Bête Noir: Darkness at the Crossroads
To be human is to be animal. Ironic that we as an at least loosely distinctive subset of what is quaintly referred to as the kingdom Animalia have in our boundless egoism determined that being human distinguishes us as if not faster, stronger, kinder, or more inherently beautiful than, then at least superior to the rest of the planet’s beasts.
But let’s for a moment recognize that we are not. Not superior (other than in our capacity for mass destruction) to the monkey, the chicken, the goat—not even particularly distinct among such. In The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder, Patricia Highsmith allows humans no exclusive claim on the ability to love or hate, the ability to be victimized, the ability to murder. This story collection is the perfect jump-off from which to explore the intersection of human and animal, what it means to be both of these things in an interior and exterior sense. This convergence is viscerally demonstrated by the bone collectors of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s short story Jackals, or in the novel Suspect by Robert Crais wherein the similarities of two powerfully damaged protagonists—one human, one canine—nestle not so deeply in their differences.
Noir and crime fiction seem the natural home to this particular junction of human and inhumane, of beast and beastly; Highsmith famously claimed that creepy ideas came to her “as frequently as rats had orgasms.” In his interview with David Liss, Claude Lalumière discusses with the author The Ethical Assassin, a crime novel taking a “complex and darkly satirical look at the intersection of capitalism’s drive for profit at any cost and the ethics surrounding both the factory farming of animals and radical animal-rights activism.” It makes Highsmith’s complex and nuanced indictment of factory chicken farming in “The Day of Reckoning,” a story written over thirty years earlier, feel powerfully prescient.
Ray Vukcevich tackles the bête from another angle in All About the Ball, a foray into a surreality where human and animal can simultaneously inhabit the same corporeal meat. Here’s the distinction between the bête noire, as explored in Barry Graham’s wonderfully dark gonzo essay Meeting the Werewolf, and bête noir, that dark and often seedy intersection of human and not human that points more to what it is to be both than to be either or neither.