Staring Into the Abyss
April, 2013; $14.99 PB
Reviewed by K. H. Vaughan
Classic noir was always dark and gritty, filled with moral ambiguity. Hard, cynical men inhabited dark and dangerous places, and in the end often survived because they were just a little bit tougher, brasher, and smarter than the other guy – playing the angles, willing to do what the other guy would not. Even then, the good guys often lost, the wrong men went to the chair, and corruption regularly triumphed. But even most of the burnt-out cynical characters of classic noir usually had some inner moral compass or code. There were lines they didn’t willingly cross, and if they did not always get the justice society called for, they tried to get the justice people deserved.
The characters of contemporary Neo Noir are far more sordid and nihilistic. There are few protagonists in Staring Into the Abyss that even qualify as antiheroes. Many would have been the bad guys in a classic noir tale: psychotics, sociopaths, and deviants deserving of some rough justice. Staring into the Abyss is populated with badly damaged people living in a world overrun by predators. Some stories take the point of view of the victim and some the perpetrator, but, in either case, the world is a brutal Hobbesian landscape of despair, murderous rage, and sexual violence.
The stories are generally very brief, many of them no more than short character sketches or atmospheric scenes. They have a fragmented quality, and often lack development and denouement. I would take this as a flaw in most collections, but in this case it works with the overall aesthetic of the work. These are stark assaults on the senses and sensibilities of the reader. Awful events occur, and then flash past to be replaced with yet another violent and depressing scene before they can be processed. Taken together, they evoke a whole greater than the individual parts, as the pieces collectively evoke a dark and grim reality. It is a world of disconnection and raw pain without hope or resolution. These are broken stories and characters for a broken world, the seamy side of life presented in the shards of a broken mirror. In defying some of the conventional aspects of storytelling, the author has taken a risk, and I think some readers may have difficulty seeing the whole. Likewise, the grim and explicit content will not appeal to everyone. But for the right reader, it is a dark ride worth taking.
I reviewed a pdf copy and so cannot comment on the binding, but the cover art and layout are well-designed and should look good in an eReader. The volume is very thin for the list price at just 136 pages, including stand-alone title pages for each of the twenty stories. However, Thomas’s vivid prose will stick with you and is well worth investigating.