Night Film

By Marisha Pessl

(Random House, $28, 624 pages)

Who is this author?

In 2006, Marisha Pessl published her debut novel, “Special Topics in Calamity Physics,” which became a best seller, won the John Sargent Sr. First Novel Prize (now the Center for Fiction’s Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize), and was named to the coveted 10 Best Books of the Year list by The New York Times Book Review. Not bad for a first-time author who was working as a financial consultant at PricewaterhouseCoopers while she wrote it. Pessl, 36, grew up in Asheville, N.C, attended Northwestern University but graduated from Barnard College and now lives in New York City.

Here’s what Pessl says on her website about having such success with her first book: “It was a dream come true to say the least. Yet my favorite part of this job is the creation of a book—building a universe from scratch, populating this planet with characters and landmarks and hidden tunnels and shops and corners, dark histories and hopeful futures.  . . . I’m often asked to explain what my novels are about, but I find it difficult to really answer. That’s like asking  the moth to analyze its flight pattern as it blindly careens from porch light to porch light in the pitch dark. Writing is a meditation, a brutal trek through the wilderness, and a magic trick all at once.”

What is this book about?

“Night Film” is garnering favorable comparisons to last year’s twisty-turn-y smash hit, “Gone Girl,” which is a pretty impressive recommendation. In it, Scott McGrath, a troubled New York journalist, suspects that the death of the daughter of a famously reclusive filmmaker may not have been a suicide, as the police believe. His suspicions lead him to research the life of Ashley Cordova and her mysterious father: Stanislas Cordova, who directs darkly disturbing horror films that have a cult-like underground following and has not been seen for more than three decades. It will come as no shock to learn that McGrath, who has long been obsessed with finding the truth about Stanislas, gets far more than he bargained for.

Why you’ll like it:

Diving deep into a scary story is always fun for a reader, and having that story be a skillfully imagined and well-told tale makes it all the better. Kirkus Reviews explains its thrills and chills well: “Think Edgar Allan Poe and Stephen King meet Guillermo del Toro as channeled by Klaus Kinski.” Pessl ups the fun by adding such visual bells and whistles as website screen shots, newspaper clippings, police reports and other trappings of an investigation.  It’s a psychological literary thriller, which means its plot will scare and snare you and its writing quality will impress you.

What others are saying:

Kirkus Reviews also says:  “An inventive–if brooding, strange and creepy–adventure in literary terror. In her sophomore effort, Pessl . . . hits the scary ground running. Filmmaker Stanislas Cordova has made a specialty of goose bumps for years; as Pessl writes, he’s churned out things that keep people from entering dark rooms alone . . . Cordova himself hasn’t granted an interview since 1977, when Rolling Stone published his description of his favorite frame as “sovereign, deadly, perfect.” Cordova is thrust back into the limelight when his daughter is found dead in an abandoned warehouse in Chinatown. Scott McGrath, reporter on the way to being washed-up, finds cause for salvation of a kind in the poor young woman’s demise. McGrath’s history with Cordova stretches back years, and now, it’s up to him to find out just how bad this extra-bad version of Hitchcock really is. He finds out, too; as one of the shadowy figures who wanders in and out of these pages remarks, ominously, “Some knowledge, it eats you alive.” Oh, yes, it does. Readers will learn a thing or two about psychotropic drugs, to say nothing of the dark side of Manhattan and the still darker side of filmmaking. . . .”

An Amazon Best Book of the Month, August 2013, review says: “. . . What’s surprising about her elaborately plotted and addictive new novel is how it gets better as it grows more convoluted. I can envision a massive white board busy with diagrams and arrows to track the spider-webbed storyline. Once Pessl works past a few slow spots and finds her momentum, the story churns into a dark, propulsive, and insatiable mystery. The daughter of a reclusive horror film director is found dead, and a disgraced journalist and two sidekicks become obsessed with uncovering the truth of her death and the true identity of her infamous father, whose terrifying films (banned from theaters and found only via underground methods) depict what is “graphic and dark and gorgeous about life, thereby conquering the monsters of your mind.” Complex, shadowy, and a bit sad, Pessl’s riveting tale keeps us guessing until the final pages, along the way raising questions about reality, magic, art, fear, and celebrity.”

Says Publishers Weekly:  “Seven years after Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Pessl returns with a novel as twisted and intelligent as that lauded debut. Again, the story centers on a father-daughter relationship, but this time the sinister element is front and center, beginning with the daughter’s death. The “night films” of Stanislas Cordova have a cult following: fans hold underground screenings and claim that to see his work is to “leave your old self behind, walk through hell, and be reborn.” Ashley Cordova is his enigmatic daughter; she appears in his final film at the age of eight, debuts as a pianist at Carnegie Hall at 12, and apparently commits suicide at 24. Scott McGrath is a reporter who lost his job investigating Stanislas and can’t resist his need to uncover the real story of Ashley’s death. Though the structure is classic noir, Pessl delivers lifelike horror with glimpses, in the form of faux Web sites, of the secretive Stanislas, his films, and his fans. Things slow down when Scott breaks into Stanislas’s estate; sustained terror depends on what is withheld, not what is shown. But Pessl does wonderful work giving the hard-headed Scott reason to question the cause of Ashley’s death, and readers will be torn between logic and magic.”

Booklist says in its starred review: “ When the daughter of a notorious film director is found dead in New York, an apparent suicide, investigative reporter Scott McGrath throws himself back into a story that almost ended his career . . . Like Pessl’s first novel . . . this one expands from a seemingly straightforward mystery into a multifaceted, densely byzantine exploration of much larger issues, in this case, the nature of truth and illusion as reflected by the elusive Cordova, whose transcend-the-genre horror films are cult favorites and about whom rumors of black magic and child abuse continue to swirl. His daughter, piano prodigy Ashley (her notes “weren’t played; they were poured from a Grecian urn”), is almost as mysterious as her father, her life and death equally clouded in secrecy and colored with possibly supernatural shadings. Into this mazelike world of dead ends and false leads, McGrath ventures with his two, much younger helpers, Nora and Hopper, brilliantly portrayed Holmesian “irregulars” who may finally understand more about Ashley than their mentor, whose linear approach to fact finding might miss the point entirely. . . . the book is every bit as complex as Calamity Physics, but the writing is always under control, and the characters never fail to draw us further into the maelstrom of the story.

When is it available?

Pessl’s novel is at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Dwight branch.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!

Comments are closed.