Each story in Richard Thomas' neo-noir anthology The New Black is prefaced with an innocuous drawing of some object--a truck, a drink, a bra. The deliberately uninteresting drawings, which reveal no secrets, sit in counterpoint to the frequently gruesome tales that follow. But if the drawings appear to conceal or reveal nothing, their sheer normalcy highlights one of the anthology's major themes--the way in which the mundane has gone nightmarish in twenty-first century America. Thomas notes that he opted for tales from two of his authors that "are closer to the fantastic and horrific, slipping in and out of realities, asking us to suspend our disbelief, and open our minds to the possibilities" (xii), and the "possibilities" in question tend to lurk at the margins of what one might call late capitalist exhaustion. (This is not the first anthology to include a story maximizing the horrific implications of working in a telemarketing center; Benjamin Percy's "Dial Tone," in which the protagonist is reduced to a cubicle number, suggests how the dehumanization of workers leads to far worse things.) At the same time, a striking number of stories are child-centric, either filtered through a child's POV, about a child, or derived from an adult's traumatic childhood experiences. Another reviewer has pointed out how the stories emphasize "family dysfunction" pushed to extremes, and again, the anthology as a whole imagines "wholesome," "traditional" nuclear families as deeply rotten, unsafe spaces that children can barely negotiate.
At first glance, the most conventional tale is Craig Wallwork's "Dollhouse," possibly a direct descendant of M. R. James' "The Haunted Dolls' House." A young girl finds a miniature version of her own home in the attic, and assumes that her parents are the ones furnishing it, adding doll versions of themselves, and so forth. The end results are...not good. Where the story revises Gothic tradition, however, is in making young Darcy completely on board with her father's insistence that "all things can be explained" (227): while the rationalist family patriarch is such a Gothic convention that he has his own TV Tropes entry, the Gothic child, woman, or servant is normally more deeply in tune with otherwordly possibilities. Darcy, however, opts for her father's reassuring vision of a world open and accessible to purely human sense perception, and thus falls prey to the...whatever-it-is...actually manipulating the dollhouse. (That there is no backstory here is part of the point--no explanation is to be had.) "Dollhouse"'s emphasis on the child's repeated experiences (the visits to the dollhouse) recurs in some of the other child-centered stories. In the postapocalyptic "It's Against the Law to Feed the Ducks," the protagonist's repetitive games with his parents--"pretend you didn't know..."--contrast with the growing chaos that the child cannot yet understand. Because the story is filtered through his POV, the reader is also left guessing: WWIII? Terrorist attack? Nuclear accident? The "pretend you didn't know" game quickly becomes ominous, as, if nothing else, the reader soon grasps that the family is being launched into a situation where nobody knows much of anything at all. Brian Evenson's "Windeye," which features a game between siblings, pushes things further by asking whether the game creates reality itself. Similarly, the nightmarish repetitions of "Father, Son, Holy Rabbit," in which a father surreptitiously sacrifices his own body to feed his son, suggests how parents try, and sometimes fail, to create rituals that protect their children from the threat of their own mortality. (These dark reworkings of religious ritual and the yearning for redemption recur several times in the anthology, including the man who seeks to re-plot his life in Biblical terms in Craig Levenger's "Act of Contrition," the aging boxer sacrificing his own body as atonement in Craig Davidson's "Rust and Bone," and, in reverse, the woman desperately yearning to shed faith altogether in Vanessa Veselka's "Christopher Hitchens.")
Micaela Morrissette's "The Familiars" reinvents invisible friends and the monster under the bed; the boy's strange friend, who emerges during the idyllic days before school, becomes creepier and creepier until the conformist schedule of school begins--and the monster finally appears. The child's first toe into a community outside of himself and his mother, that is, both forecloses on the playfulness of his earlier imagination and releases a different sort of horror. The adult version of this theme reappears in "Dredge," in which a man reenacts his childhood discovery of his own mother in a refrigerator by keeping a dead girl's body in a freezer; the compulsion to repeat, so common in Gothic scenarios, here marks the inadequacy of ritual in the face of primal trauma. The ending, in which he speaks "his trapped scream" from childhood into the girl's corpse, evokes and parodies psychoanalysis: is the confession "healing," or does he simply imagine a transfer of repressed emotion from one space to another? Repetition as addiction crops up in Rebecca Jones-Howe's "Blue Hawaii": Jessica, a female alcoholic bearing the scars of surgery to repair her harelip, meets and mates with Ian, a male cocaine addict, with disturbing results. The tale dwells on the image of the "hole"--the hole of the lip, the "black hole" (183) of life as an alcoholic, the hole that she sought to cut into her repaired lip because "there was nowhere else for the bullshit to go" (186). The hole simultaneously lets things out and lets things in, but addiction amplifies its emptiness, rather than fills it; the conclusion, in which Jessica contemplates her niece and thinks, "[n]ormal" (189), hints again at the appeal yet inadequacy of being just like everyone else. A more overtly ironic take on normalcy appears in Tara Laskowski's "The Etiquette of Homicide," fragments of a manual for murderers, which mixes practical advice (how to deal with bloodstained clothing) with ominous overtones of rage and frustration. Like other characters in this anthology's late capitalist universe, the murderer, too, turns to things ("the soft shaggy carpet" ) as a bulwark against both his (or her) isolation and the ugliness of the world in general. Roy Kesey's "Instituto," which reads like a parody of the American belief in self-improvement, features a protagonist who undergoes a bizarre "perfecting" process that leaves him with an absolutely perfect everything, from "skin" to "fingernails" (150); this (again) intensely ritualized process, which transforms everything material connected to him without any work on his part (another American fantasy!), nevertheless leaves him still distanced from his mother, his lost friend, and his ex-wife.
The presence of sometimes lethal, sometimes psychological violence within the supposedly cosy enclosure of the family informs several other tales. Nik Korpon's "His Footsteps are Made of Soot" brings together a child's betrayal by his abusive father (and complicit mother) with underground surgery; both the mother's memories and the surgeon's craft seek to remake the body's reality, with potentially disastrous results. Lindsay Hunter's "That Baby," in which a mother finds her world unraveling after her apparently-normal baby starts to mature at light speed, conjures up a life in which men are either exploitative or simply inadequate: the doctor has nothing useful to contribute, the husband leaves, and the baby himself grows into a parody of masculine brutishness (all sex and violence). The threat of male violence reappears in Richard Lange's "Fuzzyland," in which a man's attempt to deal with his sister's sexual assault reveals the cracks in "normal" sibling and married relationships. The apocalyptic-of-a-sort ending suggests just how fragile middle-class normalcy--the wife, the husband, the kids--may actually be. Kyle Minor's "The Truth and All Its Ugly," set a decade into the future, traces a family's breakdown in drug addiction (itself partly motivated by wartime experiences), abandonment, and adolescent suicide; the SF twist, in which the dead teenage boy is cloned as a Supertoys-style permanent child, warns us that "sometimes what you want isn't the same as the thing we can give you" (59). As in the other stories, repetition--here, the repetition of parenting itself--fails to reorganize a life collapsed into chaos. Joe Meno's off-kilter "Children are the Only Ones Who Blush" pokes sardonic fun at a different form of failed parenting, which turns to therapy in order to name and control a child's emotional complexity. Like "The Familiars," it links its own faux maturation rituals to conformity and passivity: at the end, the protagonist and his friend are "waiting, like everybody else, for someone to tell us what to do" (207). The potentially eerie disconnect between parents and children is even more apparent in Antonia Crane's "Sunshine for Adrienne," in which the mother's wistful stories of her daughter's working-class respectability--"She's waiting tables and taking World Religions at City College" (292)--diverge sharply from her daughter's life as a stripper and drug addict, and overwrite the violence of which her daughter has never spoken. By contrast, Roxane Gay's "How These Things Come to Pass," the only optimistic tale in the anthology, is about disrupting routine: twins Hanna and Anna, entrapped by sexism, abuse, male indifference, poverty, and disrupted dreams, abandon their household of "broken people and broken things" (137)--"the shackles of traditional destinies," as Dino Parenti puts it--in order to craft a new family with Hanna's lover Laura and Anna's husband and child. In this anthology, at least, one breaks out of neo-noir by refusing the comforts of the same--which, in the end, are really more like a series of betrayals.