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Diaper Noir: Pulp fiction’s dirty childhood secret

19 May

What the heck is diaper noir, you ask?

I stop and count to ten. I must remind myself that not everyone is as scholarly as me, not everyone has spent years in the dark, dank basements of long-closed and long-forgotten libraries, failed institutions that still have copies of the now nearly extinct works. I must remember that most people are victims of the cover-up, the dark conspiracy to hide the truth about noir’s origins.

So.

Diaper noir is the precursor to noir. An immature form of pulp fiction. And an important part of literary history. (Yes, noir is literary. If you don’t agree, you can sulk over in the Historical Romance section of your local Borders and stay there while the empty building is razed.)

The famous noir writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler had to mature into the genre (Virginia Woolf also tried her hand at it, but her writing in the genre never matured beyond the embryonic stage). Before they cranked out those celebrated pulp fictions, they cut their teeth on diaper noir.

Properly known as petite noir (it was the pulp magazines like Black Diaper that popularized the more common name), the genre was not started by Hammett, Chandler, or their contemporaries. It was actually H.P. Lovecraft who started this genre, though he did not remain with it very long before moving into horror. Fortunately, Lovecraft’s bastard child was not left abandoned to cry alone in the night and slowly starve. Hammett and Chandler readily adopted the genre, making it their own and eventually growing it into the pulp fiction so recognizable today.

Critics and the buying public stayed away from le petite noir in droves, but I think the genre is worth revisiting, if not for the quality of the stories, then for the influence it had on le gran noir.

Still you ask, what is diaper noir? I have drifted into the history without delving into the actual mechanics of the genre. It is the noir we all know and love, but with toddlers and babies as characters instead of adults. Diaper-wearing sleuths, hence the moniker. It’s easy to scoff now, but without diaper noir, we would never have gotten Sam Spade or the Millenium Falcon or Ace Ventura.

In fact, Sam Spade’s first appearance was as a three-year old in Hammett’s novella, Toddler Trouble.  Who can forget that incredible opening?

It had been a long summer, the heat spilling over like my temper after mommy took away a favorite toy, and today promised more of the same. The fan wheezed overhead, pushing around the sticky air, thick like my favorite blanky, without providing any relief. I fumbled open my drawer, pulled out my bottle, took a hit. Burned going down. Whoever said warm milk goes down easy was a liar liar, pants on fire. Then I burped as she crawled in.

Couldn’t have been more than a week over eighteen months. Her diaper stank and she eyed my bottle. She looked hungry. Real hungry.

Hammett and Chandler, as evidenced by correspondence with friends, family, and each other, had a vicious rivalry going when it came to diaper noir, and were constantly trying to one-up each other. This resulted in a string of dark as a dirty nappy stories such as Terrible Twos, I’ll Nap When I’m Dead, The Poison Bottle, Buddy’s Feral Cat (the inspiration, incidentally, for Dr. Seuss’ “Cat in the Hat”), Dirt Nap, and Bad Baby, Bad!  Long forgotten now, but as the genre matured into the noir to come, with its adult characters but lighter themes, these ‘childish’ stories served as their templates.

But the undisputed father of diaper noir is H.P. Lovecraft, with his twisted short, The Nursery From the Shadows, followed shortly after by The Squid In the Crib.  Horrific mysteries that drove insane the handful of readers foolish enough to finish them. I can’t even provide an excerpt here, the contents are so dangerous in their non-Euclidean eldritchness. Which is a shame, because having read them, I can attest to their awesomeness.

So I urge you, the next time you pick up a Raymond Chandler or a Dashiell Hammett or an Erle Stanley Gardner or an L. Frank Baum, think about where they came from, what literary exercises and explorations spawned them. Think about diaper noir.

Does your library carry these titles? They’re worth a look (except for the Lovecraft stuff – just too dangerous, and I’m pretty sure the only copies are locked up in the Dark Arts research stacks at the Miskatonic University library, guarded by a very stern librarian with a Colt 1911 and a silencer (it is a library, after all)). If you can’t find them at your library, demand they get copies. Don’t let the librarians tell you there’s no such thing. If they’re saying that, they’re part of the conspiracy to bury this nascent work and it is your duty to stand at the circulation desk and scream at the top of your lungs for them to put these influential works back into circulation. Tell ’em ianmdudley sent you.

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Posted by on 19 May 2011 in Noir, Other Blogs

 

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