by Matt Phillips
As a writer of noir and crime fiction, I spend a lot of time and creative energy conjuring evil. I contemplate evil in my stories, in my characters, and in the nature of causation and denouement. Look across the media landscape and you’ll find hundreds of creators—most of them writers—circling the dark abyss that is evil.
Why do writers—most of them, I imagine, good people—spend so much time with evil? And why do readers, viewers, and all-around media consumers dive into murder mysteries and terror dramas without so much as a momentary hesitation?
In Jonathan Gottschall’s nonfiction book, The Storytelling Animal, he examines this question and poses some viable theories. At one point, Gottschall examines the phenomenon of the conspiracy theory. He writes, “Conspiracy theories offer ultimate answers to a great mystery of the human condition: why are things so bad in the world?” This is something almost all of us have wondered at one time or another. And Gottschall later expands this idea when he writes, “…bad men live to stalk our happiness. And you can fight, and possibly even defeat, bad men. If you can read the hidden story.”
I remember my mom telling stories about the boogeyman, how he was lurking in the shadows, ready to snatch us kids at the slightest falter of courage or awareness. Her point? Don’t You dare talk to strangers…
Beware, little ones.
My own stories look deeply at evil’s uncanny ability to hide within those closest to us. In my book of noir novellas, Accidental Outlaws, male characters have been abandoned by their fathers, essentially stripped bare of male mentorship. This breeds within my characters an evil of circumstance, an evil built on opportunity and perceived lack of personal worth. My characters visit evil upon themselves (and others) through the blatant graft of self-destruction.
Sometimes, the true villain lives within us.
In my novella Bad Luck City, past evil encroaches on the present—a father’s death and legend haunt his son. When the son, washed-up reporter Sim Palmer, begins searching for a woman in the Las Vegas underbelly, he finds mostly evil…And it’s all visited upon him thanks to his dead father, a lifelong crook.
When I read great crime and noir fiction, I notice a few evil specters lurking in the shadows. The first, to my mind, is The Man. What is The Man? He’s the thing looking down on you that makes you get up too early, slog it to work too fast, stay at the mines too long, get up and do it all over again. And all that for a used-new Toyota with low miles. In Jim Thompson’s penultimate noir, The Killer Inside Me, a character aptly describes The Man’s effects: “‘Do you know how many days a year an ironworker works? Do you know what his life expectancy is? Did you ever see an old ironworker? Did you ever stop to figure that there’s all kinds of ways of dying, but only one way of being dead?” The second specter I see in crime and noir fiction is that of mental illness. Take Margaret Millar’s great novel Beast in View. She writes of one character, “She must be casual, ordinary. No one must find out that somewhere, along these streets, she had lost the day. It was night. The day had gone, passed her by, passed without touching her.” And the third specter evident in crime and noir fiction—of course—is true evil. And rest unassured, it’s all around us. I think about James Ellroy’s first novel, Brown’s Requiem. In it, a golf caddy called Fat Dog is revealed to be true evil, an evil so apparent that it hides—for a time, at least—in plain sight. Fat Dog’s weapon of choice is fire. Talk about symbolic, right?
But again, why all this evil?
For me, stories are a rehearsal. I’m running from something. Hell, make no mistake, we’re all running from something—death. The evil in our stories works like a straw man for death. How do we face evil in stories? We approach it head on. With a gun. With a sword. With a fistful of dirt. With the truth. We face evil down like we’re heroes. And this, I want to argue, is how we hope to face death.
That’s what crime and noir fiction is for, dammit.
It’s meant to prepare us for death.
One of my favorite crime writers is the late Newton Thornburg. He’s know for writing Cutter and Bone, the novel eventually made into the great film Cutter’s Way. But Thornburg wrote quite a few great noir novels. He deals with evil in each novel, and that evil is often a way for the characters to eventually face death.
Take this passage from To Die in California:
“He wanted to go over to Douglas and seize him by his coat and shake him and shout in his face that his son, his Chris, even now was only a week in the ground, lying between his mother and great-grandfather, and they were just three in a long row of graves and there was row after row of similar graves and graveyard after graveyard all across the world, because Death was the one true and final government, the king of kings, the worm emperor of the universe, and the worm was right there in the attic now, in all of them, in Hook and Douglas and in the bearded youth and in the infant sucking on the pacifier downstairs.”
In other words, there is no escaping.
Not evil. And not death.
Unless this big old world—think about it—is a tiny noir story in a forgotten book on a dusty shelf. Why not?
Maybe we’re not simply reading the hidden story.
Maybe the hidden story…is us.
© 2018, Matt Phillips. All rights reserved.