Marisha Pessl’s Night Film is a work of literary menace. It’s a black thunder-cloud on the horizon with a weather report of straight line winds and revolving cells. Most important of all, this work of twisted literary mystery and horror maintains it’s suspense with an absolute minimum of violence; leaving the reader to use the most dangerous tool of all: his or her imaginations.
Ashley Cordova is the beautiful and talented daughter of filmmaker Stanislas Cordova; a legendary director/producer whose subject matter is the darkest events in the human condition, and a man who has achieved cult status with a coterie of fans. Ashley’s been found dead, and the death is ruled a suicide.
Journalist Scott McGrath believes Ashley’s death is anything but a suicide. Thoroughly disgraced by Cordova many years earlier for a publicly calling the director a dangerous man; McGrath has been living, literally, off the glory of past days. When he learns about Ashley’s death, he launches himself into the heart of Cordova’s cult followers, and ends up in a rabbit hole made as much with the obscurity of Cordova’s fame as with McGrath’s obsession.
During his pursuit of the elusive and reclusive Cordova, McGrath tries to follow the director’s trail via the “darknet” site created by his fans. These images, along with newspaper “clippings” about the Cordovas, create a sense of foreboding and dark imagery many have compared to Danielewski’s House of Leaves. I find the comparison tenuous; based solely upon the meager precedence for well-placed use of visual media to create menace in literature ; patricularly images in the form of “screen grabs”. Danielewski’s work of suspense-filled horror uses the language as art. Pessl uses images to create atmosphere, and to good effect: one-half step too far in any direction would have created either boredom or overkill.
Pessl never loses a tight grip on her story; a chilling statement on the nature of fame, the mechanics of obsession and, in the end, a small but significant supernatural element which never gives itself over to easy explanation. You do not see the ending coming, you never will, and the journey to the end will give you more than a few chills with it’s nods to cinematic history and it’s atmospherically disturbing images and imagery.