Labeling the films of enigmatic director Stanislas Cordova “scary” is a grotesque understatement. Cordova — the unseen, menacing, malignant force at the heart of Marisha Pessl’s new novel — makes movies that are terrifying, catastrophic; they are hypnotic black holes into which viewers plunge and emerge shaken and obsessed.
“Maybe your next-door neighbor found one of his movies in an old box in her attic and never entered a dark room alone again,” the prologue suggests. “Or your boyfriend bragged he’d discovered a contraband copy of At Night All Birds Are Black on the Internet and after watching refused to speak of it, as if it were a horrific ordeal he’d barely survived.” Fans gather in the shadowy catacombs under Paris for secret viewings; they lurk in the darkest corners of the Internet to discuss sightings and unspeakable secrets, while the reclusive director stays hidden in his impenetrable Adirondack estate.
The point is this: To witness Cordova’s work is to be forever changed.
The films don’t exist, of course; they are the products of Pessl’s dazzling imagination. But they’re so finely detailed and wield such power over most of the characters in this strange, mesmerizing novel that they feel real, maybe something you’ve read about late at night on some obscure website when sleep isn’t even a promise. Even the titles evoke apprehension: Thumbscrew. La Douleur. Isolate 3. Treblinka.
Not all of Night Film is so perfectly drawn. Author of Special Topics in Calamity Physics, about a bright student at an elite school mixed up in a murder mystery, Pessl still has some growing to do as a writer. But she expertly depicts the way movies and images can engage our imaginations, and the book’s increasingly creepy atmosphere and pervasive sense of dread leave a haunting trail that readers can’t help but follow.
Night Film follows the efforts of New York journalist Scott McGrath to discover the truth about the apparent suicide of Cordova’s 24-year-old daughter, Ashley, whose body has been found in a vacant Chinatown warehouse. McGrath has a special relationship with Cordova: Years earlier, he decided to write about him after receiving an anonymous phone call from a nervous man claiming to be the director’s chauffeur.
“There’s something he does to the children,” the man tells him, describing the director’s peculiar forays into playgrounds in the middle of the night. The call disturbs Scott so much that a day later, on TV to talk about an unrelated story, he unleashes a tirade against Cordova that ends in a massive lawsuit and disgrace — and the disappearance of his mysterious source. He hasn’t had a decent story since.
That a serious, prominent journalist would throw away his career over one unsubstantiated phone call is one of the big suspensions of disbelief that Night Film demands, and it’s not an easy one to manage. In fact, it’s downright ridiculous. But Pessl hustles us onward. News of Ashley’s death awakens Scott’s journalistic instincts, and he sets off to find the truth, a journey that involves odd and frightening encounters, possible demonic possession and child sacrifice, all leading to an assault on that well-guarded castle upstate.
Along the way, he picks up a couple of helpers: Hopper, a scruffy young man he sees at the scene of Ashley’s death who may be lying about his own connection to Ashley, and Nora, an aspiring actress who lugs around an ancient parakeet and is so impossibly quirky her character actually works against the novel’s feverish dark magic.
Visually, Night Film is beautiful. Pessl, who used her own idiosyncratic sketches in her first novel, pushes the concept a step further here, using newspaper clippings, magazine articles, photos and secret websites to document Cordova’s past (at marishapessl.com, you can even see posters for Cordova’s films). The ephemera never distracts from the story; rather, it adds a thrilling dimension.
Her ability to create adult characters is less impressive. Fortysomething Scott, a world traveler, narrates in italics like a breathless teenage girl: “[H]is shoulders were rising and falling, as if he were out of breath” or “His eyes purposefully avoided our direction. …” and “I noticed the wicks were still smoldering orange, as if they refused to be extinguished, three orange pinpricks in the dark.” It’s an annoying tic that recurs throughout the book.
But you can’t overlook Pessl’s creativity, and you can’t finish Night Film without wishing you too could experience the soul-rending genius of Cordova. If only real movies were half so intriguing.
Connie Ogle is The Miami Herald’s book editor.