Book Club Nominees

6 Hardboiled Horror Noirs

by @Ahab_atLZ, curator of HOWLS book club nominees for May’s “The Big Sleep Beckoning: Hardboiled Horror Noir” category

“What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that.” 
~Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

Noir is a feeling, an oppressive atmosphere, the steady creep of nihilism, the twist of city streets into the dark depths of alleys from which no good can come. It’s about crime and greed, tragedy and the uncaring nature of the universe. Noir is difficult to nail down, but its influence is widespread. Closely associated with noir is the archetype of the hardboiled detective, a smooth talking and cynical figure, on the outskirts of society. The books I chose for this list marry elements of noir and hardboiled fiction with horror (the thing we’re all here for). The genres are a perfect match if you ask me, and this can be seen in horror’s consistent embrace of noir themes and the persisting interest in hardboiled characters (though now often portrayed in a more critical light). Prepare for a journey in which the civilized veneer of the world is peeled back to reveal the darkness within.

Cover of Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg; cover shows an angel with red wings above and behind a cityscape. The cover very much looks like it's from the 70s (and it is).

Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg

A spellbinding novel of murder, mystery, and the occult, Falling Angel pits a tough New York private eye against the most fearsome adversary a detective ever faced. For Harry Angel, a routine missing-persons case soon turns into a fiendish nightmare of voodoo and black magic, of dizzying peril and violent death.

This is the oldest book on this list, and it’s from an author whose name I’ve never heard, but it got a lot of buzz when it came out in 1978 (Stephen King even blurbed it). Everything about this book makes me want to read it. I’m a sucker for a protagonist slowly spiralling into occult mysteries until they’ve delved too deep, and this book promises just that. It gives off that classic hardboiled feeling with the protagonist being a private detective whose troubles start with a seemingly simple case. Plus, Laird Barron has referenced it in at least one interview as a source of inspiration. My vote might just go towards this one. And before you accuse me of biasing this procedure, take a look at the other entries–there are no easy choices here.

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The cover of Supernatural Noir, edited by Ellen Datlow; cover features a raven or crow standing on a branch, with a very pale woman's face behind the crow. The crow appears to be holding the woman's eye in its beak.

Supernatural Noir edited by Ellen Datlow

Dark Horse once again teams up with Hugo and Bram Stoker award-winning editor Ellen Datlow (Lovecraft Unbound) to bring you this masterful marriage of the darkness without and the darkness within. Supernatural Noir is an anthology of original tales of the dark fantastic from twenty modern masters of suspense, including Brian Evenson, Joe R. Lansdale, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Nick Mamatas, Gregory Frost, Jeffrey Ford, and many more.

It’s an anthology edited by Ellen Datlow, what else do you need to know? Reading renowned authors of dark fiction give their unique takes on noir and its themes sounds like a fantastic way to explore the area where horror and noir meet. Some of the stories are bound to be hardboiled, while others will likely play more subtly with the source material. In addition to the authors listed above, I know that Barron and John Langan both have stories in this anthology. I have not read Barron’s, but can say that Langan’s is excellent, only increasing my desire to read the rest of the collection.

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The cover of Last Days by Brian Evenson; cover is very dark and all we can see is the sleeve of a person's shirt, and their hand, holding a revolver - we are looking right down the barrel of the gun.

Last Days by Brian Evenson

Intense and profoundly unsettling, Brian Evenson’s Last Days is a down-the-rabbit-hole detective novel set in an underground religious cult. The story follows Kline, a brutally dismembered detective forcibly recruited to solve a murder inside the cult. As Kline becomes more deeply involved with the group, he begins to realize the stakes are higher than he previously thought. Attempting to find his way through a maze of lies, threats, and misinformation, Kline discovers that his survival depends on an act of sheer will.

Evenson is an author of weird fiction whose work I’ve wanted to explore for some time. Luckily, Last Days fits exactly with what this list is going for. This is an expansion of one of Evenson’s novellas, The Brotherhood of Mutilation, into a full length novel. Again, the story features a hardboiled detective in too deep, cults, violence, and hopefully a good dose of the weird. The bizarre nature of the case the protagonist must investigate along with Evenson’s reputation as an author places Last Days high on my to read list of horror noir. 

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Cover of Man With No Name by Laird Barron; cover shows a man's face in black and white, with white smoke covering the man's eyes and obscuring his features.

Man with No Name by Laird Barron

Nanashi was born into a life of violence. Delivered from the mean streets by the Heron Clan, he mastered the way of the gun and knife and swiftly ascended through yakuza ranks to become a dreaded enforcer. His latest task? He and an entourage of expert killers are commanded to kidnap Muzaki, a retired world-renowned wrestler under protection of the rival Dragon Syndicate. It should be business as bloody usual for Nanashi and his ruthless brothers in arms, except for the detail that Muzaki possesses a terrifying secret. A secret that will spawn a no-holds barred gang war and send Nanashi on a personal odyssey into immortal darkness.

This list wouldn’t be complete without a standalone entry from Barron. Barron consistently utilizes noir elements to build his carnivorous cosmos. He has also spoken at length about the influence of crime fiction and its pulp origins on his writing. This hardboiled and noir influence can most often be seen in his dialogue and the broken characters who populate his stories. On top of all that, he’s probably my favorite horror author. While Barron’s Isaiah Coleridge series is explicitly noir/crime, I’ve heard that the first book doesn’t delve into horror territory. So, I’ve included the novella Man with No Name here instead, an entry of his that I’m particularly looking forward to reading.

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Cover of Already Dead by Charlie Huston. Cover shows two images: the top image shows a cityscape tinted red, and the bottom image, also tinted red, shows the bottom half of a man's face as well as his suit jacket, tie, and collar, and the man is smoking a cigarette.

Already Dead by Charlie Huston

From the Battery to the Bronx, and from river to river, Manhattan is crawling with Vampyres. Joe is one of them, and he’s not happy about it. Yeah, he gets to be stronger and faster than you, and he’s tough as nails and hard to kill. But spending his nights trying to score a pint of blood to feed the Vyrus that’s eating at him isn’t his idea of a good time. And Joe doesn’t make it any easier on himself. Going his own way, refusing to ally with the Clans that run the undead underside of Manhattan–it ain’t easy. It’s worse once he gets mixed up with the Coalition–the city’s most powerful Clan–and finds himself searching for a poor little rich girl who’s gone missing in Alphabet City. Now the Coalition and the girl’s high-society parents are breathing down his neck, anarchist Vampyres are pushing him around, and a crazy Vampyre cult is stalking him. No time to complain, though. Got to find that girl and kill that shambler before the whip comes down . . . and before the sun comes up.

I found Already Dead late in my research process for this list, and the description grabbed my attention. It seems to take classic elements from both horror and the hardboiled detective genre and use them to build its own vision of New York City. Also, in classic noir fashion, the plot looks to feature many competing interests trying to realize their own plans with our protagonist caught in the middle. From GoodReads, my feeling is that this one leans less into straight up horror than the other entries on this list. If that’s what you’re in the mood for, this may be the entry for you.

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And The Winner Is…

Out of these six books, HOWLers voted to read Last Days by Brian Evenson. Join HOWL Society on May 17, 2021 to begin discussion!

@Ahab_atLZ is an active member of the HOWLS Discord and is particularly drawn to cosmic horror and the weird.

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