Experimental Film by Gemma Files
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I've known Gemma File's work for a while now. In fact, we were "TOC Mates" in A Clockwork Phoenix #2. I believe that her outstanding story in that volume, "each thing i show you is a piece of my death" served as a springboard to Experimental Film. Both are dark tales dealing with cinema, a subject on which Files is, obviously, an expert.
Truth be told, this is the first book I have ever pre-ordered before the book was even finished. Yes, it took me a while to get around to reading it (go look at my TBR list to find out why - and, yes, I intend on reading all of those and reviewing the vast majority of them - not to mention other projects of my own I've been working on), so while I was an early adapter, the rest of the reading world passed me by. No problem. It was worth the wait!
Experimental film is about exactly what the title says. The narrator, Lois Cairns, a lapsed teacher of film at a local (sham) school and sometimes film-critic, discovers the work of one Mrs. Whitcomb, possibly Canada's first film-maker, who vanished from a train after making a series of films about . . . well, I'm not going to give it away so easily.
Nor does File's give it away easily. This is a multi-layered work, really a melange of literary techniques and styles, each used for a specific purpose; not for the conceit of the method itself, but as a means to an end. Yes, the book is, appropriately, "experimental," at least intermittently. But the use of what otherwise would be charlatan's tricks to cover up bad writing are actually carefully, purposefully crafted pieces that weave into the fabric of the story. The method, here, matters - much like it does in cinema itself.
But these methods are used sparingly. The book breathes with its own literary life, and, as usual, Gemma File's voice is beautiful and brilliant. Take, for instance, this passage:
You think that being blind is darkness, and sometime's that's true, yes. Mostly. Not always, though.
When I woke up back in St. Mike's, Mrs. Whitcomb's ghost voice in my ear and her bony hand in mine, the world around me had all gone hot and stark, consumed by the idea of brightness without any of its effects. Reduced to a vague tint of red, polluting an otherwise unbroken absence. And what I found was that this would wax and wane as time went on, with no apparent consideration for what time of day it was supposed to be, outside my own head - that 'round midnight I often seemed to orbit a weird, unblinking light, pitiless as some supermax prison cell's single bulb, while at noon things became still and quiet, colourless, nothing but gloom on gloom.
Of course, you'll gather from these paragraphs that Experimental Film is a horror novel, and you'd be right. However, this work is so much more than that. File's ability to portray the frustrations of being the parent of an autistic child is truly amazing. And this is not just a side issue, it is dealt with front and center, as a vital part of the plot with all the love and frustration, all the impatience and longing that one would expect from the mother of an autistic son. Lois Cairns is no saint, but she is human. She is flawed and real. I believed in her. Watching Lois negotiate between the relationships she has with her son, her awkward mother, her loving husband, and another powerful, vengeful member of the cinemaliteratti (yes, I just made that word up - get over it) is a treat in-and-of itself, without the supernatural horror elements. This book is not really about ghosts, it's about relationships . . . which might happen to include some ghosts.
But if you're not predisposed to reading "Horror" books, don't worry. This work is more grey than black, more subtly creepy than startlingly scary. Think Twilight Zone, not The Exorcist. Dark? Yes. Weird? Definitely. Pee your pants scary? Nope. It is ethereal and fascinating, while being solidly grounded in the day-to-day struggle of just getting on and getting along.
Still, the work itself is a sort of cinematic piece, with all the grit and character that implies. It's not an action movie in full color. It is an old black and white. A slightly surreal piece, something not nearly as bizarre as The Brother's Quay, but maybe Ingmar Bergman strange, in places. One can almost see the scenes glowing unevenly and hear the "tick-tick-tick" of a projector in the back of one's mind while reading. And the climactic scenes are like a hot bulb burning through the black film, moving from utter darkness, spreading into irregular sepia splotches, to gold pinpoints that eat away the obfuscation, to reveal that which you had hoped would remain hidden, in blinding brilliance.
Brilliant. Yes, that's the word for it. Brilliant!
Strongly, strongly recommended. Read it alone at night by the light of a single projector bulb. I dare you.
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