Well, a few weeks ago, I launched my autumn-flavoured novella, SEASON OF MIST, to what so far is pretty decent acclaim (which makes me very happy). Of course, that initial launch was in electronic format, but at the same time, I promised that I would also be bringing it out in paperback as soon as possible.
Thankfully, that time has now arrived.
As you can see above, here’s the full jacket. The book is now available for pre-order in all the usual places. Just follow the links.
I’ll talk a little bit more about SEASON OF MIST is a few minutes, because today I also intend to include some choice snippets from it, just in case your appetites haven’t been whetted enough. At the same time this week, though, I’ll be reviewing another piece of work that occupies the twilight zone between horror and thriller: Marisha Pessl’s enthralling and very chilling NIGHT FILM.
If the Pessl review is all you’re here for, that’s no problem. As usual, you’ll find it at the lower end of today’s blogpost. Just zip on down there straight away. However, if you’re also interested in SEASON OF MIST, perhaps you’d like to stick around here first for some …
SEASON OF MIST is a quasi-autobiographical tale, which follows the fortunes of a small bunch of 13-year-olds, and one of them in particular, Stephen Carter, who in their home town of Ashburn, Lancashire, in the year 1974, experience the kind of autumn that nightmares are made of.
Normally, they enjoy this time of year. Summer is over, which is a bind, but October, November and December bring treats of their own: everything from jack-o-lanterns and bob-apples to gunpowder, treason and plot, from Parkin cake and woodlands turned red and gold with cascading leaves to frost patterns on bedroom windows, snowball fights and the opening of the Advent calendar. Unfortunately, this autumn as you may have seen in the blurb overhead, will be very different, because this year the Lancashire coal town of Ashburn will be terrorised by a vicious killer, who is specifically targeting the young.
The obvious response by the authorities is to impose a curfew, but kids will be kids, you know. They want to get out there and have fun. They want to enjoy Halloween and Bonfire Night and the first snows of winter. They don’t want to be kept cooped up.
However, when the killer starts striking close to home, Stephen and his mates have second thoughts, especially when they spot evidence that this may be no ordinary murderer.
The police are everywhere, but Stephen and co quickly start to suspect that the nameless predator is far more evil than any deviant they will ever have encountered before. The press run sensational scare stories nightly, but Stephen reckons they’d blow a gasket if they knew how strange and mysterious this faceless enemy actually is ...
SEASON OF MIST is 40,000 words in length (so, it’ll keep you reading – it’s not a short story), but it was first published in 2010 as part of a collection called WALKERS IN THE DARK. It’s finally being resurrected as a stand-alone piece because it’s one of my personal favourites and, almost a decade later, because I still have faith in it to scare the pants of folks, especially as recent film adaptations of popular novels like It and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and of course the hit TV series, Stranger Things, have reawakened interest in eerie folk-tales and spooky stories from the edge of town (not to mention some of those very macabre public-safety adverts that we used to get back in the day), as dealt with by a bunch of youngsters who are finally coming of age.
As mentioned, it sprang from my own youth and my life in Wigan, Lancs, (Ashburn in all but name), during the early/mid 1970s, and the many terrifying and supposedly true stories that we used to regale each other with during those long, misty autumn nights.
I also mentioned that some of the events depicted in this book are true, as in they actually happened. Which ones? Well … you won’t even get close to guessing until you read it. But if that isn’t enough of an enticement for you, here, as promised, are a few short excerpts:
At the farthest end of the third lawn was something the Blyford family called the ‘Spinney’. This was actually a small wood. It contained thickets and brambles rather than fully mature trees, but again it was dense and tangled. In summer it was matted with greenery, but in winter black and twisted like a chaos of gangrenous limbs. In the very heart of it, accessible by a winding path, was what they referred to as the ‘Wendy House’, but to call it the ‘Eyesore’ would have been more accurate. It was a small, timber structure, all elaborate cornices and carved woodwork. It looked Germanic, like something out of Hansel and Gretel, and at one time had been painted jolly colours: pink, yellow, sky-blue. Now it was a sombre shell, drab and grey, every part of it riddled with decay. In recent times, the Blyfords had used it to store garden furniture, but with a leaking roof, no glass in its windows and mould running rampant throughout, it had become unfit even for this purpose. Viewed at night, it was an almost impossibly sinister sight, an impression reinforced by its remoteness from the Blyford House, or in fact from any other house.
“The rules are simple,” Gideon said. “You’ve got to stay in it one at a time, for as long as you can. The one who lasts longest is the winner.”
In spite of the wide interest in the case, the newspapers had nothing substantial to report for the next month, aside from rumour and counter-rumour, and these were never less than lurid. The story about the hysterical laughter at the scene of Alan Richardson’s murder made it onto the front pages, along with new, equally disturbing tales:
Satanic symbols had been left next to the bodies.
A tall, pale-faced young man had been knocking on the doors of a local council estate, asking for cups of water – one old lady lured him into her lounge and went to call the police, only to return and find the young man gone, the words “your grandson is next” written on the mirror in human excrement.
A clairvoyant had tried to locate the murderer through a spiritualist session, and received a parcel through the post the very next day, containing a large, black spider …
For the next hour or so, Dom and I loaded firewood onto our barrow; in fact, we loaded far more than we could realistically transport. Dom had his length of washing-line, with which we intended to strap it all in place, but we soon had so much wood that the line wasn’t long enough. We weren’t deterred. We threw it all off again and went for quality rather than quantity. Our cheerful laughs rang across the derelict site, echoing through its empty buildings and passages. Two hours had soon gone, during which we were completely oblivious to the gradual darkening of the sky.
It took a sudden sound of metal banging on metal to bring us to our senses.
We both looked up at the same time.
The sound had only lasted a few seconds and then stopped. We listened for it again but heard nothing. Only now did we notice how much colder and gloomier it was. Daylight had faded, to be replaced by that deep blue dimness of dusk. The banging sound might have come from a shutter tapping in the breeze, but it hadn’t sounded like that to me. It had been steady and repeated, as if someone was making it deliberately …
THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …
An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror and sci-fi) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.
by Marisha Pessl (2013)
New York-based Scott McGrath is a forty-something investigative reporter with a colourful past. In his time, he’s put all kinds of high-profile criminals, con men and corrupt politicians on the spot, exposing their scams and lies, ruining their undeserved reputations and denuding them of their ill-gotten gains, and as such he should now be revered within his profession.
However, a few years ago, acting off untested info, he made a critical error when, on live television, he slandered cult film director, Stanislas Cordova, implying that he was a sexual predator with a penchant for the very young. Since then, having been on the wrong end of a million-dollar lawsuit, his career has tumbled. None of the major titles want to work with him anymore, and the scandal has even cost him his family, his money-minded ex-wife, Cynthia, having moved on to a new, less-impoverished partner, taking McGrath’s beloved daughter, Samantha, with her.
Five years of this exile have now passed and though McGrath isn’t exactly a mess – he works whenever he can – his thoughts are still dominated by the enigma that is Stanilas Cordova.
The creator of a string of extreme horror films, many of which are now available only as bootlegs or during special screenings purposely held in subterranean tunnels, Cordova was highly talented, a kind of cross between Kubrick, Cronenberg and Polanski, but he no longer makes movies, apparently having broken down before completion of his last masterpiece, the mysteriously titled ‘Matilda’. He hasn’t given an interview or even been seen in public for years, and reputedly lives in seclusion on his remote and fortified 300-acre country estate, The Peak, in upstate New York, which also houses the private studio where his pictures were shot. This absence from the public domain has only increased the belief among his legions of loyal fans that he is the most tortured of all movie-making geniuses, but a dark and powerful figure too, who should not be crossed lightly.
McGrath believes that Cordova is something else on top of all this, but he has nothing solid with which to keep pursuing the secretive icon, until one night in October, when he is jogging through Central Park and starts to suspect that he’s being stalked by a young woman in red. Because a few days later, he learns that another young woman in red – or, more likely, the same woman – committed suicide later that night by throwing herself down the lift shaft of a derelict warehouse. However, the most shocking aspect of this is her identity: she was Ashley Cordova, the legendary director’s sole daughter.
Ashley, an expert pianist, a child prodigy in fact, but a very troubled person, had only recently escaped from a secure care home for the mentally ill. It’s a sad tale but, thinking that the girl might have been trying to make contact with him, McGrath commences his own investigation into her death.
Initially, it proves difficult because Cordova is so elusive. There is only so much that McGrath can glean from paperwork passed to him by acerbic cop, Detective Sharon Falcone, or the film-school lectures of close friend and self-confessed Cordova nut, Wolfgang Beckman. Amusing though the Beckman scenes are, it’s mainly background material that McGrath gathers, while, though he finally gains entry to ‘The Blackboards’, a Cordova fan-site and forum on the Dark Web, he only starts to make real ground with help of two initially unlooked-for assistants: country boy Hopper Cole, a besotted ex-friend of Ashley’s (and a former fellow inmate at a reform camp they were both sent to when they were children) who is desperate to know what happened to her; and Nora Halliday, the novel’s ingénue, a waitress/actress from out of town, who happened to be the last person to see Ashley alive and thus feels it’s her destiny to participate in solving the puzzle.
Even so, it’s a complex and at times scary path, leading the intrepid threesome first to Briarwood Hall, the institution where Ashley was being held, which is so secure that it strongly implies there was something badly wrong with her; then to Cordova’s townhouse in New York City, occupied now by the director’s long-time friend and assistant, Inez Gallo, a sour-faced woman who is very protective of the Cordova brand and will resort to law (and worse, maybe) for the slightest reason; then to the even scarier confines of the Oubliette, a private sex-club on Long Island, where, once they finally achieve entry, the aura of menace is palpable; to a disquieting antiques store run by a weird fake priest called Hugo Villarde. Finally, they arrive at the junk-filled penthouse apartment of ex-star and beauty queen and Cordova’s third wife, Marlowe Hughes (the only one of his three wives who didn’t die in odd circumstances), who is now a drug and alcohol-addled wreck, living mainly in her distant memories. For all this, it is Hughes who provides McGrath with some of his tastiest morsels, explaining that Cordova got involved with a cult on first moving to The Peak, and hinting that Satanic influence may lie at the root of both his and his daughter’s extraordinary talents, for which there will always be a terrible price to pay.
Though he’s hardly a religious person, McGrath and his sidekicks gradually give weight to this latter, bizarre theory, as it doesn’t just tie in with Cordova’s reputation for being the Prince of Movie Darkness, but because they also uncover evidence that they themselves are now being hunted, and according to a ‘white witch’ called Cleopatra, have become the target of black magic rituals. At first, McGrath only partly buys this – until an unlikely accident injures young Samantha, after which he is almost fully persuaded.
With their own lives and sanity seemingly in peril, it appears that only one avenue of investigation now remains open. Somehow or other, they must access The Peak, that mysterious and forbidding country estate high in the Adirondacks.
What they will find in there, will leave its collective mark on them for the rest of their lives …
For the avoidance of doubt, I should say straight away that I thoroughly enjoyed Night Film. Even though, at 624 pages, it’s a massive tome, it was so gripping that I skipped through it in a relatively short time. But I am a sucker for satanic horror stories, especially if they’re done subtly and scarily, and for some reason – and this is purely a personal thing – I find them particularly fascinating if they’re set in contemporary times, when so many of us have abandoned any belief in God or the Devil.
The question is, however, is this actually a satanic horror novel?
Well … it gradually assumes this dimension even though it doesn’t start out that way. In its early stages, its an archetypal Noir, a bruiser of an investigator – a Philip Marlowe among journalists – using a socialite daughter to get to her celebrity father, who may or may not be a paedophile, chasing every lead he can along the darkened alleys of a dismal, rainy city, a range of strange and grotesque individuals to help him on his way. But it’s a measure of the skilled writing on show that, once the supernatural horror begins to flow – or at least when a semblance of that emerges – the novel moves seamlessly into a different literary realm, and yet as a reader you don’t feel jolted or in any way short-changed. It all seems perfectly natural, though it helps that Marisha Pessl herself holds back on the certainty that occult forces have been released, infusing her characters with doubt and disbelief, which infects the readers too, and showing very little that can’t be explained rationally.
Even in the light of all that, though, I’d caution that appearances can be deceptive.
One area where Night Film is a little more ‘on the nose’ is in its presentational style. This is no ordinary novel, and you realise that straight away, as much of the narrative comes to us via authentic-looking web pages, police reports, medical records and so on, with photographic imagery included too. I could have done without the photos, in truth – I’d much rather visualise people and places myself, but, while some reviewers have taken issue with this whole approach, calling it a gimmick and an irritant, I didn’t mind it much. It doesn’t hamper the pace of the book, and, at the end of the day, we are being asked to look into this bewildering case through the eyes of a roving journalist, the background to whose investigation exists in box-loads of such dogeared paperwork, so it works on that level.
In terms of the horror, there is no shortage of scary moments in Night Film, and all play out very satisfyingly, often with serious outcomes for those involved.
But again, Marisha Pessl demonstrates great skill in hitting us with different types of fear. For example, at one stage everything is quite traditional. We get strong hints of witchcraft; one especially frightening moment sees a voodoo poppet apparently coming alive of its own volition, which flies so much in the face of the counter-culture silliness our heroes initially think they are investigating that it really shocks us. Several times during the novel, we also suspect that in Stanislas Cordova, we are investigating a maker of snuf movies, because more and more evidence appears to suggest that people really died on his sets, while significant numbers of those who participated are no longer traceable, or if they are, they seem literally to have gone mad.
Probably the two most frightening moments, though, come when McGrath and his cohorts break the normal rules of the game by intruding into private spaces. The scene in the Oubliette sex-club is a real nerve-jangler despite the fact that nothing particularly explicit – in terms of sex or violence – actually occurs. But even that is superseded by the events at The Peak, when our heroes finally bite the bullet and opt to invade what they consider to be Cordova’s inner sanctum. I won’t say any more about that for fear of spoiling things, except to add that, even protracted over fifty pages (yes, it’s a bit too long, alas), it’s an unforgettable head-trip, and a real exercise in existential horror.
It is that indefinable kind of horror, though, which, while it might crystallise in moments like this, pervades the entire book, the author gradually eroding our sense of reality. This becomes a key factor in Night Film: what is real and what isn’t? Even McGrath starts to question this, eventually wondering if he too has now become a character in a Cordova script, even going to the trouble of checking his own life for some of the clandestine signposts with which the maestro used to fill his movies – and finding them.
It’s all done immensely cleverly and, as I say, subtly too, so that it creeps up on you in the most effective, skin-crawling way.
Less subtly perhaps, but certainly enjoyably for film buffs, I’d imagine, are the countless semi-concealed references to classic cinema. You won’t have to look very hard to spot reminders of ‘dark movies’ like Don’t Look Now, The Ring and Eyes Wide Shut, while the feuding actress sisters are reminiscent of the sibling rivalry between Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine, which entertained Hollywood for so many years (one of the fictional actresses is even called ‘Olivia’). Cordova himself, of course, calls to mind any number of intense, eccentric and even ‘dangerous’ film directors; we’ve already mentioned Kubrick, Polanksi and co, but you could add to that John Huston, William Friedkin et al.
So, there’s the good stuff. But did I have any problems with Night Film?
I have to admit that there were one or two. For the most part, it’s a beautifully written book, especially in its description of place and character, though there is a slight weakness in the latter.
I’m not sure it’s a good thing that the narrative’s two most overarching personalities, those who live and breathe more than any other – Cordova and his daughter – barely appear. It’s a good indicator of how much work Pessl has done on those two in particular, but it’s a shame that several of those characters we actually interact with don’t match up. McGrath is fine. He’s all there; we can see him, we can hear him, we root for him throughout – there’s no problem. But while Nora and Hopper are pretty vivid too, and both go on clear cut journeys, neither appear to fulfil their potential in the story. Again, I don’t want to give too many spoilers away, so you’ll need to make your own judgement on that when you read it.
Other, secondary characters – Falcone, Beckman, Villarde and Hughes being the best examples – are well-realised but are little more in truth than walking info-dumps. Don’t get me wrong; sometimes you need this – the nature of the mystery novel means that we have to learn stuff now and then – but there are quite a few of them here, and on occasion these walk-ons’ explanations of past events, which are frequently offered without the investigators actually having earned them, become extensive chunks of very detailed exposition.
That said, the only one that really jarred for me came from Marlowe Hughes, who seemed to throw off her drug-induced stupour with remarkable speed in order to fill McGrath in on a whole array of Cordova background details.
I suppose I had only one other brickbat. The idea that a film maker could exist who is so darkly talented (with or without devilish assistance) that his movies have driven viewers mad with terror, induced nervous breakdowns, instigated murder and suicide, is perhaps a little bit … dare I say it, pretentious. I too love to read about these mad, elusive geniuses who, even though we know they are probably quite prosaic characters underneath, revel in their strange reputations and do produce, from time to time, works of high cinematic art. But I think there’s a danger that such student-type adoration can be taken a little too far. That certainly happens in Night Film – we really are required to buy into the Cordova myth – though to be fair to Pessl, The Blackboards, which is the main chat room for his followers, appears to be full of affected, OTT individuals, whom McGrath, while he doesn’t exactly disdain them, is cynical about.
So, there we are. That is Night Film. As I say, it’s not without its negatives, but I still found it a thoroughly engrossing read – so much so that, even though it’s massive, I carved my way through it with ease and delight. Don’t be put off by its great length. It’s an intriguing and fascinating thriller, which races along and rises to some spectacularly hair-raising climaxes en route. It’s a must-have for anyone’s dark fiction shelf.
I’ve no idea whether Night Film has been optioned for film or TV development yet, but as usual, I’m now going to be bold (or stupid) enough to suggest a cast should such a thing arise. No one will listen to me, of course, so it’s just a bit of fun. Feel free to agree or not, as the case may be. Here we go:
Scott McGrath – Mark Ruffalo
Nora Halliday – Chloë Grace Moretz
Hopper Cole – Lucas Till
Inez Gallo – Sonia Braga
Marlowe Hughes – Diane Lane
Olivia Endicott – Rachael Harris
Hugo Villarde – Michael Emerson
Cleopatra – Kelly Hu
Detective Sharon Falcone – Shannon Lee
Cynthia – Thandie Newton
Wolfgang Beckman – Sebastian Koch