I haven’t picked up any horror/mystery novels for a while, but summer nights are perfect for dark reads and it’s good to try new things, so I picked up Marisha Pessl’s Night Film in early June. (Yes, I know it’s July now and no, that was not a typo.) I’ve been struggling through this 600-page behemoth for over a month now, and last night I finally reached the end.
About the book: Scott McGrath, disgraced journalist, is out for a run late one night when he has a strange encounter with a woman in a red coat. Soon after, Ashley Cordova is found dead. Ashley is the daughter of an eccentric horror film producer whose work is so controversial and terrifying that it exists only in illegal copies and secret underground showings– and the daughter may prove as enigmatic as Cordova himself. Police have ruled the death a suicide, but McGrath knows there’s more to the story and reopens the Cordova investigation that ruined his career years before. Two of his early leads, Hopper and Nora, attach themselves to McGrath’s investigation for better or worse; but the deeper they dig, the more it seems that nothing has been coincidental (including Ashley’s red coat), and everything is tied to an elaborate story part real and part fiction, a story that’s as compelling and creepy as one of Cordova’s films.
“Freak the ferocious out— there were quite a few pages on the site devoted to Cordova’s supposed life philosophy, which meant, in a nutshell, that to be terrified, to be scared out of your skin, was the beginning of freedom, of opening your eyes to what was graphic and dark and gorgeous about life, thereby conquering the monsters of your mind. This was, in Cordovite speak, to slaughter the lamb, get rid of your meek, fearful self, thereby freeing yourself from the restrictions imposed on you by friends, family, society at large.”
The best part of this story is its atmosphere. Pessl writes with an eye toward the visual, coaxing the reader toward seeing this story like a film of the mind. The level of detail is rich and eerie, the metaphors evocative, the action scenes heart-pounding. The prologue draws the reader in completely, and the final chapters send the reader to new depths and heights.
“Just when you think you’ve hit rock bottom, you realize you’re standing on another trapdoor.”
But this is a 600 page novel. I think it would’ve been a stronger story closer to 300. Pessl does an excellent job of following every plot thread to its conclusion, but this story does not need nearly as many threads as it provides. Some of these arcs are barely attached to the main web of the plot, and some branch off entirely. For example, there’s quite a bit of information given about McGrath’s ex-wife and their daughter, who he sees only occasionally. These characters are absolutely irrelevant to the mystery, as are the ex-wife’s new husband, the daughter’s nannies, and everyone mentioned in between.
So much of this story felt contrived, as well. Everyone McGrath wants to interview is willing to share everything they know about Ashley or Cordova himself– two of his leads are so interested in McGrath’s investigation that they become active participants in it, and this professional investigator is perfectly content, even grateful (by the end of the book he calls them his family) to let them tag along, though they cause as many problems as they solve. Most of the side characters are flat, including the policewoman who helps McGrath behind the scenes for no apparent reason, and the professor/uberfan who, no matter how much he hates McGrath, will step out of his classes and invite McGrath into his home to share Cordova information with him. McGrath is the only person who gains from his relationships with any of these people; why are they so willing to give him whatever he needs?
“Dottie never forgot that night. She said later she felt as if she were an hors d’oeuvre he’d taken one bite of, then put back on the tray.”
There are so many details that some are left floating rather awkwardly. For starters, McGrath talks about his habit of running around the reservoir at 2 AM in the prologue, but does not exercise again in the entire 600 pages that follow, and is rarely awake at that time of night. When he ruminates on the wreck of his career, he mentions that money has gotten tight, but then proceeds to throw “bonuses” at his assistants, bribes to whichever sources need incentive, props and tools to aid his investigation, etc. He spares no expense, though he doesn’t seem to have any income at all for the duration of this novel. And then there’s the black magic expert he calls to help with “the grimmest situation”– when his immediate concern turns out all right, he seems not to remember the grimness of the underlying problems beneath it. The narration is very near-sighted.
But let’s look at the horror aspects of the book. In some ways, Night Film feels like a mishmash of every horror story that’s been done before: there are headless dolls, hedge mazes, witchcraft, corrupt doctors/therapists, deserted mansions, underground tunnels, misty islands, bloody clothing, anonymous phone calls, black hooded cloaks, mythical creature symbols, and about every other basic spooky detail you’ve ever seen before. It’s impressive that Pessl manages to pull all this together into one narrative, but in my opinion the best parts of Night Film are psychological. The scenes when it’s hard to tell fiction from reality, when McGrath feels like he’s in a Cordova film, when someone isn’t who they seem, when unexpected motives come to light or the truth seems closer to home than is comfortable. Parts of this book made my skin crawl, and that’s what kept me reading. I also loved the ambiguity of the ending.
“The truth about what happens to us in this world keeps changing. Always. It never stops. Sometimes not even after death.”
Another pro: this book has some cool multi-media aspects. Within the novel, there are articles, notes, photographs, etc. that fans of Illuminae and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children will appreciate. And further, there’s a Night Film Decoder app that allows the reader access to additional content on screen, including videos, journal entries, etc. I didn’t look at all of the app’s content, but what I did see was interesting and I would recommend checking it out while reading if you’re enjoying the novel.
Another con: though this seems to be an adult novel, it reads like YA. McGrath is a grown man, but Nora and Hopper (and Ashley) are in their early twenties, and Sam is 6, or thereabouts. The vocabulary of the novel isn’t too advanced, every mystery is overly-explained, and Pessl uses Italics more aggressively than I’ve seen any writer use them– on every page, practically in every paragraph, she shows the reader exactly where to look. There’s no subtlety (which is not to say that the mystery itself is predictable).
“The space around Cordova distorts… the speed of light slackens, information gets scrambled, rational minds grow illogical, hysterical.”
My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. There were some things I really liked about this book, but they were outweighed by the things I really didn’t like. I appreciated that it was a novel that woke strong opinions, and Pessl is certainly a competent storyteller– but this book was not for me. In my younger years I might have loved this, which is part of the reason I couldn’t bring myself to DNF even though I was slogging through so slowly, but present me still can’t decide whether it was really worth the read in the end or not. I probably won’t be reading any more from this author.
Do you like reading mysteries in summer, year-round, or only in October?
The Literary Elephant