Everybody has a Cordova story. Cult horror director Stanislas Cordova hasn’t been seen in public since 1977. To his fans he is an engima. To journalist Scott McGrath he is the enemy. To Ashley he was a father.Ugh you guys this was such a disappointment. Suuuuuuuuuuch a disappointment. This book started out so good. And it ended so good. But oh my god there’s a solid block in the middle there that is a fifteen-car pile-up of loathsome shit, and it leaves me incapable of recommending the book with the unbridled enthusiasm that I would like to. This looked so good on paper. First of all, it’s an epistolary novel, kind of like House of Leaves, with segments in the form of news clippings and websites and journals, but unlike House of Leaves, it also has a multimedia aspect. You download an app for your smart phone and hover over pages marked with a little symbol, and it gives you access to extra in-world articles and tidbits and audio clips omg. It’s amazing. I admit it, I’m a sucker for puzzles and ARG-type stuff, so a hidden puzzle-y app that gives you access to secret audio files? It fucking works on me, I love the feeling that I’m being drawn deeper into a secret world that nobody knows about, even when it comes in the form of an obviously commercial novel.
On a damp October night the body of young, beautiful Ashley Cordova is found in an abandoned warehouse in lower Manhattan. Her suicide appears to be the latest tragedy to hit a severely cursed dynasty.
For McGrath, another death connected to the legendary director seems more than a coincidence. Driven by revenge, curiosity and a need for the truth, he finds himself pulled into a hypnotic, disorientating world, where almost everyone seems afraid.
The last time McGrath got close to exposing Cordova, he lost his marriage and his career. This time he could lose his grip on reality.
ONCE WE FACE OUR DEEPEST FEARS, WHAT LIES ON THE OTHER SIDE?
The app is awesome, and even when they’re not perfectly acted, the sound clips have a great vibe. There’s stuff that’s creepy without being overtly horrifying, poems and children’s stories that have the same feel as, say, an episode of Welcome to Night Vale. None of it’s cheap, there are no screamers, no jump-scare pop-ups, it’s all world-building and atmosphere. I have no complaints about the multi-media bits, I literally wish that every single book came with something like it, that’s how much I love it.
But even without the app, Night Film is exceptionally good at being atmospheric. From page one this thing is creepy as fuck. It’s the kind of creepy that has you peeking over the edge of your book every couple of pages to make sure that nothing is sneaking up on you, even when you’re reading it with every light on in the house. The writing is so crisp and vivid, you can see everything that happens as easily as if you were watching it on screen. Pessl has a great eye for visuals, and it is super cinematic, like, there’s not even that much adaptation required to make this into a movie, it’s basically a screenplay already. But, unlike some books I could mention, it doesn’t just rely on creepy visuals to make it scary. It’s the emotion that Pessl imbues the characters with as they experience those visuals with that make Night Film work so damn well. That’s how you write a damn atmospheric book, y’all.
Plus, the actual concept of the novel is really, really interesting. The base premise is familiar, but it’s one of the familiar ones that tics my boxes. I love bizarre, mysterious deaths that needs investigating, I love having a chunk of missing time that has to be filled in, I love vague, possibly supernatural weirdness, I am on board with all of these things. Even in addition to that, though, Night Film is exceptional in the story department, thanks to the world and the mythology that it builds around its basic premise.
The central figure of mystery in the novel is Stanisla Cordova, a legendarily eccentric film director whose movies are (potentially) supernaturally affective. I’m impressed with how much work Pessl has put in to building this character and working him in to the fabric of her world, how much content we get in the way of personal history, and especially film analysis. She basically had to come up with in-depth details and premises and themes and symbols for like thirteen films for the characters to pick apart, so you know, kudos there, man. She absolutely went the extra mile, and it pays off.
It isn’t all about Cordova the elder, though. The death that kicks the novel off is actually that of Cordova’s daughter, Ashley, and while the mystery surrounding her suicide obviously ties in to Cordova and his life, Ashley is a character in her own right, with her own shadowy history and dealings and relationships to be uncovered. Obviously I’m not a fan of using the deaths of women to further the stories of men, and this novel absolutely falls into that category, but I do feel like Ashely gets more agency and motivation and personality and presence than most Opening Victims are allowed. Ultimately the man Cordova is the goal and the focus, but this is Ashley’s story, too.
At any rate, it’s a solid story. The investigation into Ashley and Cordova’s lives and deaths is fascinating and compelling, and it got its hooks in to me good. The doling out of information is, I’ll admit, a little easy and a little contrived, but I didn’t really care about the way the information was being given out because all I wanted was to know what the hell it was. The book did a good job of piecing things out, building up the reveal and then, once the reveal came, prolonging the suspense by making us doubt the validity of the theory we’d been given. Basically, there was no point in the book that I was bored, or did not want to know more.
So, having read all of those unusually positive things, you may be wondering, what’s the damn problem? Well, there are a few – a handful are minor, get-overable things, the rest…not so much.
The voice: While the writing was mostly acceptable, the narrative relied very heavily on exposition dumps, occasionally in the form of news articles or blogs, but usually as a spoken conversation between the MC and another character – “Cordova stories”, the protagonist calls them. While a repetitive technique, it wasn’t the delivery method that bothered me, so much as the language that was used in the process. Regardless of the background, personality, or even the medium through which the story was being told, the language inevitably turned, well, novel-y. Lots of flowery descriptions and metaphors that I doubt most writers would ever say out loud in casual conversation, much less your average security guard. It wasn’t a deal breaker, but it was jarring as fuck and surprisingly bad writing practice in a book that was otherwise good about that sort of thing.
The italics: This is kind of an odd thing to have to bring up, but the italicizing in this book is weird. Here, take a look at this. What the fuck, right? It’s like reading a fuckin’ Frank Miller comic. It got to the point where I actually thought the words might be another puzzle, like a code that would emerge if we just strung them together in the right order, but I’ve poked around online, and that doesn’t seem to be the case. It just seems to be a bizarre stylistic choice.
The ending: I’m not entirely sure how I feel about the ending. On the one hand, I would have loved a more thorough explanation of what happened and why, but on the other, I acknowledge that with a premise this good, almost any thorough explanation you’re likely to get is going to be disappointing. It’s the Stephen King curse: intriguing premises almost never have satisfying explanations, so not giving us a concrete explanation is probably the smartest thing you can do. Leave it to our ~imaginations~.
The ending that we got was by far better than the ending I expected about ten pages prior, so I dunno, I guess we call it a wash?
So yeah, small things, legitimate issues but not bad enough to tank the novel for me. You know what tanked the novel for me? The same thing that almost always tanks novels for me: casual fucking bigotry.
Our protagonist, whose name I honestly don’t even remember anymore, is a huge fucking dick. Casual racism, casual sexism, rampant transphobia, there is not an oppressed minority he isn’t cool with shitting on. Literally one of the first things he that comes out of his narration when we meet him is this:
A woman was standing in front of a lamppost, her face in shadow, her red coat catching the light behind her, making a vivid red slice in the night.Page two. I shit you not. Charming, right?
A young woman out here alone? Was she crazy?
I turned back, faintly irritated by the girl’s naïveté – or recklessness, whatever it was that brought her out here. Women of Manhattan, magnificent as they were, they forgot sometimes they weren’t immortal. They could throw themselves like confetti into a fun-filled Friday night, with no thought as to what crack they fell into by Saturday.
But okay, I reasoned, with gritted teeth. Character, it’s his character. He’s a rich white dude, maybe he’s supposed to be a sexist jerk. Maybe he’ll eventually be called out on it, maybe it’s an arc. It’s just one line, right?
But then—I started down the stairs—maybe it wasn’t such a terrible idea to team up with him, this once. There was quantum mechanics, string theory, and then there was the most mind-bending frontier of the natural world, women.
That was women for you—always morphing. One minute they were helpless, needing shelter and English muffins, the next they were ruthlessly bending you to their will like you were a piece of sheet metal.
She was still beautiful. It was awful. I’d been waiting for Cynthia to venture deeper into her forties so she’d wake up to wrinkles like a maze of molehills screwing up a legendary lawn. But no, her green eyes, those cheekbones, the expressive little mouth that broadcast her every mood with the diligence of a UN translator, were still youthful and bright. Now Bruce woke up every morning to that face. I still couldn’t believe that man—fifty-eight, with a paunch, hairy wrists, and a yacht in Lyford Cay named Dominion II—was allowed to live daily with such beauty. He had a knack for spotting deals in the marketplace, I’d give him that. When Cynthia sold him a Damien Hirst called, rather aptly, Beautiful Bleeding Wound Over the Materialism of Money Painting, Bruce noticed she, too, was a work of art to look at for a lifetime. That she allowed herself to be bought along with the painting—that I didn’t see coming.
“You’re going to have to give me more to go on,” I said, after a moment. “I’m a guy. I’m illiterate when it comes to reading between lines.”Okay, still not a fan, but it wasn’t constant, at least. It just popped up every now and then, and hey, there was still time to change, right? We soldier on.
“Well…” She sighed, as if it were the end of the conversation rather than the beginning. This meant, because she was a woman, she’d probably already had this discussion umpteen times in her head.
Thennnn we started hitting the racist stereotypes. I swear to god, it was like a fucking checklist. There was the Hispanic hotel maid:
Seeing the woman only a few feet away now, her face was round and girlish with the fat cheeks of a toddler, yet her caramel skin was so finely wrinkled, it looked like a brown paper bag once tightly wadded in a hand.She doesn’t speak a lick of English, but, the characters inform us, comes “from a long line of curanderas” aka “some folksy medicine-woman bullshit”, and becomes ~hysterical~ at the mere discussion of Ashley Cordova, whom she believes to be a “espíritu rojo” with the “devil’s footprint” in her eye.
“Show her the picture,” Hashim said.
She responded, her voice serious and low, eyeing Ashley’s coat as if worried it might come alive. Hashim interrupted to ask a question, and she heatedly responded, taking a few steps away from the coat. She talked for several minutes, so dramatically at times I wondered if she were a popular telenovela actress on Venevisión. I tried to dig through the stream of Spanish to find a word I might recognize, and, abruptly, I did.
Chaqueta del diablo. The devil’s coat.
Then there was the Chinese grocer family:
At this moment, a slight middle-aged Chinese man emerged, followed by what had to be his entire extended family: his wife, his daughter of about eight, and a grandmother who looked to date back to the days of Mao Zedong.The Great fucking Wall, good god. He proceeds to refer to her as Grandmother Mao for the duration of the scene.
Hell – maybe it was Mao. She had his long forehead, his tired face and gray workman’s pants, the flip-flops on her bare feet, which resembled two dry chipped bricks that’d fallen off the Great Wall.
There was Cordova’s Hispanic assistant, Inez Gallo, who eventually turned out to be a coyote (human trafficker), something the protagonist surmised at least partially based on her ethnicity; the gold-toothed Jamaican cab driver; the Japanese desk clerk, oh my god, the Japanese desk clerk, you guys have got to see this.
After answering the phone a few times, Debra fumbled under the desk and produced a large Louis Vuitton bag, a good sign; it meant she liked luxury goods, would welcome some extra cash to buy more. This, while Masato stood stoically at the other side of the desk, doing and saying nothing, like a Kendo warrior proficient in the Way of the Sword.HEY LOOK IT’S A TWOFER.
The single girl and the last samurai – it didn’t take a genius to decide who’d be amenable to bribery.
At four, I did another drive-by and realized Debra must have ducked out another entrance, because only Masato remained.
“Everyone has their price,” Hopper said, when I explained this unfortunate development.
“Yeah, well, from the look of this guy, his price is three hundred beheadings and a katana sword.”
“Sure, I’ll do it,” he announced in a flawless American accent, after I explained.Flawless American accent, oh my god. And you know, they never do call him out on this shit. It may just be part of his “character”, but neither the narrative nor any of the other characters ever criticize it, so that distinction doesn’t matter. It’s just free-floating bro-y douchiness that we’re meant to accept and move on from, I guess. But I think the moment the book true hit rock bottom was during the Oubliette sequence.
So, our hero is given a lead, a club called the Oubliette that Ashley might have visited during her unaccounted for time. It’s introduced to us like this, in response to our protagonist’s request for help on a Cordova forum on the fuckin’ deep net:
It’s called the OublietteKeep in mind that this is a response posted to a website whose homepage looks like this: So this is a skeevy place to have to go to find this information in the first place, plus, the book informs us that the name Oubliette refers to “the most claustrophobic and hidden section of a castle dungeon, where there was only an iron trapdoor in the ceiling and no light – a cell so minuscule, it was often impossible for the prisoner to turn around or even move, a casket for the alive but damned. It was reserved for the most reviled prisoners, those the captors wanted to forget.”
The party you seek.
The butterflies that swarm there
Make decent men weep.
Women are verboten
In this cellar of sickness.
The sentences carried out
No good girl should witness.
If you were a Member, such a question
You wouldn’t bother to pose.
My guess is you’re a fraud
The lost way in I’ll now disclose:
Drive midnight tonight to Montauk
Walk east down the shore.
When you spot Duchamp’s staircase
Proceed to the door.
So, you know, I feel like it’s pretty reasonable to say the club is built up being extremely shady and probaly repulsive. I was expecting something obscene and illegal, like that club scene in Blade, or, I dunno, a Hostel torture party. Instead, we get a table of drugs, and this:
I returned my attention to the crowd. The women were stunning. They were all different races, many of them dark-skinned and exotic, their unifying attributes a height of about six feet and a thinness that made them resemble insects swarming, feeding insatiably on the dark suits and balding heads. They looked young. As one turned, her blond hair so pale it seemed to float like a gleaming white halo around her face, she tipped her head back, smiling, and I caught sight of a prominent Adam’s apple.Fuck you. Are you for real? All that cloak-and-dagger shit, instructions by poem on the deepnet, to a place “where decent men weep”, “women are verboten”, where people do things that “no good girl should witness”, and your big reveal is basically a brothel for trans prostitutes? I mean, I can’t say for sure how the women described identify, because we never learn a goddamn thing about them. We only speak to one woman in the club, who is obviously intoxicated in some way, but she doesn’t get any characterization, and she serves no real purpose except to keep the protagonist from being thrown out before he can ferret out his next lead. We aren’t meant to understand these women; they aren’t there to be characters. They’re there for shock value, as though we should be disgusted and horrified that what, trans women or androgynous people exist? That men would want to have sex with them?
Christ. She was a man.
Ignoring an irrational feeling of alarm, I scrutinized another wandering through the crowd in a blue sequin dress. After speaking with a group of men, she—or he—touched one on the shoulder. She had long fingernails painted black, her arms laden with jewelry. Very slowly, as if to move suddenly in this place was prohibited—would puncture the dream—they detached from the group. She took him by the wrist, led him up the steps along a crumbling stone wall, the Aegean stretching beyond it. They slipped through an arched doorway and down a dirt path, vanishing. There were at least twelve identical entrances around the room. They led to—what? A crying game.
It had to be a high-end bondage club. Never underestimate the desire for wildly successful men to torture themselves for fun.
It would be one thing if we were meant to be horrified about the conditions in which the women are (possibly) being forced to work – the one woman the MC interacts with is drugged up and gets handled violently, plus the protagonist cutely makes a joke implying that they might be underaged, but those things, the things that are actually horrific about this situation, aren’t what we’re supposed to focus on. That’s extra, gritty sprinkles on the super-edgy cupcake. No, the centerpiece is that they are women with Adam’s apples who are there to fuck men.
There is exactly one instance of trans portrayal in the entire book, and it portrays them exclusively as someone else’s kink, someone’s dirty fucking secret. It’s disgusting.
It was right there, page 264-ish that Night Film hit the point of no return for me. I mean, how am I supposed to get behind a novel that dehumanizes an entire group of people to what, be edgy? I can’t. Fuck that.
So yeah I mean that’s it, right? I wanted to like it. I wanted to like it really bad, and there is a point after that Block of Bigotry in the middle where the sexist/transphobic/racist asides die down, and we’re allowed to have a have a damn horror story again, and it picks back up so well it’s heartbreaking. But that bit in the middle still exists. The MC is still a bigoted asshole, the book still trotted out racist stereotype after stereotype, trans prostitutes were still dehumanized, and it was all so goddamn unnecessary. The bigotry didn’t need to be there, it didn’t accomplish anything, there wasn’t any point to it. But it’s there, and like a shit in your sundae, it ruins the whole fucking thing.