“‘Anyway,’ he added softly, ‘a man’s ghoulish shadow is not the man.'” –Night Film, Marisha Pessl
Night Film by Marisha Pessl is a big, bold statement of a book; released at the perfect time, right before Halloween when everyone is craving a scary story told in the dark. Pessl brings us “a myth, a monster, a mortal man” in Stanislas Cordova, the film producer at the core of the novel. He’s described as “a crevice, a black hole, an unspecified danger, a relentless outbreak of the unknown in our overexposed world.” Cordova’s films are outlawed (an inspired copycat killed a girl in imitation of one film), and bootlegged “black tapes” are passed among obsessive Cordovites. Renegade underground screenings of Cordova’s films take place, and fans flock to a secret website where they post their darkest secrets as well as the most mundane bits Cordova trivia. The film producer’s beautiful but haunted daughter Ashley commits suicide, and a ragged journalist past his prime, Scott McGrath, decides to look into the death. McGrath reluctantly picks up a few delightful sidekicks, and they begin to unravel the mystery surrounding Cordova, his family, and his films.
I was originally listening to Night Film as an audiobook, and I realized I must be missing something as at times the narrator seemed to be reading captions from photos and newspaper articles. I discovered a used copy of Night Film at Diesel Books for $8 (score!) and was glad I did. The book features photos of Ashley before her death, articles and pictures from the New York Times on Cordova and his films, and other pieces of evidence displayed as they are discovered. Until they add a .pdf to the audiobook, I’d recommend grabbing an actual copy of the book to avoid missing out on the full story. There is additional media built around the book, including an app called the Night Film Decoder and Night Film found footage on the web. I’m sure cynics will see this as too much hype, but I saw it all as a great addition to the story.
Night Film is reminiscent of the post-modern masterpiece House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski and the terrifying European hit Syndrome E by Frack Thilliez. All of these books are built around creepy (and nonexistent) films; in House of Leaves, a documentary about a house with shifting boundaries is studied, and in Syndrome E, a terrifying old film is found and blinds a man who watches it. I’m not sure why reading imagined documentation is so irresistable and terrifying. In Night Film, Pessl takes care to blend Cordova and his horrors into our current culture, pointing out details of the films in which fans have found meaning. This careful interweaving of fiction and reality heightens fear by making stories feel real. All these imagined dark films are made all the more terrifying by people’s reactions to watching them, which in the real world we just don’t see or experience. A man begins to lose his mind when reading about the documentary in House of Leaves; Cordova’s films are “so horrifying, audience members are known to pass out in terror.”
I haven’t read Pessl’s first book, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, even though it was highly praised. It is now at the top of my list of books to get next. The plot of Night Film is fantastic, but being able to place the looming figure of Cordova believably at the center of our world took some serious writing talent. Pessl has wit, and displays it Night Film‘s moments of much-needed comic relief. The Night Film Quotes page on Goodreads is full of memorable gems. Night Film is the best kind of horror novel, with just the right amount of brains and brawn on board.