Until recently–literally just a few days ago–I’d not read the work of Alan Baxter. I’ve had his novel Hidden City waiting in my review queue for quite some time but haven’t gotten to it yet. But when his newest novella Manifest Recall I was deeply intrigued by the synopsis because it sang strongly to the noir nerd in me, and it promised to be a fast read so I squeezed it into my schedule and–quite unexpectedly and delightfully–it owned me for the full three hours of my life that it took me to tear through it. And I still haven’t decided whether I tore through it, or it tore through me. Anyway, suffice it to say, it’s a great fucking book that you really need to read. Rich Duncan will be reviewing it here on Ink Heist soon and I’ll be doing so on HorrorTalk, but don’t wait for those. Go get it now.
In the meantime, it turns out Alan’s an excellent wordsmith whether he’s writing fiction or nonfiction. Today he shares some outstanding insights on his work, his chosen genres, and the brilliant noir flavorings that inhabit virtually all of his works and his imaginings. Stuff this outstanding article into your brainholes and do click on the links to purchase his books. You’ll be very glad you did.
I always cringe when people ask what kind of stuff I write. Not because it’s a bad question – it makes perfect sense to ask an author what they write – but because I find it such a hard thing to pin down. Partly because I’m not really sure what I write! I’m a genre writer, that’s easy. I never met a genre I didn’t like. I’m a dark fiction writer too, that’s also easy. None of my stuff is especially uplifting or safe for kids. Beyond that? Anything goes.
But I am a huge fan of mystery, crime, and noir. I think those things go hand in hand with horror and are fertile seeding grounds for fantasy, so I’ve combined all those elements in many ways in a lot of my work. The Book Club is police procedural with urban fantasy and cosmic horror, for example. Hidden City is crime noir with urban fantasy and horror. Many of my short stories, including most that are collected in Crow Shine, contain combined elements of fantasy, horror, crime and noir. But one thing I’d never explored in great detail before was that solid noir trope, the unreliable narrator.
I love the idea of the reader being carried along with the protagonist, while perhaps neither of them know what’s going on. It usually requires a first person perspective to keep the focus tight and easily led astray. I wanted to have a go at that, but I wanted to go all the way. I wanted a really unreliable narrator. So I wrote Manifest Recall, a book where the protagonist is such an unreliable narrator that he doesn’t even know who he is. He has no idea who the frightened woman in the passenger seat is either. He literally comes to while driving this car, and has no idea what’s going on. That was my starting point. I figured it couldn’t get any more unreliable than that.
In an article in the Guardian, awesome author Sarah Pinborough posits: “The way I see it, we’re all unreliable narrators of our lives who usually have absolute trust in our self-told stories. Any truth is, after all, just a matter of perspective.” (In that article she lists ten amazing books with unreliable narrators, all of which are worth checking out.)
I agree with her assessment. Everyone is the hero of their own story, after all. But I wanted Manifest Recall to start out with the narrator knowing damn well that he couldn’t trust the truth of his self-told stories. Because he had none. Zero recall. And as the memories come back to him, he’s leery himself of trusting them, let alone sharing them.
There are many kinds of unreliable narrators. The deliberate liar who revels in misleading people. That one is really annoying, and can make a great villain. The braggart, who thinks of themselves far more highly than they’ve any right to, and tells their stories accordingly. These can sometimes be fun, but they’re usually annoying too. If we combine the two above – the liar and the braggart – we get a blueprint for a comic book supervillain. Or a president of the USA… But let’s move on. Other unreliable narrators include the delusional one, who genuinely believes what they’re telling you, even though it’s all bullshit. Then there’s the innocent, too young or too naïve to know what they’re about and therefore unable to tell an accurate story. My narrator in Manifest Recall, Eli Carver, is a little like that, reduced back to the state of the innocent even though he’s far from it. And he knows he’s not a good guy. But he starts to change…
And then we throw in the noir, that sense of place, the crime, the underbelly of humanity laid bare and ready for the knife or the bullet. And Eli Carver is always ready with a bullet. He’s also haunted by the ghosts of people he’s killed in the past, haranguing him all the way. A supernatural peanut gallery of mockery and hate.
Remember how I said I didn’t like it when people asked what kind of stuff I wrote? This is why. My stuff is so hard to categorise. It’s a dark stew of pretty much everything. But I like it that way, and hopefully you do too.
We at Ink Heist like it that way too and I’m certain if you get Manifest Recall into your head, you’ll be like us: hungry for everything else he’s ever written or will write. You can click any of the book cover images or linked title text above to purchase copies of the books mentioned in this article and you can buy Alan Baxter’s other books by clicking here to visit his author page.