by Marisha Pessl
Marisha Pessl’s 2006 debut novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, was an unprecedented reading experience for me, and has remained so throughout multiple successive rereads. It ignored convention and defied categorization. Was it a literary novel? A murder mystery? A character development exercise that had taken on a life of its own? It was all of these; it was none of these. Seven years later, Pessl’s Night Film offers itself more willingly to categorization – call it a “literary psychological thriller” – but is no less singular a reading experience than its predecessor. In the dark forest of crime and thriller fiction, Night Film is an anomalous addition, an unexpected clearing amongst a crowded crush of trees, both belonging to and standing out from the forest around it.
Nominally, Night Film concerns the suicide of 24-year-old Ashley Cordova, daughter of reclusive cult horror film director Stanislas Cordova, and investigative reporter Scott McGrath’s attempts to uncover the circumstances of her death. McGrath’s first attempt to go after the infamous and elusive Cordova left him disgraced and destroyed—losing in one fell swoop his career, his wife, his reputation, and his savings after Cordova sues him for slander. Ashley’s death seems like a redemptive second chance, an opportunity for McGrath to vindicate himself by revealing the man behind the myth, unveiling a figure long cloaked in a shadowy swirl of rumors and hearsay ranging from the simply eccentric to the truly blood-chilling.
McGrath, a seasoned reporter well into middle age, is – begrudgingly, at first – joined in his investigation by two twenty-somethings who attach themselves to him at the outset: Nora, an ingenuous aspiring actress who was the last person to see Ashley alive, and Hopper, a troubled young man McGrath encounters in the warehouse where Ashley jumped to her death. Hopper’s uncanny intuitions regarding the investigation hint at a private history with the dead girl. With little to go on beyond suspicion and determination, McGrath and his unlikely accomplices set out to annihilate once and for all the black hole of secrecy around Cordova and his family that has deflected rabid public fascination for decades, a black hole which few have penetrated and from which even fewer have emerged.
Night Film takes place in a world identical to ours, except that it contains Cordova and his body of work, so horrific that his last few films are referred to as ‘the black tapes’ and can be viewed only at elicit underground showings hosted by his most devoted fans, known as Cordovites. As close at it remains to our reality, Night Film requires a not insignificant amount of world building in order to be convincing. Pessl handles this by sweeping deft strokes of detail across the canvas of Cordova’s world, giving us enough depth to feel grounded but not so much breadth that we become overwhelmed. Intricacies of plot and character in Cordova’s films are skimmed over, but the driving thematic force of his films emerges with the harsh clarity of fluorescent light in a once-pitch-black room. Cordova and his acolytes live by the taunting credo of “Do I dare?” that seeks to cut to the quick of life, where trembling nerves are exposed and pain, love, fear, joy, and passion are felt at their most piercing. Heedless of any barrier between life and art, Cordova bleeds the life force of his personal philosophy into his films, making them harrowing explorations of humanity pushed into its darkest corners, after which viewers are seldom the same.
In one of the most vivid and memorable sequences in the book, McGrath, Hopper, and Nora invade The Peak, Cordova’s sprawling estate in upstate New York, and find themselves in a haunting and hostile world where, in the darkness, reality becomes indiscernible from the nightmarish fictions of Cordova’s films. This seems to be the central question that nags at McGrath – and the reader – throughout the book: Where is the boundary between reality and fantasy, and how permeable is that barrier, really? McGrath’s confidence that he knows that answer crumbles as he plunges deeper and deeper into the black hole surrounding Cordova, whose puppet master machinations seem to reach right out of the darkest depths of his films to tangle McGrath’s reality until he’s no longer sure of anything anymore, least of all who Cordova is or where his investigation is leading him.
Throughout the novel, Pessl enumerates several of the motifs in Cordova’s films that act as allusive cues to those steeped in Cordova lore, one of which being a locked hexagonal box carried by a serial killer in one of the films, said to contain the thing that caused him to kill. The box, the ultimate contents of which are never revealed, contains within it several smaller locked boxes, shrinking ever more protectively around the secret concealed at the center. Night Film itself behaves as one such box. Chapter by chapter we are enveloped by Pessl’s rich description and gripping storytelling in a descent toward the dark, swirling, magnetic mass that is Cordova, thinking that when we reach the heart we will see him revealed in all his terrible, supernatural glory. Yet what we find when we reach the center may reveal more about us than it does Cordova. In Night Film, the reader is not exempt from becoming one of the casualties of the fallout from this psychological thrill ride. “The box,” we are told by film professor and avid Cordovite Wolfgang Beckman, “represents the mysterious threshold between reality and make-believe,” and by the end of the novel, that threshold is blurred beyond recognition.
At a recent reading I attended, Pessl – herself a petite, bubbly blonde whose eyes are the only suggestion of some darkness within – described Night Film as a “return to shadows,” an exploration of the ways we still can get lost in our world of ever-increasing transparency, combing society for its deepest and most secret recesses and curling up there, sandwiched between shadow and superstition. Throughout the novel, McGrath is deplored for sinking his teeth pit-bull-like into the truth, failing to harbor a healthy respect for “murk.” Pessl doesn’t give us a choice. From page one, Pessl grips us by the shirt and tugs us right in, not letting go until we’re submerged. Allow your vision to adjust and your eyes start to make out shapes in the obfuscating murk – and that’s where the real fun begins.
Night Film, like Cordova himself, is a slippery beast. At its surface a straightforward murder mystery, it refuses to relinquish its secrets so easily. In the prologue, McGrath spots a woman he later identifies as Ashley Cordova crossing the subway platform. He is overcome by the paranoid and irrational conviction that she was following him, but, he says, “before I could comprehend this impossibility, before my mind could shout, She was coming for me, the train whipped into the tunnel, the windows went black, and I was left staring at only myself.” Looking back, this strikes me as more than just an affective, mood-setting image, but rather a sinister snippet of foreshadowing. Perhaps we were wrong all along, Pessl seems to suggest, to be convinced we’re chasing the formless figure in the murk. Perhaps the shadow is in fact nothing more than a trick on the eye played by our own subconscious.
Beckman’s description of the locked box concludes with a haunting assertion that lingers with me still, a shadow in the back of my mind: “… every one of us has our box, a dark chamber stowing the thing that lanced our heart. It contains what you do everything for, strive for, wound everything around you. And if it were opened, would anything be set free? No. For the impenetrable prison with the impossible lock is your own head.”