Quite possibly the best-selling author of neo-noir fiction, you may recognize the work of Dennis Lehane from the films that have sprung from his novels: Gone, Baby, Gone and Shutter Island, as well as Mystic River. His work builds on the lives of ordinary people in extraordinary situations — abductions, murder, and slips in reality. Lehane has mass appeal, writing novels that are easy to digest, but complicated in their layers of imagery, plot, and depictions of the truth. His latest novel is Live By Night, which asks the question, “Can a man be a good mobster and a good person at the same time?” These are the dilemmas Lehane creates, pushing back against the temptations of the night.
Will Christopher Baer
An author who exemplifies the voice of neo-noir fiction, Baer has a trilogy of books that uses an unreliable narrator, Phineas Poe, to drag us down the rabbit hole, blending urban myths with the gritty reality of his Denver streets. Starting with Kiss Me, Judas and then moving on to Penny Dreadful and Hell’s Half Acre, we fall in love with Jude, a predatory criminal who steals organs and lures us into the dark. Part of what defines the work of Baer is his ability to create surreal settings and populate them with characters that are altered by drugs, violence, and mental instability. His prose is hypnotic. Though he’s reclusive these days, there is still hope (the long delay and rumors only heightening the anticipation) that his fourth novel, Godspeed, will actually happen. Godspeed, indeed.
Once you discover Baer, it’s a short trip to the prose of Craig Clevenger. He only has two books out, The Contortionist’s Handbook (about which Chuck Palahniuk said, “I swear to God this is the best book I have read in easily five years. Easily. Maybe ten years”) and Dermaphoria, but regularly places short fiction in journals like Black Clock, and anthologies like the Akashic “Noir” series. Cut from a similar cloth as Baer, Clevenger slips in and out of altered realities, using conversations with psychologists to help us diagnose his patient, our protagonist, as well as hallucinatory binges from the latest synthetic drugs to hit the street. Weaving lyrical prose with layered settings, his work is dense and smart.
Stephen Graham Jones
The next logical step is to Stephen Graham Jones, one of the most prolific authors you may have never heard of, with 12 books out, and at least two more on the horizon: Flushboy and Not For Nothing, in 2013 and 2014, respectively, both with Dzanc Books. He is consistently nominated for Bram Stoker and Shirley Jackson awards for the best in horror, but his work transcends the genre. Sure, he will craft a story about a chupacabra hybrid in It Came From Del Rio, but he also weaves complicated, compelling stories, like All the Beautiful Sinners. Building on his personal background and history as a Blackfoot Native American, Jones creates a serial killer known only as “The Tin Man,” a shadowy figure who chases tornadoes to abduct children in a poetic narrative that is equally as chilling. The opening to All the Beautiful Sinners will stay with you for the rest of your life.
While she may shrug off the tag of neo-noir, Roxane Gay writes some of the most violent and disturbing literary fiction that I’ve ever read. If her writing isn’t an indication of where this subgenre is heading, then nothing is. The stories that Gay reveals to us, as confessional memories, as journalistic accountings, hold nothing back. It is the horror of our modern society — the hypocrisy of man — not the hairy beasts in the woods or the mutated legends in the sewers that frighten and scar us. Her female protagonists shrug off their youth — the molestation and neglect a skin to be left behind; the racism and rape in our modern-day society brutal examples of the darkness that waits around almost every corner, lives next door, or perhaps grew up in your very own house.
Brian Evenson has found a way to take the best of genre fiction and merge it with the best of literary fiction. He is equal parts Edgar Allan Poe and Peter Straub, a blend of Robert Coover and Haruki Murakami. He has a knack for telling stories that creep up on you, nestling in close, until you look down and realize that your arm is not your own. It’s nearly impossible to write fiction that truly scares you, but Evenson is a master. He mixes in the surreal with the religious, moral dilemmas with meta-fiction, until the words leap off the page to infect your life out here in the real world. Immobility is his latest novel, one of post-apocalyptic distress, and Windeye is his latest collection of stories — culled from such esteemed journals as Black Warrior Review and Conjunctions. Never simple or formulaic, Evenson is a singularly powerful vision, with a wide range of lessons for us all.
An emerging author who pulls no punches and always speaks the truth, Hunter’s first collection of stories, Daddy’s, was a mix of suburban nightmares and fractured desires. Her second, Don’t Kiss Me, out this summer, should provide more of the same powerful observations and insights. To be able to tell a story (“Fence”) about a woman who puts her pet dog’s electric collar in her panties, easing towards the fence in order to receive her punishment (and salvation) without reducing her story to lust and depravity is sheer genius. To show how a mother might leave her monster of a child on the playground (“That Baby”) and simply drive away takes a brutal honesty that is hard to come by. If Mary Gaitskill has passed the torch, it may be Lindsay Hunter who has taken it. No topic is taboo, no confession too personal, no hesitation in her delivery. It’s easy to see that the darker side of the human spirit lurks in alleys and subdivisions alike.
Often compared to Irvine Welsh, Davidson published his first short story collection, Rust and Bone, in 2005, followed soon after by his novel, The Fighter. Building on his career as a journalist, he spent 16 weeks taking steroids in the name of research. His graphic fight scenes pull the reader into the middle of the ring, creating a visceral experience that questions the nature of our humanity. His most recent work, Sarah Court, is a series of interlinked narratives all set in the same town, on the same street. He brings an air of authenticity to his writing, which makes it all the more disturbing. With testimonials by Clive Barker, Peter Straub, and Chuck Palahniuk calling his work “challenging and upsetting” and his prose “spare, yet elegant,” Davidson is a unique voice — yet amongst family, on this list.
Holly Goddard Jones
There are few stories or collections that have left me weeping, but Holly Goddard Jones’s Girl Trouble is one of them. A mixture of Flannery O’Connor and Denis Johnson, with a sprinkle of John Cheever, what Jones does so well is create tension and fear while at the same time whispering in our ear that everything is going to be all right. But it isn’t going to be all right, that’s the problem — it will never be the same again. Her story “Proof of God,” from this very collection, went on to be selected for the Best American Mystery Stories anthology. Jones can take a scene as innocent and common as watching a daughter dive into a pool, taking a little bit too long to come up for air, and make it pulsate with foreshadowing and danger. Her latest novel, The Next Time You See Me, builds on that history, creating a layered tapestry, torn and stained at the edges.
Known for his depictions of the outdoors, the ways that nature pushes itself in, Benjamin Percy is a voice that demands to be heard (and if you’ve ever heard him speak or read, his baritone makes Barry White sound like a tenor). Much of his work is set in Oregon, and the Pacific Northwest, carrying with it a mythic voice that isn’t afraid to hint at the lore of the woods, a bigfoot or sasquatch, an air of danger and violence just out of sight. His first novel, The Wilding is an excellent example of that voice. Now, the world can enjoy his take on werewolves, Red Moon. If anybody can tap into the history and violence of a hybrid man, the transformation and brutality of such a creature, it’s Ben Percy.