RARA-AVIS: Noir definition

From: Michael Robison ( miker_zspider@yahoo.com)
Date: 13 May 2004

Jim Beaver wrote: Not intending to crank up an argument, I'm curious, Jim. I recently reread an old short story by Manly Wade Wellman set in the 1800s. A sea captain of a slave ship, in order to avoid being caught with contraband slaves on board by a British man-of-war, orders the slaves shacked to the anchor chain. He drops anchor and the slaves go overboard with it. No more evidence. Years later, back in the Carolinas in his home, he is visited by the monstrous fish-eaten ghostly carcasses of the slaves he sent overboard, who surround his home and drive him mad.
  It's possibly the darkest, most sinister atmosphere of anything I've ever read.

***************** Great story, Jim. And don't feel bad about bringing up the ole noir definition, either. That's what we're here for. (I changed the subject line so those who are tired of it can pass it by.)

Dark and sinister isn't enough. I believe we (Genius Jim included) established that at an earlier date. There is a sneaky, hidden assumption that we are also referring to post-1920 crime literature. Because of the context of rara-avis, the assumption is easier to make. But to be thorough, it's best to define noir as dark, sinister, post-1923 crime fiction.

The bottom line is that "dark and sinister" has been a popular atmosphere in literature for a long time. We could say that noir is just a continuation of the Gothic tradition, but dark and sinister stretches back before Gothic all the way to the oldest stories in the world.

All of Shakespeare's tragedies have a dark and sinister atmosphere. I've just about finished KING LEAR, and jeez, that's some wicked stuff! Poking poor old Gloucester's eyes out and wicked femme fatales running people through with swords. How dark and sinister can you get?

It has been my contention for a while that without the somewhat contrived stipulation of a date requirement, noir contains, neither part nor sum, anything that distinguishes it from any of the other dark, sinister crime literature that runs back a few thousand years. This actually backs up Jim's idea that noir represents a style rather than a genre, but it runs aground when you tack a time stamp on it.


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