The New Black from leading indie publisher Dark House Press brings together 20 tales in the burgeoning genre of neo-noir, characterized by Dark House’s materials as “a mixture of horror, crime, fantasy, science fiction, magical realism, the transgressive, and the grotesque all with a literary bent.” That definitely, and accurately, describes the contents of the anthology, and Richard Thomas’ s extremely detailed introduction goes about as far as anyone reasonably can in summarizing the genre’s essential qualities and leading practitioners. It also comes with an evocative foreword, “Eye of the Raven,” from Laird Barron, who could easily wear the neo-noir tag as well, though none of his stories are here.
Judging by this collection, children and childhood – or childhood innocence challenged or offered as contrast to dark developments – plays a significant part in neo-noir. The first four tales all feature either parent-child relationships or child protagonists, or both (though to my mind, the best childhood story in the book is Micaela Morrissette’s creepy take on the imaginary friend motif, “The Familiars”). Otherwise, the proportion of actual dark in the tales varies, and some of the most touching are not the ones with the most overtly fantastical or horrific content – take, for instance, Craig Davidson’s boxing story “Rust and Bone,” or Richard Lange’s tale of unexpected grace under extreme pressure, “Fuzzyland.” Nor are all of them necessarily gloomy or unsettling – Roy Kesey’s “Instituto” is one that succeeds with a slightly gentler tone. But of course, most are.
Which brings me to my problem with this collection – inconsistent quality. Some of the tales stick to you like glue: others don’t. This could be a fault of the variety and range of the stories, but I don’t think so. Maybe by trying to stretch the genre too wide, Thomas pulled in too disparate a clutch, but I think the problem is less one of focus than of consistency. Plus, judging by this collection, neo-noir doesn’t seem to be a genre that travels very far across U.S. borders – perhaps just about over the Rio Grande, but only rarely any further.
Anyway, that said, this could be purely a question of personal taste. And the best stories here are very good indeed, and you couldn’t go far wrong as a comprehensive introduction to neo-noir.