Marisha Pessl’s sophomore novel (after 2006’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics) is a gunshot of a book, firing from page one and blasting right through to the end. Told in the first person by disgraced investigative reporter Scott McGrath, Night Film follows Scott’s obsessive search for answers as he delves into the apparent suicide of twenty-four year old Ashley Cordova, the daughter of famously reclusive horror film genius Stanislas Cordova, the man responsible for McGrath’s downfall. As Scott follows Ashley’s trail into the rabbit hole, he is drawn deeper and deeper into the Cordova world, where the lines of reality are blurred, and the term “things that go bump in the night” has a far greater meaning than ever before.
What a book. Night Film was like a particularly addictive drug, easy to pick up and put down, but with each successive visit more and more difficult to let go of. Pessl’s world is frightening; not in the sense of the brutal and bloody horror that is so common today, but in the psychological pit she drops her readers in, making even the most skeptical of readers start to believe in the impossible. The illusive and enigmatic Stanilas Cordova is an odd mixture of 1960’s and 70’s horror directors like Polanski and De Palma with a collection of films similar to Sisters, Repulsion, and Seth Holt’s Scream of Fear. He has his own cult-like following of Cordovites, complete with a secret website called The Blackboards, conspiracy theories, and underground film showings. Cordova is an unseen enigma, leaving a path of destruction, death, and disappearances behind him, and a society begging for more, but too scared, or too sheltered to embrace him with open arms. McGrath’s compulsive investigation of Cordova borders on the fanatical as he races up and down the state of New York trying to deconstruct the life of Ashley Cordova, desperate to find answers to her haunted existence, answers that tie back to the mythical Cordova, the occult, murder, and abduction. New York ceases to become New York in Night Film, it instead becomes an extension of Cordova’s world, the inane taking on a sinister sheen, where nothing is normal, and everything and everyone is suspect.
I am almost at a loss at how to describe my reactions to this book and why I think it is one of those must reads for the summer. I can explain how I stayed up half the night to finish it, both out of a need to see where it would go, but also because I was so disturbed and fascinated by what was happening that I couldn’t stop myself. I was on the edge while reading this, and truth be told, Pessl’s writing was so good that I honestly didn’t think I could sleep unless I finished it, and once I did reach the conclusion I couldn’t let go. My racing heart, ensnared brain, and astonished emotions just needed to process what they had been through. Night Film was a juggernaut, destroying my piece of mind and preconceived notions of what a psychological thriller could and should be; it was just that horrifyingly good. I should also take a moment to note that Pessl quite brilliantly uses multimedia screen shots, pictures, and interviews interspersed throughout the text, so readers get to read and see what Scott McGrath does; we see his interviews, the scraps of paper he finds, photos of Ashley Cordova, and the chilling images of the Blackboards and it’s zealous occupants. Actually, I tried out the URL’s, sadly they didn’t work, but if they did, wow, what a mind blowing move by the author and publisher. A fully interactive site that ties directly to the book—a wasted chance to capitalize on the blending of text and tech (although I did read this in galley form, so perhaps the sites will be up at time of publication, I could only dream). This is a clever trick, utilized very capably, a perfect way to blend our tech savvy world with the literary prowess of Pessl’s written word. Another note, this is not a horror novel. It is horrifying, yes, but it is a thriller, a literary mystery, meaning it’s well-written and smart. Pessl is a talented writer, creating a unique world that sucks its readers in and holds onto them for dear life, kind of a black hole of literary virtuosity. This may sound like an overabundance of praise, but I finished the book a few days ago, and have since (reluctantly) read another book, and still find myself lingering over the details of Night Film, revisiting it helplessly. In truth, I haven’t wanted to read a new book, I just want to savor the terror of Night Film, but if I want to escape the psychological stronghold of Night Film, there’s no choice but to move on—with much lighter fare, and look toward revisiting the dark and mesmerizing abyss that is the world of Cordova in the near future. This one is a definite “read again”—the only way to really maneuver the nooks and crannies, the shadows and mysteries that make up Night Film.
Why should you read Night Film? Because it’s good. It’s chilling, it’s mysterious, it’s sad, it’s sweet, and it’s brilliant. This is not a book you want to bypass—unless you have no nerves at all—there’s too much to it, and it is too well constructed to miss out on. Get scared. Get sucked into this world. When you get out you will gulp for fresh air, and then dive right back into the muck for more. An addictive psychological thriller that has a death grip on anyone who picks it up, Night Film is one hell of a read.
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