“EVERY MOVIE is a ghost story,” begins Experimental Film, the latest offering from Canadian horror luminary Gemma Files: “As time passes, the cast and crew go the way of all flesh, though their celluloid echoes remain […]. We bring them back every time we start up a movie, and they live again, reflected in our eyes.” This haunting passage opens one of the standout horror novels of 2015, a novel that is paradoxically obsessed with its genre’s flashier counterpoint: the big screen.
Experimental Film follows Lois Cairns, a former film critic and teacher who begins a slow descent into depression when she discovers her son Clark has been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. Her life and career both appear to have stalled until she watches an experimental film called Untitled 13, which has been assembled from fragments of stolen footage. What catches her attention is a short clip of a silver nitrate film from the early 20th century depicting a woman in a white veil holding a deadly scythe. For Cairns, the footage evokes the Wendish folktale of Lady Midday: a supernatural being who haunts the fields of poor farmers, rewarding those who accept their labor and punishing those who disrespect her. The discovery spurs a dangerous obsession for Cairns, as she seeks to publish an account of the film’s original creator, Mrs. A. Macalla Whitcomb, an early Canadian cinematographer and Spiritualist who disappeared under mysterious circumstances in 1918. But in the course of her investigation, Cairns draws unwanted attention from both the sociopathic creator of Untitled 13 and the film’s disturbing muse. Experimental Film is an accomplished novel rich in detail, equally compassionate and terrifying. In parallel with writers such as Jeff VanderMeer and Thomas Ligotti, Files evokes the atmospheric horror of “weird” fiction luminaries such as Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood, but gives such horror a thoroughly contemporary spin.
In her 1989 memoir-cum-instruction manual, The Writing Life, Annie Dillard complains that the written word is weak when compared with movies. She mentions an intriguing entomological experiment in which a male butterfly will ignore a living female butterfly in favor of a painted cardboard image, provided the image is larger than it could possibly be in real life. Film and television, for Dillard, are similar:
The music builds. The moving lighted screen fills your brain. […] See if you can turn away. Try not to watch. Even knowing you are manipulated you are still as helpless as the male butterfly drawn to painted cardboard.
Literature is a much subtler art form, one that delves deep into the spirit and plays upon the distance between image and word, between object and its shadowy, ungraspable representation in the mind. What elevates Experimental Film in my eyes is exactly that: its subtlety, the tremendous depth of detail that Files brings to the table. As a former film critic, teacher, and screenwriter, Files knows intimately the world of which she writes. While the “secret” history of Canadian cinema may seem parochial on the surface, Files has an obsessive’s enthusiasm that finds unlikely resonances between the various strands of her narrative. Take, for example, the 1896 epigraph she lifts from Maxim Gorky, one of the first Russian writers to comment on the experience of watching moving pictures:
Last evening I was in the Kingdom of the Shadows.
If one could only convey the strangeness of this world. A world without colour and sound. Everything here — the earth, water and air, the trees, the people — everything is made of a monotone grey. Grey rays of sunlight in a grey sky, grey eyes in a grey face, leaves as grey as cinder. Not life, but the shadow of life. Not life’s movements, but a sort of mute spectre.
The Gorky epigraph describes perfectly the nature of the spirit world Files has created, a world of blinding whites and dull grays, a world that weaves the ghosts of the past alongside echoes of ancient myths and legends. Experimental Film, much like Untitled 13 itself, is written almost as a “sampling” of materials, including interviews, stories within stories, embedded texts, and jotted notes, all of which give the novel an aura of absolute authority.
Darkness is the quintessential medium of the modern horror novel, a representation of the unknowability and the essential malevolence of the universe. “We live in the flicker,” observes Marlow, the narrator of Joseph Conrad’s quintessential horror novella, Heart of Darkness, “may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling! But darkness was here yesterday.” This text, a stalwart of the high school syllabus, bears much in common with the great writers of “weird” fiction such as H. P. Lovecraft and August Derleth. As the “civilizing” powers that mask the African landscape are eventually stripped away, the tale’s protagonist, an ivory trader named Kurtz, must look into the darkness. He cries, “The horror, the horror!” as he is forced to encounter what critic John Clute calls vastation: “the naked, impersonal malice of the world.”
This sense of vastation lies at the very heart of Lovecraft’s definition of the weird tale:
A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain — a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.
Experimental Film is deeply rooted in this tradition. It toys with the idea of a universe inhabited not by a single god but by smaller godlings, less malevolent than cruelly apathetic, obsessed with their own concerns and their need for worship.
But at the same time, the novel flips the traditional iconography of the horror novel: it is brightness and heat that must be feared rather than the darkness that lies beyond the borders of the understood universe. Lady Midday carries a blinding scythe, and her presence weighs on the mortals she encounters like the sun at noon, relentless and without relief. The silver nitrate film on which Mrs. A Macalla Whitcomb recorded her footage is particularly volatile, capable of igniting when run through a projector and burning underwater at over 300 degrees. But brightness also comes to represent truth, or true vision, in Cairns’s necessary encounter with the spirit realm:
I saw You. I saw Your reflection. You were behind me, like a light, on fire; You cast me like a shadow, and then I disappeared. And since then there has been nothing but light, and the light is still here, and I just want it to stop, all of it. I want to sleep, to lie down in the dark. I want it to stop.
The novel charts the peeling away of reality, as mirrors are swapped for doors, lies and fictions for truths, and dancing images for solid, painful realities.
This inversion allows Files to imagine a new kind of horror novel, one grounded in a surprisingly compassionate, if not hopeful, vision of the universe, which sets it apart from most traditional genre examples. Fundamentally, this is a book about communication, how we make contact, and how we survive alienation and loneliness. Lady Midday thrives on the respect of those she encounters: “You see,” she says, “you are seen.” “Feed me, love me, and die of it,” she demands, “do your duty.” But this takes on a haunting resonance when set against the novel’s secondary storyline, in which Lois makes heartbreaking attempts to communicate with her autistic son. Clark, it is revealed, speaks only by echolalia, seemingly random imitations of memorized snatches of popular culture: CSI, the Wiggles, Star Trek, and Frozen all make an appearance. While this frustrates Lois, it also offers her a way to connect with him. “Do you understand?” she demands over and over again, much to the consternation of her supportive husband and caretaker mother. They seem unable to grasp Lois’s growing despair that her son may never be able to fully reciprocate her love in a way that she can recognize. As her life begins to take on eerie parallels with that of the missing Mrs. Whitcomb, who in turn lost her only son to the predations of Lady Midday, Lois comes face to face with a genuinely terrible decision: either to resist or to submit and be “blessed” with a son transformed, a son capable of responding to her words, her need for love. But just as the central conceit of the novel plays with the dichotomy of illusion and reality, image and object, so too do we understand that the cost of this transformation will be the loss of who Clark is now, his core being. This is where the novel excels; it shows without condemnation the struggle that Lois endures as a mother, a struggle that pits her need to preserve some sense of her own identity against her capacity for extraordinary selflessness.
Experimental Film lives in the flicker between light and darkness, shifting between glimpses of the grim nigrescence of a hostile universe punctuated by dazzling bursts of empathy and love. Traditionally, those horror protagonists who catch sight even briefly of the naked malevolence of the world tend to die, go mad, or forget what they have seen. But Files offers a fourth alternative: meaningful survival, accepting responsibility for those around you, getting on with your chosen work. You might think of it as optimistic nihilism. This renewed sense of what horror fiction can do will resonate deeply for readers who find themselves overwhelmed by the increasingly prominent and disturbing images of the real world. From an author who has already established herself as one of the genre’s most original and innovative voices, Experimental Film is a remarkable achievement.
Helen Marshall has written two collections of fiction, Hair Side, Flesh Side (2012) and Gifts for the One Who Comes After (2014).