Spinetingler

best american noir of the centuryReviewed by Reggie Chamberlain-King

Tod Robbins was a horror writer and, even when he turned his hand to something other, he remained a horror writer. His earliest novel, Mysterious Martin, was a lingering account of an aesthetic murderer, a writer who kills to better capture the experience in print, while the better-known The Unholy Three follows a group of manumitted circus freaks that, haplessly, resort to homicide. And, although his short stories and genre puff-pieces make concessions to the supernatural, this is the real nature of his horror: the gruesome ends to which human beings can be moved, under duress or caprice.

The protagonist of Spurs is spurred by both; his rage could be justified, but it is his own monstrous streak that allows him to take such glee in it. The form of his revenge should remain an unspoiled punchline, but it is as poetic as any aesthetic murderer and, certainly, unholy.

Another of Robbins’ circus freaks, Jacques Coubré, a dwarf knight, resplendent on a long-muzzled canine, falls madly in love with Jean-Marie, the Shiksha goddess who rides the horses bare-back in the sideshow. She is in love with another, but, when news of M. Coubré’s recent inheritance reaches her, she concedes to marrying the dwarf; one of nature’s unfortunates, she thinks, can’t live a married life for very long.

Her façade is barely maintained and comes apart altogether at the drunken wedding reception, when she lifts her diminutive husband over her shoulder and threatens to carrying the ‘little ape’ the full length of France. Although this hardly stands out amongst the rough-housing and rough-talk of the inebriated Giraffe Boy, Wolf Woman, and giant Mr. Hippo, the small performer takes the humiliation to heart, plotting vengeance on his wife, with only the title of the story acting as a clue to the reader.

The reception scene may sound familiar: several human beings of unorthodox appearance (again, some owe genetic disposition, some their own design) throw drunken abuse around the nuptials of one of their own and his new, norm bride. This pivotal moment in the story is also the pivotal scene in Freaks, the 1932 film, by Tod Browning, which plays loosely with Mr. Robbins source material.

The differences between the story and the film are interesting ones; ones that have as much to do with the time between the writing of the one and then the other as with the different media for which they were written. The translation from script to screen allows us, also, to guess at some of the qualities that make up that otherwise difficult to define genre of noir.

Released in 1932, after several years fermenting in Browning’s brain, Freaks is certainly a work of noir cinema. As Mr. Ellroy says in his introduction, film noir is much easier to spot than prose; it is a question of picking up on the aesthetics rather than the specifics. So, while Freaks many not be set in the run-down quarter of some big city, its dreary lighting, its whiff of desperation cohere into standard noir. The travelling American circus (here distinct from the French setting of the original story) is an impoverished community like any other two-bit burg and the citizens just as needy; in the freakshow especially all the characters are, as the genre dictates, outsiders and it is on this shaky ground that their few alliances are built.

The dwarf, now called Hans, forsakes his well-matched partner for the Amazonian, Cleopatra, a bare-back rider who is involved already with a thuggish brute of a man. Once more she concedes to marrying the small hero. However, this time, in cahoots with her lover, she plans to hasten the death of her husband with the addition of poison. The revenge dealt out to her here, though, is not the sole sadistic whim of the slighted dwarf, but of the whole cast of living spectacles, when they come together in a act of barbarous camaraderie.

The plot of lovers plotting the murder of their respective old man or lady was due to come up again in The Postman Always Rings Twice, the standard-setter for noir fiction; it is the perfect noir situation. It has both adultery and murder, the two natural sins. Our impulse to sleep with whomsoever will allow us and the fight element of ‘fight or flight’ are hemmed in by societal convention and, yet, when pushed to the extremes of our feelings, we can break those conventions so easily. In many ways, the crime of passion is more simply understood than ever is surpassing a speed-limit or parking in a loading bay. Underneath the veneer of normality, we are all capable of such things. When Cleopatra attempts to poison Hans, she is revealed as being no more perfect than are the more unusual of the circus folk. And, when they exact their revenge on her, they are no better than she is. “One of us, one of us,” indeed.

In Spurs, practically nobody is pushed. Jean-Marie is greedy, yes, and the sideshow performers are hubristic. During their reception scene, no one calls “One of us!”; they have no sense of camaraderie, instead they bicker with one another over whose cherished deformity draws the biggest crowd. Even the dwarf (Jacques Coubré again) is not reacting to a threat on his life; he exacts his revenge out of embarrassment only. What makes Spurs a horror story or, at least, horrific rather than noir is the delight and simplicity with which the reprisal is meted out. It is not even sadistic, as it might be were it dealt by a gangster’s psychotic grunt; it is purely decadent.

The story’s inclusion in an anthology of noir is not unjustified though. It is the first piece, set just before an entry from James M. Cain, and as such acts, not as the first noir story, but as a transition, the threshold that connects noir fiction with the literary traditions that went before.

The grit of noir is not to be confused with realism. If anything, the pessimism at the heart of it is more strongly connected to the French movement that opposed Realism: Decadence. The characters in the decadent novels of Huysmans, Lauremont, and Mirbeau are grotesques; there is nothing real about them. The characters of noir fiction too are grotesques; they are people forced, from the outset, towards the extremes of human behaviour, we are almost never allowed to see them take the middle ground.

As the physical embodiment of this extremity, the protagonists of Spurs and Freaks are perhaps too symbolic. They are part of a European tradition; Spurs is set in France, after all. And the joyous body torture that concludes the piece is too plainly Catholic, joining back to the first horror stories, recorded as fact, by St. Gregory of Tours in the 6th century.

The Protestant ethic of America necessarily urbanised noir fiction, taking out the representations of monsters, of manipulative gore, and focusing instead on the evil of which man was capable. That change is apparent even in Poe. The difference between Spurs and Freaks, then, is that in Freaks the freaks are human too. In Spurs, they are more as daemons: the punishment that Jacques, the dwarf, performs is little different to that given out by the torturers in Dante’s Purgatorio.

Still, whether they are real humans or not, there remains a faith in the bad that humans can do and will do under certain circumstances. There is retribution, but no hint of justice. This is what separates noir from the hard-boiled: there is no pretence to heroism, to goodness. All the characters crawl around at the same level, reacting, and acting only to their own benefit. The hero, the private eye, if one appears, must be understood as entirely supernatural.

The transitional Spurs hints at this. The private eye is seen as being a chivalrous figure, a knight, the man who, in Mr Chandler’s words, “walks the mean streets, but is not himself mean.” Jacque Coubré, the male-lead in Spurs, is introduced, at first, as a great romantic, dressed up as a knight upon his charger, a dog named St. Eustache (the patron saint of hunters), but, in the end, disappoints his office. He is not an heroic figure. His romanticism leaves him blinkered, susceptible to manipulation, and open to petty flights of vengeance. He is, in miniature, Orlando Furioso.

The double-bluff of Freaks was disheartening: beneath their unusual exteriors, they were normal, which meant they were anything but normal. However, the single switch of Spurs is worse: the hero is a monster and the little man never wins. It is the corrupt policemen and the corrupt mayors that upset us the most, because it means the veneer needn’t even be scratched away for us to see the evil underneath.

In noir, one hardly ever needs to wear a mask, unless you’re pulling a raid. Your motives just need to be kept on the QT. There is no point in symbolism either: a bad guy is a bad guy, nothing greater. This is the horrifying thing, that humans, at their worst, can do things for which only they can be blamed. No ghost or monster can be put in their place, nor idea or theology. These familiars of horror are just distractions from the horror itself.

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Reggie Chamberlain-King is a Belfast-based writer, broadcaster, Musiphilosoph, and humble savant.

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