing: People like to get scared together. And an anthology is (usually) about the relationship between only the author and the sole reader.

TFF: Could you invent and briefly describe a totally made-up monster that somehow clearly belongs in the Eurasian as opposed to any other volume in the Books of Monsters series?

MH: I was surprised there weren’t that many classical shapeshifters in Eurasian Monsters since so much of this region is vast wilderness, and the winters are cold and long. So I would nominate shapeshifter monsters with jaws, like the big brown bear or the giant grey wolf. But of course all these would also be able to exist in many parts of the Northern world. But if you combined it with the many beliefs in ghosts and spirits, especially house spirits, it could be a quite scary monster who lurked between your kitchen and other dimensions, and between a manlike form and an animalform.

Or even a cranky and bloodthirsty version of the prehistoric gigantic mammoth, maybe trampling people to death or piercing them with its long teeth. This latter is actually an intriguing idea, if you picture it in tunnels and not on the Siberian tundra. According to the great interwebs, there existed a belief among indigenous peoples of Siberia, that the mammoth was a creature that lived underground, burrowing tunnels as it went, and would die if reaching the surface.

TFF: Thanks for joining us, Margrét!

MH: Thanks for having me!

Margrét Helgadottír’s Eurasian Monsters, and the other six volumes in the series, can be found at Fox Spirit Books, links at Margrét’s website, and many other online bookstores and libraries.

Sunday 7 February 2021

What is Noir? (Baby don't hurt me)

I’ve always found Noir difficult to define. Compared to other genres, it seems to be more about the atmosphere and the aesthetic than a set of rules. This may be the reason why in Noir stories clichés seem to be not something to avoid, but a beloved ingredient that readers expect to find. Italian writer Gesualdo Bufalino once said that detective stories are very popular because they are reassuring, maybe even cathartic: the culprit is discovered, questions are answered, justice is restored. Everything finds its resolution. Noir, on the other hand, gives us the opposite experience: things remain unsolved and often criminals get away; a sense of loss and futility assails the protagonist who is usually worse off at the end of the story than they were at the beginning.

What then is it exactly that attracts us to these stories? And in what ways has the genre managed to evolve and change by contamination with other genres and literary traditions, while remaining recognisable? What are the elements that must be present in a story to be a Noir? What can be removed or substituted or played with? I don’t have the answers, of course. Just the opinions of a reader and spectator who has voraciously consumed Noir for more than 20 years, and never stopped enjoying it. What I can do is walk through some of those clichés we have all fallen in love with, and discuss them with you. Are you ready?

It rains. Always

Eric Asaris © 2016
Eric Asaris © 2016

If we were in a Noir story, I would be probably sitting behind my desk, in a shabby office in a big city. That’s all I can afford. You would be coming to talk to me, strangely after office hours, when even my secretary is not in the lobby. I should know better than to receive strangers at these times, but if I were a reasonable woman I wouldn’t be doing this job. You would sit in front of me, in the only available chair. We wouldn’t really need to turn on the lights, because, as in the iconic scene from Vertigo, the green neon of the nearby hotel would light up the room enough, albeit intermittently. And it would rain, of course. It always does. You’re wet, your trench coat is wet, the hat that you don’t remove is wet.

In an interview, Alfred Hitchcock spoke about the clichés in the Noir genre, and how sick of them he was. He mentioned the urban alley, lit by a street light, the cobblestones wet with rain... Try conveying the same feeling, but in a sunny landscape, he provoked. There isn’t a single cloud in the sky when a biplane starts flying lower and lower, while Cary Grant throws himself on the ground of a cornfield. Likewise, rain-level is not that high in the luminous streets of Cairo, where Refaat Ismail, the character created by Ahmed Khaled Tawfik, is forced to investigate some mysterious events that are tormenting his loved ones. So I guess it’s not about the wet concrete after all.

The City’s Viscera

The rain hammers against the window, making the city outside a blur of moving lights. There is a strong bond between cities and Noirs, as if the crime were wounding the city and she were crying for help. And sometimes noir detectives can’t help hearing that cry, in the night, almost swallowed by the rain. Joe Miller in the Expanse, and Mieville’s Tyador Borlú are both creatures of their city, and cities, with their unique messy stories and continuous evolutions, play an important role in how the events unfold. While I look outside the window, half lost in my thoughts, you start telling me why you need my help. It’s a story I’ve heard a million times already (no offence), but we both know it is just a pretext to get me involved in something way more tangled and dangerous than you are willing to admit. You say that you need me because I am streetwise. You know, here is where things are gonna take a crucial turn. Because we both know what kinds of people populate the underbelly of a big town: people who struggle, who are marginalised, who don’t fit in, for one reason or another. And it is here that our ways will either part—or not. Because, you see, there are fundamentally two types of clients, and two types of Noir novels. One in which all the worst stereotypes about race, gender, sexual orientation, and disability surface and make the story move. I have a zero tolerance for those. I won’t read that shit. And if you are that type of client, then you can save the both of us some time and show yourself out.

But if you are a decent client, and if we are in a decent story, then the people who lay low, for one reason or another, can surely tell very interesting tales. Different from those the clichés may have conditioned us to expect, and, for this reason, even more powerful. If Noir has been used countless times as the setting for homophobic, xenophobic and racist stories, it has also been used to unveil different sides of those narratives. Like Mosley did with Easy Rawlins and the ugly US racism, or Jean Claude Izzo, who sang the stories of crime and desperation of the darker sides of Marseille. And the change of setting is not just something to bring in some refreshing variety. It’s not exoticism, but it’s a radical change of perspective. Walter Mosley’s LA and Raymond Chandler’s LA might be located at the same coordinates in space and time, but they are two very different places, and tell very different stories.

Cherchez la femme

You thought my conditions were fair, so it’s time to get practical: what do you want me to do? You pretend to be embarrassed, I pour myself some cheap bourbon in a not-too-clean glass. I know what’s coming: you want me to find a woman. Let me guess, she is beautiful and dangerous. If I had a dollar for each time someone has asked me to look for such a woman, I could treat myself to better bourbon.

Let’s be honest here: Noir stories are almost a manifesto of misogyny. Too often women are either criminally seductive or naïve damsels in distress. So why have I chosen to be a woman detective in a Noir universe? I could have been the heroine in an historical drama, like my mum wanted. But no, I actually like it here. And it is because even in those old B&W Hollywood movies, femmes fatales tend to have way more agency than other female characters in many other genres. They are not just beautiful, they have quite good plans, and write their own stories. You know they mean trouble the first time you meet them, and yet they are irresistible. They are stunning, surely, but they are also smart, strong, charismatic. In no other genres are there as many women villains as in Noir. The shabbiest femme fatale can at least convince a man to kill for her. I mean, that’s Femme Fatale 101. You give me a picture, and I can’t help whistling. Her eyes seem to burn the photograph.

I always liked a good femme fatale. They do what most women have been doing for centuries in order to survive: pretend to be the person a man has always dreamed of meeting. They have just decided that, if they have to go through this socially construed charade, at least it will be to their criminal advantage. I know, I know: they are still, most of the time, flat characters, and the male gaze is ubiquitous. And yet, some of those characters managed to be very, very good.

You are getting nervous. You start fearing for your belle. Or is it for yourself? Can we still have a Noir without a femme fatale, you whine. You want me to say yes, so you can believe that the woman in the picture is not already sipping cocktails on some faraway beach. But you are right, somehow. No, you don’t need a femme fatale. Or, better, you don’t need a cliché femme fatale. Of course, you usually need a woman writer to get that right. If you’re lucky, you can meet a woman villain that doesn’t look like Ava Gardner or Barbara Stanwyck but is described as “ordinary,” can you believe that? Someone like Lucia, the protagonist of The Blank Wall, an American middle aged mother and wife who bakes pies and organises picnics with the neighbours. How did she end up killing a man? Well, that’s not my story to tell, but there you go, one of the most engaging Noir novels features a murderess who doesn’t seductively puff smoke in your face. Not even once.

Do you know what else women writers bring to Noir? Good women detectives. V.I. Warshawski and Aud Torvingen are as hard-core as any of their male colleagues. And the best thing is that, in the story, it is just normal. They are women, no big deal. As it should be.

Don’t trust anyone (why do you always forget this one?)

You have put together quite a story to convince me. I’ll take your case. Mostly because I am now curious about the woman in the picture. Maybe we can become friends, she and I. Maybe she’ll buy me one of those fancy cocktails, with your money. I’d like that, to be honest. I won’t let her deceive me, though. Oh no, not me. I have seen so many cases, I have dealt with so many liars. I mean, what do you think, that I’m a complete idiot? I’ve seen them all. That’s what we all say. We kinda have to say it, at least once per chapter, that we don’t trust anyone, we don’t love anyone, we don’t give two shits about anything. I’m surprised anyone actually believes it. I mean, if that were true why should I go into the trouble of overstating it?

You seem confused, and a little disappointed. Did you really believe my world was all cynicism? Were you convinced that’s what makes a story a Noir? Well, after the third glass I’m in the mood for sharing: you’re wrong. Many Noirs start (I mean, really take off) exactly when the protagonist, a hardened criminal or a disenchanted detective, who has vowed to never trust anyone ever again, to never get attached to anyone, thinks they can make an exception for that one person. And you can almost see it, that from that moment on they have started walking with a bad omen following them. That single exception is gonna cost them everything. Look at Burt Lancaster in The Killers. How can someone look so big and tough, and so naïve at the same time? No wonder Siodmak wanted him back to star in Criss Cross, the guy basically walks with a “Please, betray me” sign on his back! Don’t get me wrong, it’s not just about having your heart broken by one or another type of dark lady (or gentleman), who is betraying you either for greed or for love (yes, they are capable of love. Just not for you…). Some of the most unforgettable Noir stories are about other feelings, other forms of love, that get massacred. When a ruthless gangster like Gloria Denton gets attached to her protégé. When a lowlife like Donnelly decides to help Lucia, even though he has just met her and she happens to be a murderess. Think of, possibly, the most iconic Noir: The Long Goodbye. Isn’t the most heart-breaking bit about a friend being betrayed and lied to? And if you think that this narrative actually reminds you of Lucia and Donnelly and what Sanxay Holding did in The Blank Wall, that’s probably not an accident. Chandler admired Sanxay Holding, and couldn’t understand why she was not sought after by all publishers. Me too, friend, me too.

So, you came here, in a Noir story and you know someone is gonna get hurt. It’s not safe here. And I think that the feeling of loss and defeat is something that really gives Noir its dark colours. But loss doesn’t have to be the only feeling the protagonist is left with. All the loners, the marginalised, the queer, the weird, the powerless can decide to stick together. And it doesn’t matter how many times you have seen your ideals shattered. You may, like V.I Warshawski in Sarah Paretski’s novels, realise that, even if justice is not met, you have done something good. You have helped someone, you are building a network of good people. Solidarity doesn’t make a story less interesting or, indeed, less Noir. On the contrary. We really can’t do this alone.

Pandora’s black (noir?) box

Miguel Santos © 2016

So, why do we read Noir? What do we find in these stories with no resolution and filled with pain? I think that what makes Noir interesting is that, in spite of all the tough talk, our anti-heroes have human decency, and endeavour to keep it alive. Beyond what they say, their actions suggest that they do believe in friendship, loyalty, solidarity. Sometimes in love. Some others even in justice. If they have seen enough during their lives not to expect the good guys to win, they still struggle to be better than  the crooks, the traitors, the polluters, the abusers, the corrupted and the corruptors. They will fail, but, you can bet, they will try again. Like Pandora who after releasing all the darkest shit in the world, still sees Hope at the bottom of her box. That is, I think, what we love in Noir, that Hope survives against all odds, sometimes even against the protagonist’s will. But it’s there. Hope that maybe not this time, and maybe not the next either, but one day, one day we will do something worth it, we will make this right. We just have to put some ice on our black eye, and try again.

The Future Fire will be publishing a Noir-themed issue later this year. If you have a speculative or progressive Noir story that you think might appear to us, see the Call for Submissions here.