Night Film by Marisha Pessl

29th Aug 2013

Night Film
Marisha Pessl arrived on the literary scene in 2006 with the feted Special Topics in Calamity Physics and was hailed (along with several other authors at that time) as 'the new Donna Tartt', possibly because of her imaginative and inventive story-telling and possibly because she wrote a novel about precocious college students and death.

Her second novel Night Film is a thriller about a reclusive horror director and his legacy. Stanislas Cordova, director of several films so horrifying that they were either rated X or denied mainstream release at all, is a recluse who gave one interview in 1977 (to Rolling Stone) and then vanished from public view. His films became cult classics and theories abounded as to his whereabouts, his mental and physical state and even his existence.

An investigation into the director by journalist Scott McGrath led to the loss of McGrath’s career and his marriage, as Cordova’s lawyers shredded his claims that the director was ‘a predator’ and that ‘someone needs to terminate him with extreme prejudice’.

Never one to give up on a gut-instinct, McGrath can’t shake the feeling that he was set up by an anonymous caller, and when Cordova’s daughter Ashley is found dead at the bottom of a lift-shaft in a Manhattan warehouse, he is unable to resist the temptation to go after the director again.

Pessl's novel tries hard to be edgy and disturbing, using screenshots of websites, film stills, newspaper clippings and audio clips.Aided by two unlikely sidekicks, going by the names of Hopper and Nora Halliday, McGrath breathlessly makes his way around New York following leads which might shed light on Ashley’s last days and why she died.

They visit, among other places, a psychiatric hospital, a piano showroom, a secret sex club, a witchcraft supplies shop and The Peak, Cordova’s upstate New York estate, in their quest to discover the truth about the family. They manage either to scare themselves or narrowly avoid trouble in almost every case.

Pessl’s novel tries hard to be edgy and disturbing, using screenshots of websites, film stills, newspaper clippings and audio clips (via an app) to enhance the feeling of immersion in McGrath’s story, but this never feels completely convincing.

Equally, for a dark thriller, Night Film feels neither dark nor thrilling. The situations never manage to feel genuinely frightening, something which isn’t helped by the slightly comic ineptitude of the narrator.

The first half has a brisk pace, helped by very short chapters and the feeling that the narrative might be leading somewhere, but after 300 pages it begins to drag.

The big set piece at The Peak comes too late and is too overwrought to save the feeling that the novel could do with being a third shorter. The ‘solution’ to the mystery ties everything up with infuriating neatness, leaving only one of the more interesting threads of the story hanging loose and unresolved.

The most frustrating thing about the book (apart from Pessl’s bizarre use of italics) is that it’s based on an intriguing premise and has some really nice touches that get lost in the whole.

She has obviously done meticulous background work and research: she has written plots for all of Cordova’s films and there are tributes to chilling film moments throughout the book, including the use of a red coat echoing Don’t Look Now. 

This will be a book that divides opinion: some will love the inventiveness and the pace of the writing, and others will find it clunky and over-written. Unfortunately, I’m in the latter camp.

Night Film was published this month by Hutchinson.