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.