I still haven’t come up with a name for that genre of books/films I like so much, where the main character is researching the life of some obscure, forgotten artist (or writer, or filmmaker), or is tracking down some legendary-but-now-lost film (or book, or artwork), and whose quest leads them into dark, often supernaturally horrific territory — previous examples covered in this blog being John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns, and Ramsey Campbell’s The Grin of the Dark — but Theodore Roszak’s Flicker was the one that, for me, came first, back sometime in 1992 I think it was, when I found it listed in the Andromeda Bookshop catalogue.
(…Brief pause to reminisce about those Andromeda Bookshop catalogues. It’s another thing the internet has done away with — both the need to browse through catalogues and the pleasure of doing so. But those A5 zine-sized little booklets, packed with listings of new books, classic re-releases, rarities and oddities in the sf, fantasy and horror world, complete with intriguing little plot synopses and recommendations, were such a joy to read, simply because of the surprises and treasures they always had in store. I never kept any of them, which is a pity, as they could well have formed, by themselves, a mini-history of late 20th century fantasy publishing. One book catalogue I haven’t been able to bring myself to throw away, though, is from Mick Lyons’ Kadath Press, at the time one of the few (if not the only) UK distributors of Arkham House, Necronomicon Press, and other US publishers of classic weird fiction reprints and associated marginalia. Looking through that catalogue at times felt like leafing through the Necronomicon itself — full as it was of dark secrets and macabre promises of eldritch enlightenments… Okay, so-called “brief pause” over, and back to the book…)
In Flicker, Roszak’s hero Jonathan Gates becomes fascinated by the films of Max Castle, an initially promising exponent of German Expressionism back in the silent days, who later moved to Hollywood and, after a disastrous attempt at a Biblical epic (The Martyr) that went hugely over budget and was never finished, lapsed into pulpy shockers with titles like The Ripper Strikes, The Ripper Returns, Revenge of the Zombie and Kiss of the Vampire. But Castle’s films turn out to have a peculiar dark power that goes beyond their tawdry imagery, something Gates soon learns is all down to “the Flicker” — a way of manipulating the very fundamentals of film itself to hide a second, secret film within the shadows and lights of the first. But Castle didn’t just use these visual tricks to add a little frisson to his films’ chills — for he was born into a secretive religious order known as the Orphans of the Storm, and once Jonathan Gates discovers them, we start to enter Da Vinci Code territory (though, as the novel was written well before Dan Brown’s, perhaps I should say Holy Blood and the Holy Grail territory); we’re soon in the all-too familiar company of Templars, Cathars, a secret order of Catholics (“Oculus Dei”), and the Gnostic gospels of the worshippers of the god Abraxas. H P Lovecraft even gets a mention.
The great thing about this sort of plot is the way it tangles its inventions up with the real history of the culture it’s dealing with — Max Castle, like a dark Zelig or Forrest Gump, pops up behind the scenes of a few key classics, such as Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon, as well giving Louise Brooks her first, uncredited, silver screen appearance. Just as Lovecraft would drop the odd real book title into his lists of forbidden tomes (Margaret Murray’s The Witch Cult in Western Europe, for instance), this all adds to the authenticity of the invented films. Flicker was pretty much responsible for starting my interest in going back and watching the film world’s great classics, as well as convincing me to read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (in a neat, filmic twist, a book I never really understood till I saw it adapted in Apocalypse Now).
And it seems Flicker is going to be made into a film itself in 2008.