Country Noir / Southern Gothic


Southern Gothic / Country Noir, and Crime writers worth their salt have all come out of horror and/or hardboiled pulp culture writers such as H.P. Lovecraft, Robert W. Chambers, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Charles Williams, and Dorothy B. Hughes among others. Emerging from the maelstrom of the 1960s, noirists would be deeply affected by the Vietnam war and the political atmosphere surrounding it. Dividing the nation, the war instilled an atmosphere of paranoia, a condition exacerbated by government secrecy, inflexible policies, and the effect of drugs on the political consciousness of numerous dissidents. In the following years, the Watergate investigation and congressional hearings regarding the role of the CIA would confirm public suspicion about government duplicity and corruption, and contribute further to the forging of noir narratives as paranoid as the era from which they derive. Accordingly, writers like Elmore Leonard, James Lee Burke and Lawrence Block, having worked in other genres — westerns, lowlife fiction, science-fiction, softcore porn — produced narratives which investigate the relationship between public and private crime. Striving for realism and accessibility, their work is typified by a straightforward prose style, tinged, in many cases, with vernacularisms and a dark and irreverent humour. Battling the bottle, drug-addled, or beaten down by society, neon noir protagonists are no longer wisecracking know-it-alls, but psychologically scarred inhabitants of a morally ambiguous world in which people are capable of perpetrating any and every outrage. In our own contemporary moment the influx of new noir and crime fiction still deals with many of these basic human themes but has added the change in scenery, the aftermath of 9/11, the Middle-East, the tensions in race, class, and gender, the economic downturn after 2007, and many other changes in the stage set. Another aspect is the wider selection of noir and crime writers now available world-wide and on the internet, which has brought with it the troubled and global impact of drug trade, underworld, slave-trading and all the other factors that make up a global civilization which in the zones of noir and crime no longer find their mean streets in one or another nation. Now the world of suffering, evil, pain is everywhere, in every urban center on the planet.1

A friend of mine asked me a question about who the Southern Writers I most enjoy beyond the usual suspects of Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain,  Zora Neale Hurston, William Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, Thomas Wolfe, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Cormac McCarthy, Tennessee Williams (Playwright & Short Stories), Robert Penn Warren, A.R. Williams (Poet/Essayist), and Truman Capote. Good Reads has a good list to start with along with the specifics of Country noir, but it’s a toss up for the best – and, there are some missing on Good Reads I’d add. But that’s just it, matters of time, memory, and habit all seem to coalesce in this world; shift us to those writers that speak to us, that give us something we need, a dark gift of wisdom. The one’s I keep on reading and rereading, the one’s that give me pleasure or disturb and perturb me to change and wake up and help me get through the bleak days of my life and our century of idiocy are the one’s who spoke to me, lifted me out of my self-pity and gave me the power to find my own voice, my own way, my own truth in this world.

There’s always something about certain writer’s that kicks your ass, pulls you up by the seat of your britches and speaks not at you, but with you; gives you that which sustains you and helps you get out of bed every day; feeds the soul-stuff that keeps you afloat in the midst of dark days and nights. It’s as if their works keep changing as you change, keep moving the ball and target to another place than before; and the readings and rereading’s  suddenly get updated with something strange and new, some new insight you’d not seen or felt before: one of those gotcha’s or Eureka moments that awaken in you a sense of that uncanny, that something old and familiar (Freud) that has suddenly jutted its head out of the well of time and brought you a new discomfort of the soul-substance you’d lost along the way in the guttersnipe worlds of life due to those open wounds of pain or suffering, fear and terror.

When Faulkner said that an “artist is driven by demons” it is even more so for a reader: a reader is driven to find the daemonic other, that undiscovered soul-stuff hidden in the sparks of those white pages, the messages between the lines in the crevices and hollows of that black ink gathered from those other writer’s who bring one back to that dark place of an uncanny mind, where an abiding presence sits there like a slug worm waiting. It’s just here in the pits of one’s agonies and struggles to attain a real sense of life and self that one discovers the power of the daemonic; those drives that force us out of ourselves and into either creativity or violence. For the self is not a given, it does not come pre-made like some dark essence that unfolds or blossoms from a seed into the light of the sun, but rather it is constructed out of the broken ruins of our lives, out of the decay and corruption of our fragmented soul pieces we’ve lost among those wounded hollers of our foolish lives; and, sometimes even against our own will and judgment. It’s this daemonic force from within that speaks out from those others, those voices both from within and in those characters that seem more alive than we are in those books that speak to us. It’s those voices that will not go away, that hold the keys to our redemption or damnation; voices that will not leave us alone, but continually drive us to our sense of glory or utter oblivion. If we learn to listen well to these dark powers we might just become if not whole and complete, then at least human; else our lives are a nothingness and a waste, a crime against ourselves and humanity.

Latest Book Review:

Gritty Low-Life’s Are Fine By Me: On Reading Tom Leins’s Boneyard Dogs

A good list of books on Good Reads:

A few of my own short stories in the Country noir sub-genre:

  1. Haut, Woody. Neon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction. (Serpent’s Tail, 1997)