The Man in the Shadows ‘Night Film’ by Marisha Pessl

nightfilmNight Film is a long meandering novel. A horror-chiller homage to film noir. At its centre a mysterious film auteur. A director of banned films. Cult horrors that push their actors and audience to their very limits.

Investigative reporter Scott McGrath tried to investigate the reclusive Stanislas Cordova once before. His thriving journalism career is now in tatters. When Cordova’s daughter turns up dead, apparently from suicide, McGrath sees an opportunity to reopen the case. Just who is Stanislas Cordova, what exactly does he do in the name of his art? And was it his secrets that drove his daughter to her death?

The opening chapter of Night Film is, frankly, terrifying. A masterclass in suspense writing. After that the chills come in fits and starts, and it may even be fair to say they never quite reach the heights of the opening chapter.

The body of the novel is a curious beast. Mainly first person narrative, but interspersed with various multimedia clippings. Newspaper reports, webpages and text message conversations, all make up the story of McGrath and his hunt for the enigmatic Cordova. In the main this approach works, giving the reader a more hands on feel to the investigation. The story could easily be turned into a fully fledged multi-media experience.

But at the end of the day these snippets are little more than an effective gimmick. What’s the story actually like? There are definite shades of Stephen King here, though Pessl’s writing doesn’t have the compulsive readability of King’s. The King connection and Cordova being a feted film director, combined with the isolated, reality-bending house that features in the latter half of the book, very much put me in mind of Kubrik and The Shining. There are also a number of similarities between Night Film and Don’t Look Now, most notably a red coat.

McGrath is quickly joined by two young people, both acquainted with the Ashley Cordova. For varying reasons they each feel compelled to discover the truth. Their investigation is heavily detailed, as the chase down lots of esoteric leads. Occasionally things threaten to run to boring before suddenly being snapped back by something macabre and disturbing. The longer the narrative runs the more peculiar it becomes.

Cordova’s films, we are told, push the boundaries between what is real and what is artifice, and so it is with McGrath’s investigation. He becomes embroiled in the world of a man who is a God in his own kingdom; Cordova it seems can manipulate the reality of those around him. As the novel nears its end, McGrath finds himself isolated with a broken watch at the mercy of Cordova’s unique imagination. In the final reckoning we are all alone with only our thoughts for company.

It is impossible to talk about the end of the novel without destroying the entire house of cards Pessl has built, but I imagine its openness with infuriate some readers. After reading so many pages, being bamboozled by so many possibilities and freaked out by all the macabre goings on, you might feel entitled to a more complete conclusion. Yet the end is entirely in keeping with what Pessl shows us about Cordova and his creations.

Night Film is an impressive, almost academic piece of work. There is a glorious chapter devoted to imagery and motif in Cordova’s work. It fascinated me, and it was worth reading the book for that alone. I suspect Night Film will develop a sizeable cult following and be mentioned in the same respectful tones as people talk about Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves. It also reminded me of Theodore Rozak’s slow burning masterpiece, Flicker.

This is a book that will bear repeated rereading, undoubtedly giving up new secrets with each pass. A story shot in greys, with the truth malleable throughout, Night Film is a thoughtful enigmatic and scary read that will sink in its hooks and never let you go.

I ran a thought streams list whilst I read Night Film. As for my first attempt for the Eyre affair, I’m still not 100% sure I’m using this new tool effectively, but it’s there for those who are interested!

Many thanks to Emma at Hutchinson for sending me a copy of Night Film.

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