How close can the life of a horror film director approach his work? A journalist with a vendetta plumbs a subculture of film fans in Marisha Pessl’s Night Film—a terrifically haunted follow-up to her Special Topics In Calamity Physics—a whodunit peppered with grisly fictional murders that fizzles out when it hits cold reality.
Decades after his final film, director Stanislaus Cordova is revered by horror enthusiasts who throw debauched underground screenings of his banned films and congregate on a densely coded forum called the Blackboards to collect clues about his life. Scott McGrath’s obsession with him is just as strong but of a different shade: Investigating the director based on an anonymous tip cost McGrath his job and his marriage, but he’s unable to resist digging up his old notes when the director’s daughter Ashley, a piano prodigy, is found dead in a vacant building in Chinatown.
The legend of Cordova, an Alfred Hitchcock/Roman Polanksi hybrid, swells and fills the foreground of Night Film; it’s a cloud that stretches beyond creating unbearably tense chase scenes and nightmarish secret lives. Detailing the director’s visual sensibilities, which McGrath and his helpers plumb for clues about Ashley’s whereabouts, brings the legend alive for readers to understand why so many people find Cordova films more attractive than reality—too bad Pessl paints these fans as freaks and dupes. Even Ashley is a shade, a projection of whatever the people who encounter her see, from a talented young artist chasing her father’s dreams to a demon. Like so many other dead girls of literature, she comes alive briefly from other characters’ stories, but resists the kind of laundry-doing, job-having reality that would put the freakier moments from her life into context.
For McGrath as well as readers, the thrill of the chase in Night Film ultimately proves superior to its object. There are only so many ways to peel the onion of Ashley Cordova’s mysterious death, and the one unearthed isn’t nearly as tantalizing as the shimmering mystery that has parted to reveal it. Unlike the ambiguous endings of Cordova’s films, this novelisn’t allowed to get away without establishing a baseline of truth, as if the McGraths of the world will inevitably win.