At the Corner of Noir and Southern Gothic

When people comment that the story line, atmosphere or dialogue in my writing reminds them of that in a noir film or book, I take it as a compliment. I don’t know what it is about noir that I enjoy most or that helps me to get at the truth in the stories I tell or the art I create, but I gravitate toward it. Maybe it’s the in-your-face dialogue that makes light of the serious or cuts through the sentimental, maudlin or hypocritical. Whether delivered with the hard-bitten fatalism of Sam Spade or the effervescent cynicism of Philip Marlowe, the language of noir cuts to the chase and is not without humor, even when staring death in the face, much like a character in a Flannery O’Connor story. After all, noir with a Southern accent is the Southern gothic and there many of my own characters reside.

When sixteen year-old Ashley in my first graphic novel, Uptowners, leaves the back wood bayous she thinks she’s leaving a noir existence for one of Garden District mansions, afternoon tea parties and refuge from all that is dangerous, lonely and dark. Her Uptown cousin Zack rescues her from her perilous existence as an underage pole dancer at Bayou Bertha’s only to bring her into his gothic world of scheming relatives, dangerous family secrets and financial disaster. Far from being rescued, Ashley takes on the responsibility of saving them both. She’s plunged into a new reality all the more harsh because it’s so completely unfamiliar; she has to adapt immediately. The only saving grace comes from a place she least expected: her cousin’s sometimes “girlfriend,” debutante Mary-Elizabeth, whose refreshing honesty and kindness disarms her and then wins her over.

The noir protagonist is often a liminal character moving between two worlds—the detective caught between the cops and the crooks, the drifter caught between the femme fatale and some tough guy he once crossed or a girl next door vying for his attention, no match for the siren call of the bad girl. Ashley is the liminal character in Uptowners, and as Zack loses his social station and the old home place brick by brick, he joins her in her liminality. They’re also partners in crime, or at least a cover-up, and are bonded by the secret they share with Mary-Elizabeth, the reluctant Carnival queen who, after serving her time presiding over the Krewe of Versailles ball, leaves for Paris to embrace who she really is (Zack and Ashley, on the lam and desperate to start over, will join her there in the next installment, Queensgate).

In the Southern gothic pantheon of female protagonists, Ashley wouldn’t be a liminal figure but a full-on archetype of the young girl who grows up very quickly and sees more of the darker side of life by thirteen than many adults do before they’re thirty; Scout Finch, Frankie Adams, Caddy Compson and Sookie Stackhouse come to mind. Ashley may not look particularly staunch and as an attractive blonde with a Southern accent she’s often underestimated. She has, however, a formidable determination, fearlessness and get-it-done attitude that enables her to deal with bitchy relatives, take care of her broody cousin, hide a body in the garden and still strike out on new adventures abroad, going it alone when she has to.

Though my second graphic novel, Piano Lessons,  a gay teen romance set in the rural south of the 1950’s, doesn’t have as many noir motifs, it has the pervasive atmosphere of secrecy and societal oppression often present in noir stories. There’s something musty if not downright rotten under the veneer of respectability and superiority that many townsfolk seek to hide behind. This atmosphere traps one character, Conrad, an ambitious and closeted high school student, and ironically frees Junior, a passionate younger teen who discovers who he is and refuses to keep it under wraps.  There’s also the illicit activity of moonshining, and the inherent danger involved. When Junior’s new love, Mark, is injured near his still by rival bootleggers, Junior exacts revenge, incurring the wrath of the law and living out his own version of “Bohemian Rhapsody” as he flees to a place with such a lawless reputation his mother speaks its name as if it were an oath: New Orleans. In this case, the big city is a refuge instead of a place from which to need refuge. Yes it’s lonely sometimes but the opposite of oppressive; there’s the promise of acceptance and community that Junior craves but couldn’t have back in his hometown, so New Orleans in the time of Tennessee Williams embraces him, and he embraces it back.

As I continue discovering new characters and their stories I expect I’ll explore new levels of the noir and Southern gothic. From Misfits and misanthropes to genteel opium addicts and polite imposters. There’s much truth to be mined in the darkness and found in forgotten shoeboxes at the back of old closets. Away I go to discover it!

This post first appeared at Deep South Magazine, Jan. 16, 2015.