Silver Nitrate by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Ever since reading Theodore Roszack’s Flicker (which I reviewed back in 2007), stories about supernaturally-charged/cursed films have been a favourite sub-genre of mine. Ramsey Campbell produced two very different takes on the idea, the folk horror Ancient Images and the cosmic-absurd Grin of the Dark. I like it tackled in film, too, with John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns another early review on this blog (in fact the earliest, from 2006), and the Japanese Ring one of my all-time favourite films. So, I knew I had to read Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s new novel Silver Nitrate.

Set in Mexico City in 1993, the story follows film-editor Montserrat and her childhood friend (and somewhat faded TV star) Tristán Abascal’s investigation into the now forgotten director Abel Urueta’s last, unfinished horror film, Beyond the Yellow Door. Although a conventional enough shocker for its day (the mid-1960s), this movie was intended by its makers to be secretly turned into a publicly-enacted magical ritual by the insertion of three occultly-charged scenes, created by one Wilhelm Friedrich Ewers (named, in part, after the author of one of Lovecraft’s favourite stories, “The Spider”, Hans Heinz Ewers). Ewers, in the novel, fled wartime Germany when he realised he and his fellow dabblers in the occult were going to fail the Nazis’ test of their abilities to divine the location of enemy ships (most of them, including himself, being charlatans), and so were likely to be executed. Doing so, he discovers that the blood spilled in his escape has actually given him real magical power. By the time he arrives in Mexico he has honed his abilities, and intends to use them, alongside what he believes to be the magnifying effect of film (“A movie is a spectacle, but so is a sacrifice atop a pyramid”) to gain the sort of immortality even the greatest movie star can only dream of — the immortality that, in Woody Allen’s words, involves “not dying”. Or at least coming back from the dead.

The thing that makes this sort of book fun, for me, is the way the supernatural gets woven in with the actual history of film. Ancient Images, for instance, has Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi appearing in their only British-made collaboration, and uses this to comment on the censorship of horrific material, both in the 1930s when the film was made, and the 1980s when the novel was written; Flicker weaves all sorts of Hollywood lore into its tale of how the darkness between movie frames can be used to unleash a more metaphysical kind of darkness on the world, including, for instance, Orson Welles’s attempt to film Heart of Darkness. I don’t have the knowledge of Mexican horror — or Mexican film generally — to know how much of this meshing-with-reality Moreno-Garcia is doing in her narrative, but a telling point, perhaps, is that I didn’t come away (as I usually do with this kind of book) with a list of films to seek out. (The one I remember her mentioning, the Spanish-language version of Universal’s Dracula which was filmed in parallel with the English-language version, is certainly worth a watch.)

Another trouble with approaching Silver Nitrate from the point of view of a connoisseur of this particular sub-genre is that I was wondering what new thing Moreno-Garcia would do with the idea of the supernaturally-charged film. But there isn’t a twist on the genre, here. Instead, the villain of the piece is, in the end, something of a stock baddie: an evil occultist and leader of a rather generic cult, a racist and would-be Übermensch whose philosophy (“Seize the world, squeeze it for every drop of power, smite your enemies”! ) is rather too off-the-shelf to develop any interesting angles. The supernatural, here, has no cosmic implications, it’s just imposing your will and making things happen, with no lasting cost.

I didn’t really care about the main characters, either. Perhaps one of the things that characterises the other narratives I’ve mentioned is the way their protagonists tend to get more and more isolated as they’re drawn further into their labyrinthine researches, until, when they finally realise they’re up against the supernatural, they’re so far gone that no one will believe them. Here — though they have their isolated moments — Montserrat and Tristán aren’t, ultimately, alone with the supernatural, and when the occult powers start flying, they’re just as capable of wielding them as their enemies, so there’s no sense of being up against something inherently weird. It’s a “superpowers” style of magic rather than the metaphysically frightening darkness that haunts the likes of Cigarette Burns (tortured angels!), Ancient Images (ancient rites!) or The Grin of the Dark (the, um, grin of the dark).

I don’t usually review books I found to be simply okay on this blog, but I wanted to include Silver Nitrate as it’s part of this sub-genre I so like, and it felt worth looking into the reasons it doesn’t work as well for me, to help me to see what does work. Silver Nitrate was okay, but didn’t hit the depths of weirdness like those other titles. (In that sense, I can more easily imagine it being made into a film.) There’s not the sense, as with those other works, that once the real horror of the weird has been seen it can never be unseen. I’m reminded of a lesson from another darkly labyrinthine quest-for-a-movie narrative which I’ve only just realised belongs on the list: Videodrome. The point about the Videodrome signal — as Max Renn must learn — is that it has “a philosophy”, and one that is both fascinating and dangerous. The occultist Ewers’ idea — “Seize the world, squeeze it for every drop of power, smite your enemies” — is dangerous, but doesn’t need the supernatural to make it so.


Ancient Images by Ramsey Campbell

The protagonist of Ramsey Campbell’s Ancient Images (1989) is Sandy Allan, a film editor at Metropolitan TV (which also appears in Campbell’s Incarnate, though here, at the other end of the 1980s, it’s no longer referred to as MTV). Her friend, Graham Nolan, hunts out rare old films to screen on the channel, and after a two-year search has managed to locate a print of a never-released British horror from 1938, Tower of Fear, which starred both Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. He invites Sandy to his flat for an initial showing, but she gets there only to witness his death and to find the film gone. When a critic at the Daily Friend newspaper expresses doubt the film had ever been found, Sandy decides to track it down herself, to defend Graham’s reputation.

The film’s director, Giles Spence, died the week shooting finished, and many of the few surviving cast and crew won’t talk about it — some can’t, through infirmity, some won’t, though fear, some are prevented, though whether by accident or design it’s difficult for Sandy to tell, though she increasingly feels that something is dogging her efforts to track the film down. Her quest eventually takes her to the cosy village of Redfield, seat of Lord Redfield, who runs the Staff O’Life bread-making company, and who, it turns out, also owns the Daily Friend. Lord Redfield freely admits his family’s animosity towards the film, which he (and his grandfather, who spoke out against it at the time in the House of Lords) believed to be mocking their family and, through them, the values and traditions of England. But when Sandy learns there’s a legend about Redfield, of a mass-slaughter centuries ago which infused the soil with human blood, giving the village its name and the fields their power to grow an oddly vitalising strain of wheat, she also finds there seems to have been a regular history of human sacrifice, intentional or not, in the village, a fifty-year repeated ritual which last occurred (of course) fifty years ago.

As well as being a horror novel, Ancient Images is a novel about horror, about censorship, repression, and the role horror has in bringing out what ought not to stay hidden. It’s set (and was written) in the late 80s, when horror had come under a new bout of disapproval thanks to the Video Nasties brouhaha — and we get a glimpse of the subculture of people watching illicit films purely for their nasty moments when Sandy visits the editors of Gorehound fanzine — while the film Sandy’s searching for came out shortly after a similar scare in the 1930s, which saw the introduction of the H for Horrific film certificate. Throughout the book, Sandy hears disparaging comments about horror. Her father wonders why she’d bothering to seek out “some trash with two old hams in it”, and asks, “What can be right about a horror film?” Someone else says, “I wish you people would let this wretched film stay buried. Isn’t there already enough horror in the world?” Visiting a Manchester library, she sees “a bookshop from which police were bearing armfuls of confiscated horror magazines” — presumably Savoy Books, which was constantly harassed by James Anderton, the prurient Manchester Chief of Police whose “direct line to God” (as he put it) gave him, he believed, the role of moral arbiter, along with the power to enforce it. As Campbell puts it in his afterword to the book:

“This was the decade when Britain found a new scapegoat for its ills — uncensored films, particularly horror.”

Samhain edition. Art by Kanaxa.

Confronted about his grandfather’s role in suppressing Tower of Fear, the urbane Lord Redfield says, “It’s a curious notion of history that wants to preserve a film which tells so many lies about England and the English.” But the point is that Tower of Fear (in its very oblique way — it was hardly an exposé) wasn’t telling lies, it was unearthing truths. And this is the role horror fiction has, in Ancient Images. Scapegoats are loaded with a society’s sins to rid society of those sins — but before it’s sacrificed, a scapegoat is a bearer of the truth, because the sins are real. Lord Redfield seeks to promote an ultra-traditional vision of England, through the Hovis-like adverts for his Staff O’Life bread with their Vaughan-Williams soundtrack, as well as through the village of Redfield itself, a place where, he assures Sandy, everyone is happy with their place in life — a situation that is obviously too good to be true:

“Tudor cottages gleamed at one another across streets, brown houses sunned their smooth thatched scalps. As Sandy strolled, glancing in shop windows at glass-topped jars of striped sweets sticky as bees, hats like mauve and pink and emerald trophies on poles, elaborately braided loaves, knitting patterns and empty rompers, she heard children chanting answers in a classroom.”

Art by Don Brautigan

Nowadays we’d recognise the second half of this novel as pure folk horror, with its lord so beloved by his forelock-tugging people, the innkeeper who’s suspicious of strangers, the children’s games and “snatches of folksong” Sandy hears as she wanders the streets, as well as the difficulty she has in leaving the village, when she decides to. But in Ancient Images, the folk horror isn’t of an isolated community. As in John Wyndham’s Midwich Cuckoos, a village, here, is used to stand in for England as a whole. Redfield, perhaps, is England, presenting its nostalgia-laden image of cosy traditions to the world, while behind the scenes — or under the soil — there’s blood and violence waiting to erupt.

Lord Redfield bears it in his very name, as well as his position. As a member of the aristocracy, he sees himself as a paternalistic figure, preserving things as they are because that’s best for everyone, but this is to ignore the history of violence that put him there in the first place, and the now-hidden, but once very explicit, violence that keeps him there. Just because he doesn’t have thugs keeping the peace doesn’t mean there’s no threat, it’s just that the threat his power represents has become so much a part of the English class system it no longer needs to be referred to.

Tor 1993 edition, art by Gary Smith

To see it in action, you don’t look at cosy Redfield, where nobody is unhappy with their lot and there are no “For Sale” signs; you look at what happens when a stranger comes along — Sandy Allan, perhaps, or, on a larger scale, Enoch’s Army, a troupe of what would later be called New Age Travellers, wandering the roads of Britain, seeking a place where they can live by their own more peaceful (if equally reactionary, in its own way) philosophy. But they find themselves ousted everywhere they go, and having to be surrounded by police for their own protection. Enoch’s Army feels like the 1980’s remnants of the late-60s counterculture, now thoroughly out of place in a land whose temporary prosperity has caused it to cease to question its values.

It’s rich metaphoric territory — particularly as Campbell, who often refers to horror as “the field”, is here writing about a literal field, and a red one at that — with many resonances with later Campbell works, such as the film-research theme of The Grin of the Dark, and the sense of something hungry lurking under the soil in The Searching Dead. Plus an air of The Wicker Man, and of Theodore Roszack’s Flicker (though, as Campbell points out, this novel was written before Flicker).

For a bit of fun based on the novel, the A Very British Horror podcast did an episode on Giles Spence’s Tower of Fear, on (of course) April 1st 2016.


Flicker by Theodore Roszak

flickerI 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.