Night Film by Marisha Pessl
reviewed by Raul M. Chapa, First Floor Inventory Manager
If I had to use one word to summarize the new novel by Marisha Pessl (author of Special Topics in Calamity Physics), it would have to be “creepy.” The book is not necessarily “horror” nor “mystery,” but fluctuates between the two and offers enough of each to draw readers in and unnerve them.
Once a popular director of horror films, Stanislas Cordova becomes controversial after some young people became “affected” by his movies, so much so that all the major studios decide not to produce or distribute his work. Unperturbed, Cordova moves into an isolated and remote estate where he casts and films several more movies which take on a cult following. Since they can’t be seen in theaters, they are shown in strange settings and only fans who are “in the know” see them. With the advent of the Internet, the fan base goes world-wide and it is only the initiated who can access the secret online Blackboards that discuss the nature and subject of these “night films”. There has been no new film for years and Cordova himself has not been seen or heard from since an interview he gave to Rolling Stone long ago.
When Ashley Cordova, the director’s daughter, is found dead in an abandoned New York warehouse, investigative journalist Scott McGrath sees an opportune chance to break a story: namely that the director must have something to do with her suicide. The widening gyre begins here, and the story soon becomes a whirlwind of obsession. McGrath is convinced that there must be a connection, and when the journalist brings two of Cordova’s fans into the investigation, their own obsession with Ashley sends the story into uncharted territory.
Cordova is an enigmatic figure and this helps Pessl to move the story. McGrath is convinced at times that Cordova is not even Cordova – that someone else is playing the part of the director. At other times, he is convinced that the director is at the heart of a diabolical ritual played out long ago for the soul of his daughter and that her death is a direct result of it. What makes Night Film so compelling is that the obsession is transferred to the reader: we want to believe that both stories are true – that Cordova is both angel and devil to the life and death of his daughter; that he is both instigator and victim.
The pacing of the story builds and what is purely investigative work gets ramped up with chase scenes in the streets of New York and across Cordova’s estate. Pessl has broken barriers with this work, for part of the story is included in Internet articles that run seamlessly with the text. While entirely made up, these articles, and the Blackboards, naturally, give the story an immediacy that makes the reader feel they are there alongside McGrath following the breadcrumbs all the way to that remote estate in order to discover the truth.
Copies of Night Film are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.