Night Film, the much-anticipated second novel from Marisha Pessl (Special Topics in Calamity Physics) has been hailed by many as one of the breakout novels of the summer--and it just came out today. The hype, though, is not misplaced; Night Film really is as good (and as creepy, and as mind-bending, and as haunting) as everyone and their mother says it is.
The premise sounds simple at first glance: when Ashley, the daughter of notorious filmmaker Stanislas Cordova, is found dead in an abandoned Chinatown warehouse in New York, the police deem it a suicide and move to close the case. Veteran investigative journalist Scott McGrath thinks there is more to the story than that and takes it upon himself to find out what really happened.
What sounds like a relatively straightforward is-it-a-suicide-or-it-is-murder case, complete with the somewhat stereotypical disagreements between police and nosy journalist, is really anything but. The Cordova family is strange at best, reclusive and secretive at worst. Cordova himself has not been seen for years; his films, many of which are so dark that studios refused to release them in theaters, are available for purchase on a kind of dark-film-black market (who knew?) and to say his following borders on the occult is the understatement of the century. The more McGrath learns, the more he gets in over his head, with the lines between the rational and the supernatural, the reasonable and the insane more and more blurred as the pages turn.
Night Film is not a short book, coming in at over 600 pages, but it goes fast; 100 pages in, I was thoroughly haunted, 200 pages in I contemplated sleeping with the lights on, and by 400 pages, I decided I could only read this one during daylight hours with other people around me. It's the kind of creepy that you can't point to directly--no one element is scary in itself (at least not at first), but combined, they crawl under your skin and sit there in an unsettling kind of way. Is it the terrifying recaps of Cordova's films*? The apparent curse on anyone who comes near the family? The shadows that seem to be following McGrath and his companions on their exploits?
What makes it all the more eerie is Pessl's incredible ability to blur the lines between what is real and what is imagined. The myriad "real" articles, news clippings and websites scattered through the pages push the boundaries of traditional storytelling; McGrath's growing uncertainty of what has really happened to him versus what he has only imagined leaves readers with a questionable, if not downright unreliable, narrator; very particular clues that all tie back to Cordova's films make it unclear whether the horrors there were acted at all, or reflected the casts' real terror; parallels between Cordova's film style and McGrath's own story hint that McGrath himself may have been manipulated into Cordova's next project without his knowing it.
It's a big, messy, brilliant mind-fuck, and if you have any interest in films, innovative novels, horror, journalism, and/or the power of storytelling, read it now. Then come back so we can talk about it.
*According to Pessl's interview in Shelf Awareness, she concepted the full stories for each of Cordova's films to keep them from ever feeling "general." And it worked--I feel like I've seen the movies myself. See what I mean about blurring the lines between real and imagined?
Thanks to the publisher for providing an e-galley of this title for review.
Night Film | Marisha Pessl | Random House | Hardcover | August 2013 | 624 pages