Sovereign. Deadly. Perfect.

by Arthur B

Marisha Pessl saves the horror genre with Night Film.
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Marisha Pessl's Night Film has restored my faith in literary horror, which had previously been shattered by Horns and A Dark Matter. I picked it up because Ronan and others had raised this in the conversation surrounding House of Leaves, but the only real connection I see is that both books incorporate some fancy embellishments to the book format; the story here is much more reminiscent of The Grin of the Dark, being as it is a horror story that emerges in the course of a film criticism detective story.

The protagonist and narrator of the novel is Scott McGrath, an investigative journalist and author. Well, make that former investigative journalist and author: in 2006 Scott decided to make the subject of his next major investigation Stanislas Cordova, an eccentric and secretive director Stanislas Cordova. From his debut in the 1960s his films' capacity to terrify had been legendary. From 1976 onwards he had taken to filming all of his material at The Peak, a vast upstate New York estate he'd acquired through the vast wealth of his first wife. From the late 1980s onwards his films didn't even get official releases, except through bootleg videos and DVDs and, later, online trading. Since 1996, his stream of releases had run mysteriously dry. A tempting journalistic prize, especially since he hadn't given an interview since a brief 1977 Rolling Stone piece which Cordova cut abruptly short, and McGrath had a hunch that there was some dirt to be exposed there.

During his 2006 investigation, Scott received a phone call from someone who claimed to be a chauffeur for Cordova who had accompanied him on a disturbing and troubling errand; the story told in this phone call got under Scott's skin so much that he said some intemperate and deeply unprofessional things during a TV appearance, which allowed Cordova to immediately sue him for libel. Between the legal consequences of the libel trial and the damage to Scott's journalistic reputation when he couldn't prove that the phone call had happened, Scott's career was ruined, and the knock-on effects ultimately doomed his fragile relationship with his wife to boot.

Five years later, however, Ashley Cordova - Stanislas' daughter and a talented concert pianist in her own right - commits suicide, causing Scott to sit up and take notice again. Between the death of Cordova's first wife in an accident which might have actually been suicide, might have actually been murder, the general tendency of people who spend time close to Cordova to either display a cultlike devotion to the man or display radical changes in behaviour once they are released from his service, and now Ashley's death, McGrath is convinced once again that Cordova is - as he said in that fateful TV interview - a predator "in the same league as [Charles] Manson, Jim Jones, Colonel Kurtz", and he's convinced that Ashley is the key to uncovering Cordova's secrets. Accompanied by Hopper and Nora - two twenty-somethings that Ashley connected with in her final days - McGrath begins his own journey into a cinematic heart of darkness.

A lot of the hype around Night Film - and the comparisons to House of Leaves has arisen from the way the text is enhanced both by printed extras scattered throughout the book and through multimedia aspects. Within the book, Pessl (with the help of some really on-point graphic designers) produces some really nice fake website screenshots and documents that really help make the novel an immersive experience; when McGrath and the gang dig up a document, it'll be presented to you and you'll usually get to read it at around the same time as they do. The idea of constructing a horror novel around falsified "found documents" isn't new at all; Bram Stoker used the epistolary novel format in Dracula to create tension as the reader often has a broader understanding of the situation than the protagonists for much of the book, and H.P. Lovecraft deliberately set about constructing some of his better stories with the mindset of someone concocting a hoax, complete with fabricated documentary evidence, but Pessl goes the extra mile by making sure that the real websites referenced look just like their real-life counterparts, the underground Cordova fan forum looks like a fan website, and so on.

The multimedia aspect of the book adds more peripheral documents, image slideshows and audio recordings into the mix, which smartphone and tablet users can access by scanning pages which feature the image of a spraypainted bird (a motif of Cordova's fanbase)..None of these things are actually required to follow the story, but they all help create the impression of delving into an expansive, secretive subculture surrounding Cordova and therefore aid immersion neatly.

At the same time as having all of these toys at her beck and call, Pessl also shows careful judgement in how they are used. They're deployed more frequently in the earlier parts of the novel as part of the process of drawing you into the story, but she carefully reduces their frequency until you end up with long stretches for the remainder of the story where the multimedia stuff has dried up and the in-book documents are mostly absent. In their place come some more subtle games; there's regular places in the latter half of the book where the story hits a completely black page, beyond which the tone of what's happening shifts considerably.

In particular, after one such point you have an extended portion where the usual chapter numbering is set aside and a weird little symbol is used between section breaks for the duration of Scott, Hopper and Nora's infiltration of the Peak, at which point things get entirely strange. Whereas I found House of Leaves to be all buildup and no follow-through, and the follow-through in Horns and A Dark Matter to be risible, here we get a glimpse of things which are truly awful, with ambiguity as to what we have actually seen built in, yes, but also there's ambiguity about the supposedly rational explanation we are given for what happens as well.

Indeed, for a moment it looks like Pessl is going to blow it, giving a perfectly mundane explanation for everything that happens through the mouthpiece of Cordova's right-hand woman Inez Gallo, though the actual conclusion to the novel is much more interesting - flipping the question of "what if it was all fake?" into "what if it there was some truth to all of it?", pointing out that the occult and mundane explanations for matters were in no respects mutually exclusive, and steering McGrath to his final reward after he has endured both the hellish experience of feeling he's been drawn into one of Cordova's own films and the safe, easy temptation of a life where everything's suddenly coming right again, provided he accepts that there's no big secret to find. His ultimate reward for winning through we are left to guess at, though based on the circumstances I like to think that the whole epic ordeal was Cordova's way of vetting him to make sure he'd be a truly understanding interviewer when they finally meet.

(Incidentally, one question which the novel doesn't overtly address but which the myriad of illusions and deceits presented raised in my mind was this: is Ashley Cordova actually dead? The most detailed photos in the autopsy files - which would be the ones which would be the most difficult to fake - are missing when it's leaked to Scott by his contact in the police, who claims that they were being held separately to avoid the tabloids getting their hands on them. Conveniently, the body disappears - it's implied taken away without authorisation by the Cordovas - and Scott himself never actually gets sight of it. Beckman, the film professor and Cordova fanatic Scott uses as a source of information, tells Scott that one of the recurring motifs in Cordova's films is a deceiver who eats raw or uncooked meat; Scott's police source savours some lox, which is brine-cured rather than being actually cooked and so might fit that criteria depending on how you define it. If all this was really Cordova turning Scott into a character in one of his films, using his incredible wealth and expansive power to both set up and cover up the various incidents involved, wouldn't it be just as likely that he'd fake Ashley's death as part of all that trickery?)

Cordova doesn't really come onstage directly across the course of the book, but naturally we end up learning a lot about him, but it's a credit to Pessl that each major revelation we have about him neither cheapens his mystery and is still able to shock by the end of the book. His basic schtick is very simple - he believes in living a life less ordinary and embracing the extremes of human experience, and encourages his followers to do the same - but each major incident in the novel evolves from either how dark or how bright things can get when people embrace that way of living. In this way the novel just about avoids becoming a cheap and easy "stop living the corporate, commercial lifestyle you sheeple" screed and more of an examination of how much it's actually possible to live a life according to your wildest dreams and desires, how people can be hurt when you do it, and whether the things you dredge up in the process of doing it are worth the hurt you cause. You can spend your whole life trying to be "sovereign, deadly and perfect" - a phrase Cordova dropped in the Rolling Stone interview which his fans latched onto as the motto of his work - but sooner or later you need to slack off and be imperfect, or you end up living entirely outside the human experience altogether.

In the discussion around House of Leaves Alula Auburn was saying that she thought the descriptions of Cordova's films fell flat, but I found this to be far from the case. Yes, if you sit down and look at the premises on their own they seem like fairly ordinary fare, but as I said in that discussion the same is true of more or less any great film because movie-making is as much about the execution as it is about the premise. It also helps that whilst we get basic outlines of the films we don't get so many specifics as to drain all the mystery out of them (as happens to The Navidson Record in House of Leaves), and the actual effect these films have on people really says it all. I found the charity devoted to this quixotic quest to shut down distribution of Cordova's underground works to be an especially realistic touch, paralleling as it does doomed parental attempts to blame the death of a child on products of the media rather than the more obviously responsible human parties - if fraudulent private investigator Pat Pulling could spend much of her life trying to prove that Dungeons & Dragons caused her son to kill himself, I can believe grieving people can latch onto any crusade, no matter how doomed, if they feel it's what they owe their lost loved one.

In short, Night Film deploys gimmicks without ever feeling gimmicky, has an ambiguous and mysterious ending which doesn't feel like a cop-out, and drags the reader into a dark and mysterious space where any explanation offered only makes the thing seem more murky, not less (not least because Pessl artfully makes sure that any explanation only explains a part of the evidence, and often only weakly explains the things it purports to demystify). It's the only book I know with a video trailer where the trailer is actually good. It's the best thing in horror at the moment and I can't recommend it highly enough.

Also, it's rare that a book about a fictional creator makes me sad that the auteur in question isn't real so I can't acquire their stuff. If there are any Cordova blu-rays forthcoming I'll buy them up like a shot, money no object, and join the Cordova cult in a second. As it is I will take evangelising for Pessl as the next best thing.
Themes: Books, Horror
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Comments (go to latest)
http://ronanwills.wordpress.com/ at 08:16 on 2014-02-17
I've been interested in this for a while, but recently someone I know claimed it had a lot of iffy pontificating on the Nature of Women and their Ways from the protagonist, which tends to annoy me even if we're not necessarily meant to agree with them. Did you notice any of that yourself?
Arthur B at 08:26 on 2014-02-17
I did notice some, it did feel that we weren't meant to agree with Scott. I don't think it constitutes lots of pontificating - more like occasional passing comment that remind us that Scott is a rather bitter and emotionally isolated man. If it annoys you, it annoys you; if you dig stories in which protagonists who annoy you end up going through a gruelling gauntlet of horrors, then you get plenty of payoff.
Arthur B at 08:55 on 2014-02-17
Actually, let me expand that now that you have got me thinking about it. It occurs to me that a big part of why Scott is the narrator here is that he is the sort of journalist who imposes his own narrative and interpretation and prejudices on what he sees. This often leads to trouble - his 2006 TV rant happened because the phone call he received outraged his moral outlook so much, and there's several instances where his snap judgements about people result in him being deceived and manipulated. A *huge* part of why the narrative ends where it does is that, because of his experiences, he's finally got over that and become able to simply observe without passing judgement or imposing his own interpretations or preconceptions. (Of course, this is the sort of "thought stopping" a lot of abusive cults encourage to control their members, which adds a sinister side to this personal development.)
http://ronanwills.wordpress.com/ at 10:17 on 2014-02-17
Well, colour me intrigued! I think I'm going to go out and buy a copy.
Arthur B at 12:12 on 2014-02-17
It occurs to me that it was actually not Horns or A Dark Matter which killed my love of literary horror, but The Passage.

Clearly, a book so bad that I actually forgot I'd read it.
Sister Magpie at 03:44 on 2014-02-19
I am getting this right now--thank you!
Alice at 22:52 on 2014-02-20
You know, horror is very much not my thing, but I have to say that this sounds so good I may have to give it a try!
Alice at 16:06 on 2014-02-21
(And I've now realised that my comment could be read as "this sounds good (unlike all other horror which is rubbish)", and that I don't read horror because of its lack of literary quality. Whereas actually it's just that I'm not good with scary stories. *g*)
Sister Magpie at 19:48 on 2014-03-12
Okay, I just finished the book and I really loved it. In fact, one of my favorite things about it was I was amazed at how much Cordova's body of work sounded believable and to truly live up to the reputation. Not, as you said, because the movies themselves as described sounded so amazing, but because they were a coherent body of work made by an auteur with a certain story that drew him. It wasn't the type of story that drew me in, but I still totally believed that in the hands of a director as good as Cordova, they would be powerful. (It made me think of Dario Argento, actually, if I was comparing him to any particular director.) And of course that story had to mirror the kind of story Scott was being drawn into himself.

So like you I wound up not only genuinely disappointed I couldn't watch Cordova's films, but also really wishing I could read a lot of good film analysis of his work. I loved the little tidbits we got of his common themes, especially Beckman's cats being named after them. It's just very rare that I find a fictional artist that works for me that well, but Cordova totally did--and boy was I happy that the false ending was exactly that.

So are we to assume that all the investigators were offered similar choices to Scott, but that they ultimately both accepted the more pleasant decoy?
Arthur B at 00:17 on 2014-03-13
So are we to assume that all the investigators were offered similar choices to Scott, but that they ultimately both accepted the more pleasant decoy?

You mean his allies? Yes, I think in both cases they were rattled enough that they grabbed the safety line when it was put before them. Though equally, by the end of the novel I wasn't entirely trusting of them either - they seemed to conveniently come into Scott's life at just the right time and were unreliable in just the right way to get Scott way out on a limb before he was left without support. By that point I was paranoid enough to believe that literally everyone in the book, with the possible exception of Scott's wife and daughter, was in on Cordova's grand psychodrama.

I like the Argento comparison because he loads all of these subtle little touches into what are on the face of them very unsubtle horror films. Suspiria comes to mind, particularly that excellent last shot where
just as she comes out of the school she gets this smile on her place like on some level she's ecstatic about what just happened, and then it cuts abruptly to the fire blowing the windows out and the entire credits have the screams of burning witches just audible under the Goblin soundtrack.
Sister Magpie at 21:23 on 2014-03-13
You mean his allies? Yes, I think in both cases they were rattled enough that they grabbed the safety line when it was put before them. Though equally, by the end of the novel I wasn't entirely trusting of them either - they seemed to conveniently come into Scott's life at just the right time and were unreliable in just the right way to get Scott way out on a limb before he was left without support.


Definitely that was a possibility. But I think I prefer it the other way. That is, the way they come into his life seems pretty sketchy, especially Nora. She's there offering temptations and has a weird backstory that's very fake and she gives him the bird. But Hopper's story, if true, seems like he could have been a contender to be the hero of the Cordova story. It might be interesting to look at the details of his movies and see if Nora and Hopper seem to fit into them.

But they do seem to be set free after their experience at the peak so it's nice to think of them showing Scott the happy ending of that, whether or not it's real. I actually wondered even why the author made those two his sidekicks. They're not, imo, very interesting and it's such an odd set up to have this guy who's screwed up a lot of his life settled with a couple of Scooby Doo young people, one of whom is lovesick and the other of whom is just a collection of bizarre details.
Arthur B at 22:33 on 2014-03-13
Definitely that was a possibility. But I think I prefer it the other way. That is, the way they come into his life seems pretty sketchy, especially Nora. She's there offering temptations and has a weird backstory that's very fake and she gives him the bird. But Hopper's story, if true, seems like he could have been a contender to be the hero of the Cordova story.

I do want to give the thing a reread at some point with Beckman's list of distinctive Cordova motifs handy so that I can pay close attention to which of those Hopper and Nora fit.

Actually, I found that Hopper came across more fake to me than Nora - Nora's backstory feels realistically messy, whilst Hopper seems too perfectly crafted to sweep in as the supporting character in a story.
Sister Magpie at 01:08 on 2014-03-14
Actually, I found that Hopper came across more fake to me than Nora - Nora's backstory feels realistically messy, whilst Hopper seems too perfectly crafted to sweep in as the supporting character in a story.



I can see it both ways. Hopper's motivation for searching for Ashley, and his story about the camp and basically killing someone. While Nora's backstory just seemed fake to me because it was so full of improbabilities: grew up in a nursing home, gets given money to land in New York with a sackful of clothes from a drag queen, somehow finds a random man who lets her live for free while hundreds of homeless people are stuck in shelters, nonetheless gets a coat check job at a famous tourist trap. Just way too much for me.

Though I especially liked the way she still couldn't act. I felt like that was fitting, that while choosing to turn back she got what she wanted (an acting job and presumably more to come) she would not be a real artist.
Arthur B at 01:20 on 2014-03-14
Thing is, it's impossible to say because Scott never gets around to really picking apart her story to see what's going on with it. That's the thing with the novel, aside from the scraps of documents and the app stuff we can't count on anything which Scott doesn't directly and personally experience himself, because if the Cordova organisation is as pervasive as it seems to be literally anyone could be co-opted.
Sister Magpie at 03:18 on 2014-03-14
It's true, we can't tell if it's true or not. Even if Cordova didn't create Nora, she could be this real girl who's lying about plenty of things as well. And it's just not the plot of the book for him to be investigating these two people rather than Cordova. We'd be annoyed if he was really focusing on them. But it'd be interesting to also look back and maybe think about what they represent in terms of viewpoints. I mean interesting for me, possibly. There's a lot of times when Scott thinks he's missing whatever the two of them are seeing, but they also seem to often have really clear opinions on what to believe so I wonder if they almost represent different clear povs beyond just being two characters who would feel different about things as individuals.
Arthur B at 10:20 on 2014-03-14
It also occurs to me that whilst Hopper and Nora are both in their own way intent on exploring what happened to Ashley for Ashley's sake - Hopper because of his camp experience, Nora on the strength of a brief meeting (but then we know encounters with Ashley, like with her father, tend to be very intense and strangely memorable) - whereas for Scott looking into Ashley's death was only ever a means to an end. So it's no surprise that they dropped out at the last hurdle when they were never as invested in the central mystery as Scott was anyway.
Sister Magpie at 13:55 on 2014-03-14
Yes, it seems like their focus on Ashley herself...it reminds me of what Scott says at one point after he thinks he's found the mundane explanation, that they basically just want to have enough magic to make them happy later on. Ashley seems to represent a sort of symbol of magic that's just thrilling enough without being terrifying. Where Scott pushes beyond that to Cordova to get to the truth.
Alula at 18:16 on 2014-04-09
(haha, I begged Kyra for a password and then promptly injured myself so that I had to minimize all non-work typing.)

Reading this, I think I must have sounded much more negative about the book than I recall being. But I wonder if some of our different perceptions come from categorization--that is, I was not reading it so much as literary horror, but as a follow-up to her her first novel, and I thought that a lot of the ambiguities here were actually explored more interestingly (to me) in her non-horror, vaguely YA-tropic first book. Particularly, the book just didn't make me feel anything profoundly about Cordova (the final interview just felt eye-rollingly pretentious to me), whereas in her first book, you also have a figure who it could be said is " more of an examination of how much it's actually possible to live a life according to your wildest dreams and desires, how people can be hurt when you do it, and whether the things you dredge up in the process of doing it are worth the hurt you cause," but on a more intimate scale, and for me, it was much more successful at showing how this guy (his interests are global politics and revolutions) was both incredibly compelling and incredibly flawed both in his actions AND his philosophy, even when we saw him from the point of view of his adoring daughter. So maybe my relatively lukewarm reaction had something to do with scale, because I think a lot of the ambiguities here might have moved me more if I wasn't reading it in direct comparison with her earlier book--and since I'm a Big Wimp, I don't read a lot of horror unless it's coupled with some other selling point, so I don't have the chops to read it in a genre context rather than an author one. Cordova felt Too Big.

On the efficacy of the movies, I do remember thinking that the one I would really have liked to hear about was At Night All Birds Are Black, because the one or two lines we got made it sound much more in my fictional sweetspot.
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