I remember the first time a piece of fiction left me haunted. It was one of the stories in William Hope Hodgson’s collection Carnacki the Ghost-Finder. I won’t say which story, so as not to spoil it for you, and you should read the entire, wonderful book. All the stories have as their protagonist Thomas Carnacki, a Sherlock Holmesian detective who investigates supernatural manifestations. If you think your manor house is haunted, you can hire Carnacki to investigate and, if there’s a ghost, to try to get rid of it.
Sometimes the haunting turns out to be real, and Carnacki battles the supernatural entity from his “Electric Pentacle.” Other times, he discovers and reveals that it’s a hoax. The stories in the former category are vivid and scary, and the ones in the latter category are intriguing mystery yarns. But there is another, more powerful category…
In one story, Carnacki investigates what seems to be a haunted house, and he proves that it’s a scam by debunking and explaining all the supposedly supernatural events—except for one. It’s in keeping with the rest of the manifestations, but it’s not part of the hoax. So what is it?
Carnacki doesn’t know. It remains a mystery.
When I first read that book as a kid, some of the stories scared me while I read them, but afterward I was unscathed. But that story, with one mystery left unsolved, wouldn’t leave me alone, especially after the lights were switched off at night. There was the relief of knowing that there wasn’t really a ghost… but, if there was no ghost, what could have been the cause of that one thing?
That was my first taste of the difference between mystery and noir.
Like most great horror stories, the Carnacki stories are also crime stories (this is also true of much of the Bible; witness Cain, and the setting up of Christ by a corrupt government). The ones that don’t have a real haunting at the center are entirely crime stories—but those are mystery, not noir, because they are about answers. Noir reflects real life in that it is about questions. And questions are frightening.
When I reread the Carnacki tales as an adult, this became even clearer to me. There is “The Gateway of the Monster,” a supernatural noir story in which Carnacki takes refuge in his pentacle, but leaves a cat outside, in order to determine whether there is a dangerous supernatural presence. And there certainly is:
I heard the basket, in which the cat lay, creak. I tell you, I fairly pringled all along my back. I knew that I was going to learn definitely whether whatever was abroad was dangerous to Life. From the cat there rose suddenly a hideous caterwaul, that ceased abruptly; and then—too late—I snapped off the flashlight. In the great glare, I saw that the basket had been overturned, and the lid was wrenched open, with the cat lying half in, and half out upon the floor. I saw nothing else, but I was full of the knowledge that I was in the presence of some Being or Thing that had power to destroy…
For a long time I could not see the hand; but, presently, I thought I saw, once or twice, an odd wavering, over among the shadows near the door. A little later, as though in a sudden fit of malignant rage, the dead body of the cat was picked up, and beaten with dull, sickening blows against the solid floor. That made me feel rather queer.
A minute afterward, the door was opened and slammed twice with tremendous force. The next instant the thing made one swift, vicious dart at me, from out of the shadows. Instinctively, I started sideways from it, and so plucked my hand from upon the Electric Pentacle, where—for a wickedly careless moment—I had placed it. The monster was hurled off from the neighborhood of the pentacle; though—owing to my inconceivable foolishness—it had been enabled for a second time to pass the outer barriers. I can tell you, I shook for a time, with sheer funk. I moved right to the center of the pentacles again, and knelt there, making myself as small and compact as possible.
It made me “feel rather queer” too, and it still does whenever I think about it. What makes this scene so terrifying is the senseless malevolence of the unseen power beating the dead body of the cat. We see its rage, but we don’t know why it’s angry, or what it wants. And, even though Carnacki finds a way to defeat it, we never learn why it causes harm—only that it does.
Mystery stories are popular because they are comforting. The identity of the killer is arrived at by figuring who had motivation to kill. In mystery stories there may be ruthlessness, but there’s no madness, only reason. However awful the crime, the criminal had a reason for committing it—revenge, or financial gain. Such stories offer us the same comfort that conspiracy theories do; they let us believe that there is order in the world, that the favorite cliche of the cowardly, “everything happens for a reason,” is true, so if we can understand the reason then we will be safe. They offer us the same comfort we can find in doing a crossword, or any other puzzle. They let us feel in control.
Life, when we see it as it is, is frightening to our egos because of the random forces we can neither anticipate nor understand. And this is the world of the roman noir—the black novel. A world not of easy answers, but of impossible, resonant questions.
In 1938, Samuel Beckett was randomly stabbed by a man in Paris. Later, at a court hearing, Beckett asked the man why he had done it. He answered, “I don’t know, monsieur. I’m sorry.” Beckett dropped the charges against the man, because he was sympathetic toward that which has no explanation. How else could he have written such plays as Waiting for Godot, Endgame, and Krapp’s Last Tape, and a novel that begins with the statement, “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new” and another novel that ends with the statement, “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”?
In Thomas Harris’ novel The Silence of the Lambs, when Clarice Starling speculates about what happened to Hannibal Lecter that made him a murderous cannibal, he tells her, “Nothing happened to me, Officer Starling. I happened. You can’t reduce me to a set of influences.” Lecter is frightening because he is a force of nature. He doesn’t kill because he wants something else—he kills because he likes to kill. Because he does.
Sadly, in the books that follow, Harris does reduce Lecter to a set of influences. He was so traumatized when his sister was killed and eaten, he took revenge on the killers, and has been that way himself ever since. And now he is no longer so terrifying, because we can explain him. He’s just another fucked-up person doing fucked-up things.
A far more frightening villain than Lecter—indeed, I would say a more frightening villain than any other in fiction—is Iago, the protagonist of Shakespeare’s Othello, one of the most perfect tales of noir. (Despite the title, Iago is very much the protagonist; it’s his story, not Othello’s.) His body-count is far lower than Lecter’s—he cons his boss, Othello, into thinking that his wife, Desdemona, is cheating on him, until Othello kills her. When the truth is discovered, Othello kills himself, declaring himself “one that loved not wisely, but too well.”
Othello, of course, is an amoral brute, who thinks the jealously that motivates him to plan and carry out the murder of his wife is love. He’s the classic noir loser. If he comes across as sympathetic, it’s only by comparison with the vile Iago…
But what makes him so vile? He’s lied, and caused the deaths of two people. Not very nice, granted, but not a massacre either.
Iago has no motivation that we know of. And, even when caught, and about to be tortured, he refuses to explain. “What you know, you know. From this time forth I never will speak word,” he says. Healing and forgiveness are only possible when we are given an explanation we can understand, and Iago, like life, like the world, cruelly refuses. He just is.
Fires and hugs only warm us because we are cold and alone, and explanations and resolutions only comfort us because we don’t know anything. And the stories that refuse to die, that haunt us long after we close the book (or throw the book away in revulsion) are the stories that hold up a mirror to our void of knowledge. The terrible beauty of literature is not in its answers, but in how it articulates and magnifies the questions that we live, the questions that we are.