One of my favorite subgenres of horror fiction doesn’t have a name, I don’t think, at least not one I like; it might be called the “haunted text” story, but who wants to go around saying they like something that has the word “text” in the name? At any rate, these stories, as the name I just made up for them suggests, are about books, or plays, or paintings, or music, or films which have been imbued, one way or another, with an evil power. Most famously there is Lovecraft’s Necronomicon which appears often in his Cthulhu mythos , and Robert W. Chambers’s The King in Yellow cycle of stories. As this world of ours progresses, new haunted artforms emerge, and allow this basic concept to flourish anew. (Music is possibly the medium that is least often tapped for this kind of thing. There is Lovecraft’s “The Music of Erich Zann,” which is excellent, and most recently Josh Malerman’s novel Black Mad Wheel, but that one you can skip. My issues with it are numerous, but here I’ll just say that it struck me as fundamentally misconceived. It’s about a rock band in the late 1950s who’ve had at least one mainstream hit who are tapped by the US government to investigate a kind of bizarre music emanating from some unknown source in an African desert. Now, again, this is a rock band in the late 50s that had a hit. As much as I love this kind of music, if I was trying to think of a music group best suited to plumb the depths of and solve the mystery behind some kind of otherworldly sonic esoterica, I don’t think my mind would go naturally to, say, Bill Haley and the Comets.) Anyway. Nowadays, movies are the most popular, er, texts around which to build this kind of story. There are lots of reasons, good ones, for this, having to do with the cultural all-pervasiveness of film, and how dangerous that could be if a certain kind of film got made, the visual nature of them and what can be done with that, paradoxically, in a non-visual medium like literature (the “haunted” or “evil” film also obviously works a treat in horror movies of this sort. Or can work. Or should fucking work). Though it may not be the first “evil” film horror novel (I’d sure like to know what is the first), the obvious granddaddy is Flicker by Theodore Roszak, a cultural academic whose side-job as a novelist produced at least this one masterpiece, which, obscure cult book or not will nevertheless, I feel certain, prove to be deathless.
That’s enough about Flicker – Roszak’s novel isn’t why I’m here, and in any case I’ve alienated everyone who has ever loved me by babbling endlessly about it for quite long enough. But it is, as far as I’m concerned, the standard against which any novel or story or film with similar concerns must be measured, which also makes it a little bit like The Exorcist: who would want to write a horror story about demonic possession after that? Lots of people, it turns out, and there have been a ton of evil film/missing cult filmmaker novels. For example, there is the whole reason I’m writing this goddamn post, Experimental Film by Gemma Files. Published in 2015, it’s about Lois Cairns, a former film critic struggling now to find steady work within Canada’s deeply flawed film industry. Her husband Simon works, but their young son Clark is autistic, and the near-overwhelming difficulties inherent in dealing with that, stacked on top of her dwindling sense of self-worth and frustration, have turned her, by her own admission, into an unpleasant, snapping, sarcastic, even sometimes mean person, who is saved mainly by the fact that she’s fundamentally decent and works (maybe not always) to curb (most) of her worst impulses. Via a complicated route I won’t describe here, one day Lois finds herself watching a very early short silent film which, circumstantial evidence indicates, was made by a woman named Iris Dunlopp Whitcomb. A wealthy woman, Whitcomb, of course, disappeared mysteriously in the early part of the 20th century, following years of eccentric behavior and the seeking of comfort through benign occult investigation and sponsorship following the also mysterious disappearance of her young son who, historical evidence and modern science suggests, may himself have been autistic. Whitcomb’s films all have the tone, and plot, of especially sinister fairy tales, or old religious myths. But was she making this stuff up, or is it all based on fact, is the question we hope will eventually be answered (they’re based on fact).
So that’s the set up. Early on, as I first started getting my sea-legs with Experimental Film, I found myself reasonably delighted by the thought that what I was reading was a horror novel set amidst the very problematic Canadian film world. This is an environment I know little about, but what I do know has been taught to me by every Canadian filmmaker who’s ever spoken publicly about the issue, because they all goddamn hate it. Files spends a lot of time in the beginning laying all this out, to better illustrate the state of professional near-hopelessness Lois finds herself in, thereby making her passionate embrace of Whitcomb’s films (which in addition to everything else would make her Canada’s first female director) and their history and mystery pretty easy to understand. This is important because eventually her bulldog pursuit of this story – for which she’s given a research grant – will lead to some horror that she might have avoided had she been a bit less fired up about all this. That’s one thing, but more significant, and more artfully rendered by Files, is Lois’s relationship with her autistic son. In the first chunk of the book, Lois describes what it’s like:
Clark is a lovely child, his teachers write on every alternative report card he’s ever received. Always singing, polite and happy, kind. Clark is a joy to have around.
To which I can only think, well – in small does, I’m sure he is. But that “politeness” is mainly imitation, that “kindness” is him choosing to not interact with you, and isn’t it nice that you get to give him back at the end of the day, when his exhaustion and anxiety reach their fever-pitch and he loses every shred of language, however hard-won? When all he wants to do is stamp in a circle and babble, jump up and down in front of the TV, then fall on the floor and scream till we put him in bed?
…[E]very step forward brings new traumas, new difficulties; as his understanding of the world widens, his ability to deal with it fluctuates wildly. He cares what we think, and that’s wonderful, but he also worries, and we have no way to soothe him. He loves us and he shows it, and that’s previous – unbelievably so, considering the women I’ve sat next to in various waiting rooms, unable to tell if their sons even know they’re present, if they can tell the difference between their mother and a nurse, or their mother and a lamp – but he also gets angry when we ask him to do anything more than whatever it is he wants to do at that exact moment, yelling, kicking, weeping. Heartbroken by his inability to be other than he is, especially when levelled against the world’s inability to do the same.
Files writes beautifully about this; it’s devastating and completely unsentimental, and it does more than any other part of Experimental Film to make Lois Cairns feel like a person who, with all her flaws, has real red blood pumping through her body. This, and an argument over the phone later in the book that reads precisely like the argument that, were all this real, these two people would be having at that moment.
This made the sudden rockslide of weird, knobbly, fumbling choices and assumptions that soon followed even harder to understand. To begin with, I like my novels about movies to seem to be drunk on movies, and after a while Experimental Film does not, particularly when it comes to experimental film itself. You have references to Un Chien Andalou (described in a way that suggests Files believes herself to be one of only a handful of people to have ever seen it) and Meshes of the Afternoon and Blue…but that’s about it. Those seem like the first three hits you’d get if you Googled “experimental film.” Beyond this arguable nitpick, though, is Files apparently assuming that what counts as academic language in the world of film writing is the sort of thing you’d hear on a film review podcast:
Now the thing is, I could fill this whole chapter with film-critic jargon if I wanted to, all cues and references and shorthand. But I learned the hard way how most people – even ones who actually work in the industry—just don’t care about that sort of accuracy. I remember one class, early in my teaching career, where a student to whom I’d just returned a script covered in scribbled comments raised his hand and asked: “Miz Cairns, you said here that the character development was ‘cursory.’ What’s that mean, exactly?”
“It means you didn’t have enough of it. Did a half-assed job, basically.”
“Then why didn’t you just write ‘half-assed’?”
“Because there’s a word for it. And that word is ‘cursory.’”
Rather than drowning you in cinematographic esoterica, therefore...
Ellipses mine. Which part of that counts as “cinematographic esoterica?” “Cursory” or “character development?” The very common word that is not only no more specific than “half-assed” but has no specific connection to film or film writing, or the part that several thousand half-assed internet film critics seem to think is the only thing a good movie should do? Additionally, it just now occurred to me, earlier in the novel Lois bristles when someone refers to her as “Mrs.” rather than “Ms.” Since the actual phonetic spelling of “Ms.” is “miz,” what is being communicated by having the student’s use of “Ms.” spelled like that? That he pronounced it correctly? Because we’re meant to think he’s a dullard, that can’t be it. Somehow, though, his correct use of her preferred title is presented as evidence that he’s stupid. Later in the novel, out of the complete blue, Files uses “’specially” in place of “especially.” This is done not in a passage of dialogue, but rather in the non-spoken prose itself. Why? Experimental Film is meant to be read as a book that Lois Cairns wrote herself. What could possess Lois Cairns to drop “’specially” into her book like a dead cockroach? What could possess Gemma Files, come to that? Elsewhere, Files has Lois say in conversation “Ex-fucking-actly.” Try saying that out loud and see what happens.
If I seem overly focused on a couple of jutting but relatively harmless corners here and there, well, just hang on. When describing Lois’s fraught relationship with her mother, she mentions the days when her mom was a heavy drinker:
“Only good thing ever came out of us being together was you,” she used to say sometimes, back in her drinking days, when she’d finish off a six-pack alone and demand I sit up with her, having long conversations she couldn’t remember afterwards…
Sometimes she wanted me to sing to her, stuff like Juice Newton’s “I’m Dancing As Fast As I Can,” or Linda Ronstadt’s cover of James Taylor’s “You Can Close Your Eyes”…In retrospect, the most useful piece of advice I ever picked up concerning other people’s problems was from one of the books Mom read while she was in recovery, a self-help text called (I shit you not) If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him!…
We can break this down, you and I. A whole six-pack? All by herself? No wonder she couldn’t remember their conversations! Typically, people with drinking problems severe enough that they end up in recovery aren’t such lightweights. And if you’re singing a James Taylor song, aren’t you the one covering it? Linda Ronstadt becomes moot at that point. And once again, Files mentions a pretty famous text (sorry! I guess it’s a useful word sometimes!) as though the reader would have never heard of it unless she’d told them about it.
This stuff just kept piling up. It got to a point that I wondered if I was going to be able to get through it all. It was flabbergasting. Now, a lot of this can be found in the first third of the novel, and mostly Files, at least as far as this kind of “what the hell??” shit goes, is able, for whatever reason, to rein it in. Here she is again on Clark’s autism:
People still ask me sometimes what I think “happened,” like they’re asking me to place blame, to point to something I did or something that was done to me – to identify what exactly was the glitch that fashioned Clark, made him who/what he is, so they can avoid it. Was it vaccination, pollution, too much electricity in the air? The only thing that has ever made sense to me is a theory put forward by Sacha Baron Cohen’s brother (also Simon, hilariously), who attributes it to simple genetics…
Once more, the reader finds the kind of sensiti…wait a minute, Sacha Baron Cohen’s brother?? If there’s a good reason why he’s being dragged into this, then maybe condescend to the reader a little bit, like with the whole Un Chien Andalou bit. For the record, I looked it up: Simon Baron Cohen is a clinical psychologist. That doesn’t make the phrase “Sacha Baron Cohen’s brother” in the middle of a paragraph about an autistic child found within a horror novel about Canadian cinema stand out like a giraffe in furniture store any less. I understand wanting to credit one’s sources, but that’s what author’s notes are for. Later on, in the middle of one of the novel’s most overtly supernatural passages, Files suddenly quotes, and credits, Larry Cohen, complete with a parenthetical partial list of credits (Q: The Winged Serpent, The Stuff, It’s Alive!), as if what we’re reading isn’t a book but the back of a DVD. Also, Simon Baron Cohen is Borat’s cousin. Get your shit straight!
As a horror novel, also, Experimental Film slowly becomes the same old thing. The evil force here is an old forgotten goddess known as Lady Midday (the complete, or complete enough as to make no difference, anthropological and mythological background of this figure can be found within the pages of this novel) who is desperate to be worshipped again in this world. However, she’s fundamentally malicious, for starters, and what she offers in trade to those who she’s able to get her hooks into, like Iris Dunlopp and the suspiciously-similar-to-Iris-Dunlopp Lois Cairns, are things that would be nearly impossible to resist. All of this makes Lois ill, driving her into the hospital more than once, with seizures and so on, and soon seems to threaten Clark (Lois and Clark…?). Where this all goes is where you might well expect: with the strong but desperately human protagonist facing off with the massive supernatural evil and saying things like “Fuck no you bitch! I’ll do anything for my son, you fucking bitch!” It’s all very inspiring. We do end up with a pile of corpses, but since no one in the book seems to care about them, I don’t see why I should.
Believe it or not, I could go on, but I’ve decided I should probably call it a night. So I won’t mention the implication that a character is going to die at some point since Lois pointedly and cryptically tells the reader this person isn’t around now, as she writes this book we’re reading, to consult with, only to come across, much later, a reference to the character doing something a year after the events described in Experimental Film, which means that, dark implication aside, I guess they just moved? Nor will I mention the deliberately odd spelling of one character’s name and how later it seems to pair with another unusual name tied closely to the supernatural elements of the story, at one point these two names occurring in the same sentence, all of which however amounts to fuck-all. Which makes it at best or possibly worst an utterly pointless red herring, not only on its face, but especially so – sorry, ‘specially so – in context. No, instead, I will merely say that Experimental Film disappointed me enormously, and how this book happened in just this way, I don’t know. It left me bewildered.
* * * *
Oh for God’s sake, I have to stop! But okay, real quick, I also read two short stories by the late Alan Ryan, a horror writer and editor very respected in his day. Both of them, “Pieta” and “Following the Way” can be found in Shadows 5, part of editor/writer Charles L. Grant’s popular and influential anthology series of the late 70s and 80s. And both are religious horror stories, very specifically Catholic horror stories. They don’t seem especially pro-Catholicism: “Following the Way” supposes a supernaturally sinister history of the Church, and “Pieta” rather effectively deals with what many people consider a too-narrow focus on morbidity in Christianity. For a while, “Following the Way” seemed the better story: I had no clue where it was going, and for much of its length it not only didn’t feel like a horror story, but I couldn’t see how it was ever going to become one. The transition is reasonably elegant, given the amount of time Ryan gave himself to get there. What it transitions to is the problem. “Oh. Okay, I guess” was more or less my reaction. But Ryan had a clean prose style, and a mature one. This is not something one can bank on encountering in this genre, especially back then. That’s worth noting.