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Cape Cod Noir

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Cape Cod Noir

"Cape Cod Noir" edited David L. Ulin
Richard Thomas
For those that are unfamiliar with Cape Cod this is a fascinating collection of tales that reveal the underbelly of a quiet vacation spot.

When I think of cities that inspire noir, Cape Cod is certainly not at the top of that list. I think of New York, Chicago, Baltimore even, but never would I have thought of Cape Cod. In the ongoing series by Akashic Books, they’ve visited almost fifty cities across the United States, and around the world. It’s a compelling series to say the least. Once I started to get into this collection, though, I understood the appeal of Cape Cod. Any place where you have the rich surrounded by the middle and working-class, the permanent residents dealing with entitled tourists, there’s bound to be a simmering pot of angst and violence waiting to overflow.

Editor David L. Ulin speaks to the concept of noir in the opening of this book, and the reasons that Cape Cod came to mind. What is noir to him?:

“…that air of desolate clarity, of a character staring into the abyss as the abyss stares back…a cry in the darkness of a world that is, as best, apathetic, and at worst, in violent disarray.”

Twelve pages into this collection of thirteen stories by authors such as Paul Tremblay, Dave Zeltserman, Jedidiah Berry and many other dark visionaries, I found myself nodding my head. David gets it, I thought. This is going to be good. But how is he going to make this work in Cape Cod? He elaborates:

“…my experiences on the Cape suggest…that noir is everywhere. You can see it in the desperate excitations of the summer people, the desire to make their vacations count. You can see it in the tension of the year-rounders, who rely on the seasonal trade for survival, even as they must tolerate having their communities overrun…And after Labor Day, once the tourists have gone home, it is still a lot like it has always been: desolate, empty in the thin gray light, with little to do in the slow winter months. You drink, you brood, you wait for summer, when the cycle starts all over again.”

Sounds like noir to me. I was sold.

What kind of noir can you expect to find in this collection? It’s a wide range of stories for sure. You have ex-cons out on parole trying to stay out of trouble, some of them on a reform school island, chopping wood and ducking bird poop. You have variations on revenge—for being fired, for taking a father away, for spouting off at the mouth. You have a series of pictures that add up to a realization, and bizarre puppet shows where a witch disappears at the end—the flesh and blood one, not the puppets. Whether you are in Martha’s Vineyard or Hyannisport, Sandwich or Buzzards Bay, if you gaze out into the darkness and scan the choppy water there are bodies to be found—violence and regret filling the air.

When it comes to noir, or really, any good story, the best way to get my attention is with an opening line, or narrative hook, that really piques my interest. This one is from “Bad Night in Hyannisport by Seth Greenland:

“I was dead. That was the main thing. And I never saw it coming.”

And this one, from “Twenty-Eight Scenes for Neglected Guests” by Jedediah Berry:

“In the illustrations of the crime scene, the full moon is high and small over the sea, shining through a halo of clouds.”

In the first example you get the quirkiness of a dead man telling you his story, so we know this is going to be a bleak tale. In the second story, we can picture the setting vividly, the mood and tone set, the crime committed. Both examples let us know that things are not going to go well—in fact, the deeds have already been done. But how we get there, and what that journey may entail, that has not been revealed yet.

Of course, once you’re hooked, one of the most important aspects of noir is the setting—the tension and atmosphere that must be maintained throughout the story—that sense of foreboding and clenched gut as we wait for the unspeakable to unfold. This example is from William Hastings and his story “Ten-Year Plan”:

“There’s a lot of coke on the Cape, bad during the summer, even worse during the winter. It’s cold and there’s no one. You lose a lot of line cooks that way. You lose a lot of college girls that way. I got lost that way.”

Or this example from Elyssa East and her story “Second Chance”:

“I never meant to be in the car that killed that girl. It was like that was someone else, not me. Like I wasn’t even there. But I was.”

Or this vivid description from Lizzie Skurnick and “Spectacle Pond”:

“The black sky over the pond was a lid, he suspended in its jar. Through a conflagration of circumstance and other people’s will, he was floating alone two miles from a small, dark road smack in the center of a barely populated peninsula, with nobody to know or care. He was not angry or murderous. He was lonely, merely lonely—or at least, he thought, lonelier than anyone like him had a right or reason to be.”

And certainly this desolate picture painted by David L. Ulin in “La Jetée”:

“Standing on the jetty, watching the sky grow pale and silver-pink at sunset, he drifted back to that moment, emptying his drawers into a trash can, realizing that nothing he’d gathered in the last five years, nothing he’d accumulated, meant anything at all. In a weird way, he felt hardened, kiln-fired…Not purified, though, never purified. Not unless purity could be defined in terms of rage.”

But not every story is your typical tragic noir. There is a bit of humor sprinkled here and there, as in the uniquely strange story “Twenty-Eight Scenes for Neglected Guests” by Jedediah Berry. In this fractured tale of puppets, witches and love lost, we are treated to this scene where the three Widows of North Varnish laugh at their losses with glee:

“‘My husband died because he ate too much,’ says the first of the three Widows of North Varnish. ‘Too much poison, that is.’

‘And my husband died because he hit his head,’ says the second widow, ‘against the skillet I was holding.’

‘And for my husband,’ says the third widow, ‘he died of natural causes.’

‘Is that so?’ asked the first widow.

‘We were standing together on the edge of a very high cliff, just admiring nature, and then he fell right into it.’

One other unique structural element of this anthology was the use of numbered sections—stories broken down into bite-sized pieces, a mathematics of betrayal and deceit that adds up to death, voodoo, and the ever-expanding darkness of the Cape. The aforementioned “Twenty-Eight Scenes for Neglected Guests” jumps back and forth between a myriad of characters, each of them jilted and desperate, as they put together a macabre puppet show. Love is buried and revealed; witchcraft is employed; all the while the puppets rehearsing in the background, morbid as they tell their sordid tales.

Another story broken down into subsections is Paul Tremblay’s slow reveal in “Nineteen Snapshots of Dennisport.” A young boy carries his camera around on the family vacation, taking the usual blurred pictures of faces and hands, the action out of the shots just as revealing as what is captured on film. A hotel room opened to a curious eye only shows shadows when the film is developed. Memories of a beautiful, exotic Italian girl, Isabella, are mixed with family photos gathered around tables, faces frowning, something wrong—an affair, a mistake, strange men at the periphery wanting some time from father:

“Look closer. Over his left shoulder. See that huge guy two storefronts away, hiding under an awning, but not hiding? He’s watching behind reflective sunglasses, and he’s wearing a tight white polo shirt, wearing it like a threat…”

For those that are unfamiliar with Cape Cod this is a fascinating collection of tales that reveal the underbelly of a quiet vacation spot, taking you out into troubled waters, back into the alleyways and forever bending forests, freezing moments in time for you to retain for future reference. For those that have spent time in these locations, it is a haunting trip back to a place that may hold fond memories for you, or perhaps simply confirms your own ideas that something was happening just out of sight. And for those that are simply fans of noir there are plenty of dark nights for you to embrace—hushed voices and smeared lipstick, fists that are eternally clenched in anger. Akashic Books knows what they are doing with this series, and David L. Ulin has put together a malicious collection of short stories that will stay with you long after you return home safe.