Dark Brink of Love
A dispatch from the broken-open world of noir
Reading time 23 Minutes
“I became an ordinary American paranoid again . . .”
-New Orleans poet Everette Maddox, “Ordinary American Paranoia Revisited”
Stranger in the Doorway
My first memory is being in the emergency room of Victory Memorial Hospital in Brooklyn – I’m about three, and I’ve got a fever of 106. They’ve got me in a tub full of ice. My father’s in the distance, a stranger in the doorway. I can’t quite make out his face, but I know it’s him. I’m looking for my mother everywhere, knowing she must be talking to the doctors. I can feel the whole world burning from the edges in. That memory always tapers off, like the end of a reel, and there’s nothing until I’m five, in the street outside our apartment with a bloody knee, looking up at a couple of clouds taking the shape of a cross. Another time, soon after, I see the Virgin Mary hiding in the wood paneling in my grandparents’ kitchen. Religious visions everywhere. It’s no wonder I took to noir so early.
By eleven, I was watching and reading everything I could get my hands on. I was writing stories about crooked guys on the lam, tripped up by fate. I was in Catholic school, where a few of the nuns kept pints of whiskey tucked in their socks or hidden in closets. I went to church on Saturday nights. I’ll never forget one Saturday, in particular. I was twelve. That morning, I’d gone to the video store up the block from me, owned by a swaggering, big-chested Russian guy, and I’d done my usual duty of renting a stack of three tapes for three bucks. One of them was Blue Velvet. I went home and watched it, enthralled, hoping my mother didn’t walk in. Going to church with my mom after the movie wasn’t the same. Nothing was the same. The communion wine was actually blood. The stained glass windows were spiraling, alive with movement. Lights flickered, and you could see the veins of neon poison thrumming beneath the pews.
Everything was a sham, I realized. Just turn over any rock. Everyone had dark secrets. Priests, nuns, parents, cops, whoever. There wasn’t one world but a series of dark worlds existing simultaneously.
As a writer of noir novels, I guess there’s nothing more boring than someone asking, “What exactly is noir?” Not only is it boring to try to define it, but those definitions can be limiting. They can be too narrow, too exact. Or they can be too flaky, too all-over-the-place. The only sort-of definition I’ve ever heard that I like came from Duane Swierczynski in a conversation about the distinction between hard-boiled and noir, quoting Scottish writer Allan Guthrie: “The crucifixion is hard-boiled. The resurrection is noir.” For a kid who grew up Catholic like me, that about gets to the heart of it.
I’m a big fan of Nicolas Winding Refn’s work and I was excited about this site from day one, anxious to see what neglected film would next get the treatment it deserved. When byNWR first went live, my good pal (and contributor here), crime writer Ace Atkins, screened The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds and Hot Thrills and Warm Chills on his back porch. We’ll often have movie nights over at his place, and that was one of the craziest and best. I had no idea, obviously, that a couple of years later I’d wind up guest editing the noir volume. It fell to me in a circuitous way – I was recommended by my friend, blues historian Scott Barretta, and I liked the way that Refn and editor-in-chief Jimmy McDonough were talking about noir, how they hoped I would and wouldn’t approach this. They didn’t want the kind of essays or features you’d typically find accompanying films on various streaming platforms; they didn’t want “extras” or academic dissections of the genre. They wanted original shit, shit from the edges, no matter if it was a little discordant or unharmonious. Raw was better than formulaic. They were talking my language, or I was talking theirs, or both, or whatever. Either way, I’m thankful to have wound up here, doing what I love best. The films chosen for restoration in this volume are a weird lot, which is especially great for me, since what might be classified as weird noir or head trip noir is what I’m most interested in.
Black Lace in the Sooner State
Stark Fear (1962) is the only film made by two University of Oklahoma professors, director Ned Hockman and writer Dwight V. Swain. Influenced by the success of Hitchcock’s Psycho, they set out to make their own psychological horror noir and they managed to create something greasy, tough, and unsettling. Like the best B noirs, it crawls under your skin and stays there. Philippe Garnier – the esteemed French journalist and biographer of my favorite noir writer, David Goodis – brilliantly breaks down the film in his intro. It should be mentioned that the title for this volume, “Dark Brink of Love,” was Hockman and Swain’s original title for Stark Fear, a perfect encapsulation of how – on the whole – noir feels and means.
I didn’t know anything about Hockman or Swain when I first started working on this. It didn’t take me long to discover that Swain also wrote science-fiction stories and novels (one of which, “Henry Horn’s X-Ray Eye Glasses,” is featured on the Expressway, read by me). Digging deeper, I saw that he’d also ghostwritten one of John Cleve’s space porn novels, The Planet Murderer. It so happens that John Cleve was the alias of Andrew Offutt, Chris Offutt’s father. Chris is one of my favorite writers – a memoirist, novelist, and master of the short story – who I admired long before I became friends with him. He wrote beautifully about his relationship with his father and about his father’s prolific career as a porn writer in his memoir My Father the Pornographer, so I asked him to talk about how his dad’s career took shape in the hills of Kentucky and how it intersected with Swain over in Norman, Oklahoma.
My next impulse was to reach out to my former publisher and author of several weird noir novels, J. David Osborne. David is from the part of Oklahoma where Stark Fear is set and was shot, though he grew up there many years after the fact. When I saw that Hockman and Swain had also produced a bunch of short instructional videos, mental hygiene films, and sponsored videos, I sought them out and found a tourism ad commissioned by the Oklahoma Planning and Resources Board they’d made called Oklahoma: Heartland, U.S.A. I thought it’d be great to hand that title to David and let him write about the Oklahoma he knew fifty years later, full of addicts, juggalos, small-time crooks, and searchers.
There’s an unsettling scene in Stark Fear where Ellen (Beverly Garland) encounters a Comanche storm dance. I thought this would be a good opportunity to discuss Native American representation in noir, but I didn’t want an academic overview. I thought of Erika T. Wurth’s Buckskin Cocaine, described as “a wild ride into the seedy underworld of Native American film,” which I’d read last year and loved. Erika wound up writing a killer piece of fiction from the perspective of Cortez Ewing, the Native American actor who plays “The Chief” in Stark Fear. It was nearly impossible to dig up any information on him, but I was glad to have the task of imagining what it might have been like for him in Erika’s hands. Accompanying Erika’s piece are ethnographer James Mooney’s Ghost Dance recordings from 1894. When I stumbled across this material, I knew I wanted to include it because of its mythical, mystical noir feel. Listen to those songs. That’s noir. That’s the past screaming into the present. Those are true ghosts, truly pursuing us across the chasm of time.
Gabino Iglesias is the author of two of my favorite books of the last few years, Coyote Songs and Zero Saints, a writer of what he terms barrio noir, and a writer who is unafraid to move between genres, blending horror, noir, literary fiction, magical realism, and the weird seamlessly. He’s one of most exciting voices out there. Here he presents a noir story set in a sleazy Oklahoma motel, where paranoia, desperation, and destruction come clanging together. His original photos accompany his story and they’re haunting as hell, full of menace and life.
I’ve contributed two pieces to this chapter. The first one is a noir testimonial from the point of view of Skip Homeier, celebrated child actor turned perpetual heavy, who plays Gerald Winslow in Stark Fear. It imagines what it might’ve been like for Homeier to try to occupy the hideously twisted mind of Gerald. The other is a long short story inspired by the El Nora Motel, a key location from the film. For the Expressway, I read the piece, with an original score from one of my favorite musicians, Tyler Keith (The Neckbones, The Preacher’s Kids, Tyler Keith and the Apostles, Teardrop City). Tyler’s terrific road photos accompany the text version of the story. And, also for the Expressway, I interview Tyler about writing noir songs, growing up in the Christ-haunted south, and touring in punk bands.
Walk Over the Fallen
Your first impulse after watching Ted V. Mikels’s One Shocking Moment (1965) might be to say, “You’re stretching it. That’s not noir.” First off, who gives a fuck if we stretch it or how far we stretch it? Stretching it is fun. Beyond that, though, is it really much of a stretch to understand how this might be classified as noir? You’ve got fallen people making bad decisions, embracing vice. You’ve got betrayal. The devil taking hold. Think of it as the Eyes Wide Shut of nudie cutie noir. Mikels was a wild man with a wild story, and you can read about him and watch documentaries about him elsewhere. Instead, what I was interested in tapping into in this lesser-known film of his is the feel of mid-1960s L.A., a time and place that seemed to amplify the crisis of existence for lost dreamers who wound up there.
One of the stars of this film is Gary Kent, who went on to become a famed stuntman, but was only starting off in 1965. His career ranges from his films with Mikels, Monte Hellman, and Peter Bogdanovich, to his extensive work as a stuntman and stunt coordinator, to films that he wrote and directed in the ’80s; and, at eighty-six, he’s most recently appeared in films like Sex Terrorists on Wheels and Virgin Cheerleaders in Chains and written a memoir called Shadows and Light. Ace Atkins is one of our best living crime novelists and his Quinn Colson series explores some of his deepest fascinations, including his longtime love of ’60s and ’70s stuntman culture, exploitation films, and biker films – I knew he’d be the perfect guy to write about Kent and the era and scene he was central to. On the Expressway, Ace interviews Kent about his offbeat and varied career.
Violet LeVoit wrote one of my favorite novels of 2019, Scarstruck, described as a “sin-pit noir” and set in Hollywood in the 1950s. She calls One Shocking Moment a “dreamlike, kinkily sensuous, lesbian-and BDSM-sympathetic pulp film,” and she was deeply haunted by the noir sensuality of the actress who plays Joanie, Maureene Gaffney. A former Red Skelton gag girl with an eighth grade education, Gaffney appeared in one other nudie cutie and then left the movies, devoting herself to Catholicism and becoming a painter. In homage to Gaffney, Violet’s piece is in drawings, combining words and text, like a free-form graphic novel, mixing images of Gaffney with homages to her later art.
More to be excited about in this chapter: Theresa Starkey meditates on her relationship with sin and the devil; I go on the trail of a strange lost script by Brooklyn barfly and failed poet Eddie “Cold Hands” Caponetto; and Laura Lee Bahr – in a noir testimonial, a “melting” memoir, and a collage video – investigates the character of Mindy and the actress who played her, Lee Anna, getting it all tangled up with her very own L.A. story.
A Break to Consider the Bleeding Man in the Corner
At age seventeen, in the first of a series of recurring dreams, a bleeding man sitting on a stool in the corner of an empty kitchen, spoke to me. It wasn’t a kitchen I knew, not one of the two kitchens I’d grown up in. Maybe it was a kitchen from a movie. I seemed to recognize it. I seemed to recognize the man too. His face was something from an old picture. When he spoke, his voice was deep and slow. “If you’re waiting for nothing,” he said, “you’ll be waiting a long time.”
I puzzled over this. I dreamed the man again and again. Sometimes, he said the same exact thing or some variation on it. Sometimes, he didn’t say anything. In one memorable dream, his mouth opened and a silver butterfly flew out. I could never tell where he was bleeding from, but there was blood dripping from him and pooling around his feet on the floor. It was dream blood; it would flicker on and off like a light.
In my last week of high school, I asked a trusted teacher what these dreams might mean. She smiled and said she thought – sometimes, at least – that dreams could be portals to parallel dimensions. I fell in love with her for a minute. I imagined us living in a sad apartment over a Bay Ridge dive bar. I imagined shaving for her in a broken mirror over a porcelain sink that was fifty years old. I imagined us trying to dream our way into other worlds together.
Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander
In the last chapter of this volume, we go back to 1950 and Joseph Lerner’s unjustly forgotten Guilty Bystander. It stars the great Zachary Scott and Faye Emerson, features Mary Boland in her last screen performance, is based on a novel by Wade Miller, has a score by Dimitri Tiomkin, and utilizes gritty New York City locations – in short, this one wears its noir bonafides on its sleeve. It’s also only been available in a very compromised print that really hampers appreciation, so it’s especially nice that byNWR has restored it. A true gift to noir fans. Accompanying it will be an essay by Philippe Garnier and recordings of film historian Richard Koszarski talking to Lerner about his film.
Probably the truest thing that can be said about noir is that it’s about people in trouble. The first thing that comes to my mind when I hear the phrase “guilty bystander” is Thomas Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, in which Merton – monk, mystic, seer, artist – considers the crisis of living in a violent and busy age. Might Merton have been building off one of the major problems explored in noir, in this noir specifically? Well, that’s, um, conjecture. But Lerner’s Guilty Bystander certainly traffics in a sort of spiritual destitution that often informs noir. What happens when codes shatter, when ways of being and seeing shift? What happens when we’re betrayed, broken, beaten down? We make a final stab at survival. Zachary Scott wears this anguish on his face in Guilty Bystander. It’s not only the anguish of his character, hunting for his kidnapped son, but his own personal anguish having undergone a major heartbreak in his life. Marya E. Gates, in her piece on Scott, traces the source of his agony.
Three pieces in this chapter are rooted in 1950s New York City: True crime master Sarah Weinman has been obsessed for a decade-and-a-half with the unsolved murder of Russian financier and swindler and womanizer Serge Rubinstein in New York in 1955, and she goes deep here; Scott Adlerberg explores the life of his great-uncle, jazz trombonist J.C. Higginbotham, whose career was damaged by his own excesses; and I hunt for Veronica Lake in the dive bars and shelters of mid-town. Finally, in an epic genius conversation, old friends Jack Pendarvis and Ogden Elson use Guilty Bystander as a jumping-off place to talk about everything from Swamp Girl to Old Crow to shitting in a box.
The night I found the girl in the woods I was in the middle of a self-pitying alcoholic tear. I was twenty-one, living in the small Hudson Valley town where I’d gone to college, with no prospects, just a broken heart and a broken typewriter, and I was working at a liquor store and drinking from the time I closed the shop to the time I opened the shop. The only time I wasn’t drinking was when I was passed out.
The girl was screaming. It was well after midnight. I followed her voice through the woods, from the deck of a party I was at. I thought someone was being murdered. I was drunk enough to try to stop it. I ran, my friend Rebecca accompanying me, swatted by branches and lost in the darkness, following the screams.
When we got to the source, we were surprised to find a kid. She was about seven, with long blond hair, wearing white pajamas with ducks on them, no shoes on her feet. It was summer, warm. I’ll never forget – through the drunken haze of memory – the sight of her bare feet in the dirt. Turned out her father had left her sleeping in his car in a nearby cul-de-sac while he went to a bar in town. She woke up, frightened, and got out of the car and wandered into the woods.
I was furious. I wanted to find the father and smash his head through the window of the bar. I was not, and am not, violent, but I was rightfully outraged by such awful behavior. As a powerful-feeling drunk, I thought I might teach the father a lesson.
Rebecca brought the girl to the police station, while I went to the bar to confront the father. I’d asked the girl his name. Her name was Rosie. His was Michael. When I got to the bar, one of the diviest in town, dark and dank, full of old mustached alkies, the place was crawling with cops. I asked the bartender – who was my friend Junkie Ellie’s long-time steady – if she knew this Michael. She pointed to a guy being hauled out from the back of the bar by a squat, muscular cop. I told her about his daughter, left in his car in a cul-de-sac, screaming in the woods. She shook her head and said that sounded like Michael.
I considered saying something to him as he passed, cuffed as he was, my Irish all the way up, but I didn’t. I saw the real story of the world in his eyes. It all started with a bad father. It always starts with a bad father.
Rats in the Chalice
I was a believer and then I wasn’t a believer. A noir crisis, at heart. I spoke to the Drunk Priest about it. I’d known him since I was fifteen. He wasn’t a kid-fucker or deranged pervert like many of them turned out to be. He was a reader and a thinker. He thought the kind of thoughts that can wreck you. He was too smart for the people he surrounded himself with. He was desperate to know how we were meant to handle anything. He’d seen horrific stuff – I don’t know exactly what or where. He’d walked through the violence and come out on the other side, prostrate, yearning for knowledge. That’s why he drank.
He told me a tale I’ve never forgotten:
Once there was a king who had rats in his chalice. The chalice was very valuable. He refused to drink until the rats were gone. Days passed. The rats were still there, bathing in his wine. He considered having a new chalice made, throwing this one out to the nobodies in his kingdom, letting them fight for it, putting the rats back out amongst the peasants where they belonged. Too much effort. Why should he have to sacrifice the chalice he loved? He also considered drowning the rats in poison. If he did that, how could he ever drink from his chalice again? He even thought, eventually, that he might get used to it, drink his wine through the rats. In the end, the only thing that made sense was to do nothing at all. While he slept one night, his closest confidant stole the chalice full of rats, and fled from the kingdom. The king woke up in pain. He couldn’t move his body, and he couldn’t talk. His mind worked fine, but the rest of his body was asleep and his voice had disappeared. His chamberlain poked and prodded at him. No one noticed the chalice was missing. People asked after the confidant, figuring he’d been sent on a mission. The king died later that day, a mysterious illness being the culprit, it was said. The confidant killed the rats, sold the chalice, and escaped across the sea to a small island full of happy people, where he lived atop a mountain as a rich man.
The Drunk Priest burped into his palm after finishing. “Rats in the chalice,” he said. “We all get them.”
The Last Crisis
You sometimes find your way back to noir through heartbreak. You wake up in the shadows, bleeding from your wrists, the power out, and the only thing that makes sense is the broken-open world of noir.
I’m haunted by the promises of noir. No matter what goes wrong, no matter how bad things get, there’s always a last stand to be made. A code renewed. Revenge to be had. An act of defiance or even mercy. But the dream of escaping is just a dream forever.
One crisis begets another. What if we’re nothing? What if it’s all nothing? What if it’s not? What if – on the precipice of some disaster – the last crisis you feel brings you back to life?
Noir is the sundown to end all sundowns. I’ll see you there, in the place where everything is swallowed by ghostly light. We won’t ask too many questions. We’ll just listen close for the old silence.
Raise your glasses. Here’s to noir. Fuck noir.
William’s special thanks: Nicolas Winding Refn, Jimmy McDonough, Jules Hammond, James Banks, Lene Børglum, Kimberly Willming, Peter Conheim, Scott Barretta, Tyler Keith, the Southern Documentary Project, and Katie Farrell Boyle.
William Boyle is the author of the novels Gravesend, Everything is Broken, The Lonely Witness, A Friend Is a Gift You Give Yourself, and City of Margins, and a story collection, Death Don’t Have No Mercy. His books have been nominated for the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière in France, the New Blood Dagger in the UK, and the Hammett Prize in the U.S. He is from Brooklyn, New York and currently lives in Oxford, Mississippi.
Photo by Katie Boyle