They are proud of me at first. I live in the small Kentucky county where I grew up, a place people either leave or settle into hard lives. A writer is a curiosity. Old friends, high school classmates and recent acquaintances are proud or at least politely interested when they discover I write fiction. Until they learn the type of stories I write. Then they either avoid mentioning my work or ask with a perplexed concern why I spend so much of my life occupying the minds of the criminal, the psychopathic and the depraved. It usually annoys me. No one wants to be required to justify an obsession. But annoyance aside, it is a valid question. If reading and writing fiction are similar to dreaming, why would anyone consciously choose to have nightmares?
My passion for dark fiction began on a Friday afternoon when I was a boy. This was mid-August, smothering and bright outside, cool and dark in the funeral chapel. I tugged at my collar, fiddled with my clip-on tie, stared at the casket. The photograph on top was of a second cousin, a man in his thirties, blonde, raw-boned, handsome. Closed caskets are rare in Kentucky. We like to see our dead. But my cousin Jackie had been shot three times at close range. Open was not an option.
The consensus was that he’d had it coming. Jackie was a criminal. He had stolen cars, broken into houses, pulled armed robberies, staged home invasions and committed a murder. When he was killed, he was on parole after serving time on a manslaughter charge. There was no doubt about it. He was a bad guy.
But my family loved him. They knew the things he’d done, even saw his death as a form of justice, but they loved him anyway. They spoke of the time he’d driven my grandmother to the hospital in a blinding snowstorm, of the long night he’d spent tramping through the woods in search of my dad’s lost birddog, of his sharing his school lunch with my Uncle Jimmy when the coalmines were on strike and a kid’s lunch was more than my grandparents could afford, of the time he’d given away his coat because he felt bad for a drunk who slept rough beneath the L&M tracks.
I was raised on cartoons, comics and television movies. The world was easy to understand. There was Jesus, America, and Spiderman on one side, the Devil, Russia, and the Green Goblin on the other. Good and bad. Light and dark. That’s the way it was supposed to be. But it wasn’t. That day in the funeral home, I struggled to understand how the man in the picture could be the bullet-ridden corpse beneath the coffin lid, how my family could acknowledge his crimes and yet grieve for him, most of all how the “good” guy who gave away his coat, shared his lunch, and found lost dogs could be the same person who kicked in the doors of frightened families, pistol whipped a slow-moving store manager, and leveled his gun at a man and squeezed the trigger.
I won’t claim that noir answers those questions, but at least it poses them. In fiction that forces us to share the mind and motivations of a thief, a robber or a murderer, the world isn’t easily and falsely divided into good and evil, light and dark. Noir makes clear that people are far more complex than most of us want to admit.
When my old friends, certain that I’m an unsavory character who gets thrills from acts of murder and mayhem, study the books on my shelf and then glance around as if they expect to find Norman Bates’ mother lurking in the shadows, I don’t bother to tell them that I don’t love noir just because of its heart-racing suspense, its gritty atmosphere, its often starkly beautiful language. I don’t point out that while it’s true that light illuminates darkness, it’s also true that the dark can clarify light in a way most people never allow themselves to imagine. All I say is, “Read James Cain and Cornell Woolrich, David Goodis and Jim Thompson, Vicky Hendricks and Daniel Woodrell, Stephen Graham Jones and Donald Ray Pollock or any of the dozens of other amazing writers working in the genre. And when your dreams turn into nightmares, don’t be surprised by how happy you’ll be about that.”
About Tim L. Williams
Tim’s stories have appeared in a variety of literary quarterlies as well as “genre” magazines such as Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Plots with Guns, Not One of Us and the now sadly defunct Murdaland. Two of his stories have been included in Houghton Mifflin’s Best American Mystery Stories series, for 2004 and 2012. He won a 2012 Thriller Award from the International Thriller Writers in the short story category, received a 2014 Edgar Award nomination for “Where the Morning Sun Goes Down,” and has twice been nominated for a Shamus Award for best short story. Tim is a native of Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, an area known for its coal mines, its production of meth and its yearly Everly Brothers Festival. After years of drifting around the middle of the country, working jobs that ranged from assistant produce manager to college professor, Tim returned to his hometown in Kentucky, where he lives with his wife and two children.