Storyville: What is Neo-Noir Fiction?

NOTE: While many of these definitions may be accepted by the writing, publishing and literary communities, much of how I see these genres and sub-genres is strictly my opinion. So it’s subjective, and not exhaustive. I don’t consider myself an expert on much of anything, but I’d like to think that based on my writing history, the authors I’ve studied under, my MFA, and my current work as a writer, editor, teacher and publisher that I've learned a lot about these various flavors of writing.

Defined

Neo-noir in English is simply “new-black,” from the Greek “neo” for new, and the French “noir” for black.

Overview

Here’s what I wrote for a recent article on “10 Essential Neo-Noir Authors” over at Flavorwire: “What is neo-noir fiction? It’s contemporary dark fiction. It was built on the backbone of classic noir and hardboiled fiction, but it’s evolved to be so much more than that. It is a genre-bending sub-genre that includes edgy literary fiction, as well as fantasy, science fiction, and horror. It also touches on niche storytelling like magical realism, slipstream, transgressive, and the grotesque.”

What is neo-noir fiction? It’s contemporary dark fiction. It was built on the backbone of classic noir and hardboiled fiction, but it’s evolved to be so much more than that.

Neo-Noir and classic noir

For a lot of people, neo-noir is simply noir set in modern times. I agree and I disagree. I see classic noir and hardboiled fiction as having a certain voice, the word usage and characters fitting into a certain mold. Noir to me is a mix of detectives and femme fatales, a formula where there is a crime to be solved, dames and guns, and it’s all in black and white. Neo-noir isn’t as restricted. I don’t think you have to have a detective or cop at all, and you don’t have to have a woman in distress. When I say contemporary, it can still be set in the past 50 years—it really just depends on the tone, the voice. It can also be set far into the future. For many, noir has to be tragic, so the ending should be on a down note. I think that’s common, but again, I don’t think it’s mandatory. If the entire story is dark, the setting one of shadows and lost nights, but there is a ray of hope at the end, I think that’s okay.

...and the fantastic

When it comes to fantasy and science fiction, it can certainly fall into the world of neo-noir. What it isn’t, unless you’re Wells Tower, is dragons and swords. It all comes back to the voice. There is nothing wrong with the supernatural in neo-noir, as long as the tone and mood still fit. I’d say that when it comes to the fantastic it should probably be grounded in reality, but really, what does that mean? A jungle setting on a planet much like Mars can veer into straight fantasy just as easily as it can turn into noir. It’s all about your choices. If it feels cliché or too familiar, then it probably isn’t neo-noir. Keep in the mind those two words—new and black.

...and the horrific

What neo-noir is not is straight horror, built on the classic models of vampires, werewolves, and things that go bump in the night. Update the genre and make it new again. Don’t rely strictly on gore—it’s not splatterpunk, not just about violence. In horror there are really two ways to define the genre—fear and disgust. You can be horrified, frightened, tense and anxious or you can be revolted by what you see. Often it’s both. Take that classic horror idea of tension and make it new, make it special, something we haven’t seen before, and don’t rely on the monster, the beast, don’t rely on the blood and guts. Be smarter than that. I think the only thing harder to write than horror is comedy. It is definitely tough to scare people, but if you can worm your way into a contemporary setting, something your audience can relate to, then you have a chance.

...and magical realism

What I like about magical realism, a very popular and emerging sub-genre, is the ability to write a story that starts in the real world, starts with places, people and things that we recognize, but eventually turns into something much more. Usually restricted to literary fiction, these stories and novels are smart and grounded, but sprinkled with strange, exciting moments and epiphanies that take us in an entirely different direction. And if that happens to be into the darkness, black magic or otherwise, then it can certainly fit into the world of neo-noir. These are not the Disney fairy tales, but the Grimm fairy tales, where the children get eaten, the babies are taken, and the shadows of the forest are dark and deep.

...and slipstream

You may have heard this term used before in regards to speculative fiction, primarily fantasy and science fiction. When you bridge the gap between classic fantasy and science fiction to reach literary fiction, this is what I’m talking about. It’s also been called the new weird ("noird") or the fiction of strangeness. I’ve also heard it applied to fiction that slips in and out of reality, stories that turn surreal, even bizarre. I think you can see how this would fit into the neo-noir world.

...and the grotesque

When I think of the grotesque, the first thing that comes to mind is gross, or disgusting. But while it may have evolved out of sideshow freaks and the circus, and before that the ancient Greeks, the creatures that exist in these stories elicit both empathy and disgust. You can imagine Frankenstein or Gollum fitting into these roles. To expand on the grotesque, Flannery O’Connor talked about the grotesque as being a moment in time, a rare occurrence of horror, surprise, or a crossroads. You can see how these kind of bizarre, strange, and pivotal moments can lend themselves to neo-noir fiction.

...and the transgressive

There’s room in neo-noir for just about every voice, so stumble into the darkness and take notes, for when you escape, there may be a story to tell.

I see transgressive fiction as simply being about a central character who is rebelling against the rules, laws and regulations of the world around them—police, teachers, family, friends, sexuality, drugs, violence—you name it. Of course Fight Club comes to mind when I think of this kind of writing. Whatever taboo subject you write about, it’s also easy to see how transgressive fiction fits into neo-noir writing—the mentally ill, the anti-social, and nihilistic all lead us down dark roads and paths.

...and Southern Gothic

Similar to the grotesque, much of southern gothic fiction of course takes place in the south. And the geography of these stories lends itself to the history of the south and its politics, laws, poverty, alienation, racism, crime, and violence—which all create a certain atmosphere. These are stories about the deeply flawed, disturbed and damaged people, in derelict, decomposing settings. But the gothic isn’t restricted to the south, or the rural—it can be anywhere in the United States, or the world, really. So of course neo-noir can exist in southern gothic literature as well.

...and literary fiction

There are certain characteristics that are attributed to literary fiction—a seriousness and complexity, introspective prose with layered characters, elegantly written, an in-depth study of people and emotions often told at a slower pace. Which can be either boring or fascinating, depending on the author. And that’s not to say that genre fiction doesn't also have these same characteristics. In fact, part of the neo-noir movement, this genre-bending fiction, is doing exactly that—taking the best of genre fiction and blending it with the best of literary fiction. Literary fiction can certainly fit into the chorus of voices that is neo-noir, and in fact, those are usually the authors I’m most drawn to when forced to pick from literary lists, whether that’s in my MFA program or reading in general. These black sheep are some of the most compelling voices in literature today.

Voices that define it

Brian Evenson, Neil Gaiman, Dennis Lehane, Jim Thompson, Stephen Graham Jones, Craig Clevenger, Lindsay Hunter, China Mieville, Will Christopher Baer, Stephen King, Peter Straub, Clive Barker, Jack Ketchum, Chelsea Cain, Roxane Gay, Chuck Palahniuk, xTx, Paul Tremblay, Craig Davidson, Holly Goddard Jones, Paula Bomer, Matt Bell, Jac Jemc, Kate Zambreno, Amy Hempel, Kyle Minor, Mary Miller, Benjamin Percy, Shannon Cain, Donald Ray Pollock, Kio Stark, Alan Heathcock, Lidia Yuknavitch, Monica Drake, Kealan Patrick Burke, Tina May Hall, Ethel Rohan, Roy Kesey, Nik Korpon, Amber Sparks, Cormac McCarthy, Jayne Anne Phillips, Denis Johnson, Mary Gaitskill, Joyce Carol Oates, Tim O’Brien, Flannery O’Connor, A.M. Homes, Ron Rash, Sara Gran, Daniel Woodrell, Toni Morrision, George Saunders, Haruki Murakami, Bret Easton Ellis, Hunter S. Thompson, David Foster Wallace, Blake Butler, Steve Erickson, Philip K. Dick, and William Gay.

Neo-Noir In film

I immediately think of the work of David Lynch, including Mulholland Drive and Blue Velvet; as well as David Fincher, with Fight Club and Seven; and Christopher Nolan and his films Inception and Memento. Blade Runner also comes to mind, as well as flicks like Sin City, The Machinist, Eyes Wide Shut, Gone Baby Gone, No Country For Old Men, and many, many others.

In conclusion

I’m not sure if this column will make things more clear or muddy the waters. In looking over this list of genres and sub-genres, I think you can see now what neo-noir is not, that it’s an attempt to re-imagine the classic genres, to make things fresh, new, and unique. And when you’re writing your stories, of course you’re just trying to do the best work you can, so don’t worry about labels, about genres, sub-genres, what exactly your tale is going to be, just focus on the story. I’m lucky enough to have an opportunity at Dark House Press, as the new Editor-in-Chief, to publish short stories, novels, and collections by a wide range of dark authors, all of whom touch on neo-noir fiction in one way or another. In fact, that list of voices comes directly from our website. We’ll be publishing work by a number of those authors in the near future, in The New Black (a best of neo-noir), as well as Exigencies (the next wave of neo-noir). There’s room in neo-noir for just about every voice, so stumble into the darkness and take notes, for when you escape, there may be a story to tell.

Image of Mulholland Dr.
Director: David Lynch
Starring: Naomi Watts, Laura Harring, Justin Theroux
Rating: R (Restricted)
Image of Memento
Director:
Starring: Guy Pearce, Joe Pantoliano
Rating: R (Restricted)
Richard Thomas

Column by Richard Thomas

Richard Thomas is the author of three books—Transubstantiate, Herniated Roots and Staring Into the Abyss. His over 75 publications include Shivers VI (Cemetery Dance) with Stephen King and Peter Straub, PANK, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Arcadia, and Pear Noir. He is also the editor of two anthologies, both out in 2014: The Lineup (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. In his spare time he writes for The Nervous Breakdown, LitReactor, and is Editor-in-Chief at Dark House Press. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com or contact Paula Munier at Talcott Notch.

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Comments

Kareem Badr's picture
Kareem Badr July 2, 2013 - 5:19pm

I think you do Jim Thompson a disservice by calling him "neo" noir. He's straight up noir in my book. The 3rd author in the mighty triumverate of Hammett-Chandler-Thompson. 

Jen Daniele's picture
Jen Daniele from Brooklyn, NY is reading Anna Kerenina July 2, 2013 - 5:47pm

Is it possible to have neo-nior with comedic elements? I keep calling my WIP a "dark crimedy" because I'm not really sure where it fits. 

JEFFREY GRANT BARR's picture
JEFFREY GRANT BARR from Central OR is reading Nothing but fucking Shakespeare, for the rest of my life July 2, 2013 - 9:19pm

Warren Ellis uses some noir tropes and a lot of comedy. I have no idea if you'd classify him as neo-noir, but it seems to me a case could be made. Same with Charlie Huston, who is fantastic. Also Duane Swierczynski - especially the Charlie Hardie books.

voodoo_em's picture
voodoo_em from England is reading Stay God, Sweet Angel by Nik Korpon July 3, 2013 - 6:08am

Great column Richard.

Also:Taxi Driver, Twin Peaks and Stoker

Renfield's picture
Renfield from Hell is reading 20th Century Ghosts July 3, 2013 - 8:31am

What I've felt noir is and what seperates classic noir from hardboiled and other pulp styles is that in noir all characters are morally flawed, they're all culpable for the wrongness in the story and all must get some sort of comeuppance, hence the anti-hero and the depressing endings. The protaganists in hardboiled, for example, are not so wavering in their moral stance, they're never forced to cross that certain line. For me that "everyone's too damaged to make it to the end unscathed" schtick and, usually, a strong/lyrical POV , typically 1st person, is how I spot someone writing with an allegiance neo-noir. But I think my personal idea of it fits quite nicely along this article, too.

Keith's picture
Keith from Phoenix, AZ is reading Growing Up Dead in Texas by Stephen Graham Jones July 3, 2013 - 11:42am

@Jen Daniele - Absolutely there's noir with comedic elements. Check out Plugged by Eoin Colfer (Yes, the Artemis Fowl guy.) or David James Keaton's Fish Bites Cop. Also, Elmore Leonard is the king of the "comedic" crime novel.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading Dark Places by Gillian Flynn July 3, 2013 - 11:45am

@kareem, you make a good point. i think he's definitely noir, but there are elements of his writing that feel contemporary, not as dated and classic as Hammet for instance-not as formulaic. i don't have a problem calling him neo-noir, becuase i said that can include going back 50 years, which would be his time (when his stories are set) as well. "neo" is a relative tem, and i certainly don't think it does Big Jim a disservice.

@jen-humor? sure. why not.

@jeff-great suggestions.

@em-for sure, great suggestions.

@renfield-great observation, i agree.

Jairo Arana's picture
Jairo Arana from Puerto Rico is reading Vampires: The Recent Undead (anthology), The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories by H.P. Lovecraft, The Coming of Conan (anthology) by Robert E. Howard, The Annals of Imperial Rome (non-fiction) by Tacitus, Slaughter-house Five by Kurt Vonnegut July 11, 2013 - 4:01pm

Great column, Richard. I really enjoyed reading it. Loved Blue Velvet. And Bladerunner, Sci-Fi Noir, and other films you mentioned, along with the works of other others. I was never quite sure what Neo-Noir fiction was, until now. I've also read some Neo-Noir, not sure what it was, really, because of the mix of various genres and sub-genres. 

@kareem: While it's true that Jim Thompson is there with Chandler and Hammett, if you read his short story, "Forever After," you'll find elements of the fantastic. A very dark, yet comedic, fantastical element to that story. I very much recommend that story. Very noir, but with a twist of added darkness and the fantastic. And twisted humor.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading Dark Places by Gillian Flynn July 13, 2013 - 8:34pm

thanks, jairo. and i don't see why somebody like Big Jim can't be both a master of noir and neo-noir.

Percy Dlamini's picture
Percy Dlamini from South Africa is reading Everything is Illuminated, The Time Traveler's Wife, The Shadow of The Wind October 16, 2013 - 12:30pm

A piece on Tech-noir would be very interesting. :). Learnt a lot from this column. 

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading Dark Places by Gillian Flynn October 16, 2013 - 12:44pm

thanks, percy. never heard of tech-noir, although i assume something like Blade Runner would fall under that definition, yeah? 

Percy Dlamini's picture
Percy Dlamini from South Africa is reading Everything is Illuminated, The Time Traveler's Wife, The Shadow of The Wind October 17, 2013 - 3:16am

Yes, I recently came across the genre while reading up on Noir. which is when i found your column as well. it's also known as future-noir, movies like terminator and minority report fall under Tech-noir. Gotta love literature and cinema :)

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading Dark Places by Gillian Flynn October 17, 2013 - 4:29pm

fantastic. sounds like my kind of thing. read that link to Flavorwire, if you haven't yet, to find some of the voices i love in neo-noir.

spacechampion's picture
spacechampion February 2, 2014 - 1:35pm

Is the chief characteristic of noir fiction a gritty realism and transgressive questioning of society, morals, rules etc.?  While it a noir fantasy can be set in a supernatural world, those elements are treated as common and mundane, while it is the more "realistic" elements and bad behavior of humans that readers find shocking.  Contrast that with gothic fantasy where its the supernatural elements that are shocking, usally dealing with madness as supernaturally derived, as in Lovecraft's Cthulu mythos.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading Dark Places by Gillian Flynn February 4, 2014 - 8:49pm

yeah, i think that's a pretty strong grasp of it, spacechamp