The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.

A Riddle, Wrapped in an Mystery, Inside an Enigma (Review: Night Film by Marisha Pessl)

Night Film
Marisha Pessl
Random House 2013

Stanislas Cordova is a man shrouded in mystery. A filmmaker who has directed arguably the most frightening features in the history of the form, he lives and works on a secluded estate in upstate New York.  Never seen by the public, no longer financed by the studios, his work has long gone underground, watched in abandoned subway tunnels and Paris catacombs.  Yet stories of him abound – everyone has one, be it about his work, his house or his family – but that’s all they are… just stories.  Only one man has ever really tried to get to the truth of the sinister Cordova and he ended up ruined because of it. However, when Cordova’s beautiful daughter turns up dead, Scott McGrath, is driven to once more pursue the man, the myth, the possible monster – even if that means giving up everything he’s got left.

Night Film is told from the point of view of McGrath, the investigative journalist already once bitten by the Cordova myth. When Ashley Cordova is found dead, he becomes quickly obsessed with the idea that there is more to her demise than a simple suicide.  As he starts to once more delve into the depths of a man who is more mystery than matter, he is quickly joined by Hopper – a guy who has a childhood link to Ashley, and Nora, an aspiring actress looking for somewhere to live and something to do.  They make an interesting and rather winning team, with Nora managing to temper the obsessional leanings of McGrath and the brooding of Hopper.

Ashley, herself, is ever present yet ephemeral.  She never quite takes form and is endlessly fascinating because of it – a beautiful girl, talented, damaged and strange.  Then there is Cordova, never seen, never heard, never understood yet the character that inhibits this story more than any other.  He’s a tour de force of ambiguous terror and looms in all the shadows.  There is more than a touch of film noir about the characters.  McGrath is the 1940’s gumshoe, dogged to the point of instability, Nora the ingĂ©nue, full of innocent enthusiasm while Hopper becomes the tortured young grifter, desperate to save the girl he loves and has lost.  Ashley is the lost waif while Cordova remains only a suggestion at the back of every scene.  Pessl’s writing more than nods to this genre and is, fittingly, almost filmic in its visual nature.  It’s extremely atmospheric and at times very frightening.

The story of Night Film is one that while linear at heart is also extremely complex.  As well as McGrath’s narration, the book is peppered with additional content – articles on Cordova from Time magazine; interviews in Rolling Stone; images from his films; the content of a strange website run by fans.  These are all beautifully presented, look entirely real and take readers into a strange hinterland where fiction and non-fiction start to blur and where the darkness surrounding Cordova seeps from the page and into the mind.  Additionally, Night Film comes with its own app.  Really.  Every now and again, a small bird graphic appears on a page and, when scanned with a smart phone or tablet, takes readers to yet further content – film posters, piano recordings and the dictated notes of a confused psychiatrist among much more.  Again, it has all been created with real care and not a small amount of talent.  It is in the combination of these seemingly real additions and the increasingly bizarre story that Night Film achieves real unease.  In particular, a story recounted within the text regarding a role that Cordova’s son took in one of his films becomes deeply disturbing when put together with images that the reader has recently seen but not understood.

Night Film is a very clever book.  As the story progresses, it starts to feel as though one is reading one of Cordova’s scripts and the sense of unreality that hits the characters also hits the reader, particularly as the plot spirals through terrifying film sets, hard-to-believe puzzle boxes, possible witchcraft and an ending that is as ambiguous as the films Cordova himself makes.  The is-it-a-bird-is-it-a-book-is-it-a–film-is-it-a-plane idea, in combination with the found footage aspect of the accompanying app is all very…meta., and can be little overwhelming.  It’s also a very long book (600 odd pages) and the story is, arguably, rather under-edited containing flabby sections that take away from what would otherwise be a taught and deeply scary thriller.  Still, while this sort of thing has been done to greater effect in the terrifying House of Leaves (review here), Pessl proves herself as a writer with real guts and skill as a storyteller and for fans of the horror film, particularly of directors such as Stanley Kubrick and Dario Argento, this is a must read.

This review was brought to you by Splendibird. Night Film is available now. A word of advice, the accompanying app is free but you require a device with a rear facing camera lens to use it. However, the book can be read and enjoyed without accessing the app at all.

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