It Hides in the Light

Experimental Film by Gemma Files (2015): As brilliant a new novel Canadian or otherwise as I’ve read in a long time, Experimental Film is also a dandy horror novel. It’s an almost perfect expression of the sort of documentary approach to horror that H.P. Lovecraft codified. It’s also a moving character study of its narrator and her troubled relationships with pretty much everyone in her life, but most notably her young, autistic son.

Lois Cairns has lost her regular jobs as both a film journalist and as a teacher of film at a Toronto diploma factory dedicated to film. But a freelance assignment to review the latest experimental offering from a pretentious, obnoxious film-maker ends up revealing to Lois what appears to be footage from an unknown, early 20th-century Canadian director that the pompous contemporary film-maker has interpolated into his own work. And so the detective work begins — and the eternal quest for grant money!

Cairns’ investigation soon suggests that the mysterious footage was filmed by the even more mysterious Mrs. A. Macalla Whitcomb. Whitcomb was the wife of an early 20th-century Canadian businessman. She vanished without a trace from a sealed train compartment in the 1920’s, leaving behind only a film projector. Decades earlier, her only son had also vanished somewhere in or around the Whitcombs’ house in Ontario’s cottage country. 

And we’re off. Experimental Film does many things very, very well. Files’ narrator earns our sympathy despite (and also because of) her bouts of self-pity, self-loathing, and nastiness. This sympathy comes in part because the narrator is intensely self-aware, and aware of her many moments of nastiness. She’s also surrounded by keenly observed and rendered supporting characters, most notably a brilliant former student whom Cairns hires to work on the movie about the search for the movie and Cairns’ autistic son.

The accumulation of documentary detail, and the details of the search for the lost movie or movies, all work very much in long-standing horror traditions. More importantly, they’re expertly done in this novel. Files creates a convincing alternate history of Canadian film. And she does so in a gradually building horror narrative in which both sudden, almost epiphanic shocks and the creeping terror of the slow build are both given their moments. 

Perhaps most rarely for a horror novel, Experimental Film is

genuinely funny throughout. And it’s not the tiresome horror humour of the Crypt-keeper and his ilk, nor the deadly jolité of many an omniscient serial killer or Joker knock-off. It’s just funny — sardonic at certain points, cynical about the art scene.

In all, this is a fine novel, and one that will hopefully win readers and appear on courses of study for years to come. It’s also a hell of a travelogue for certain portions of Toronto. It even has a scene set in Sneaky Dee’s. The only thing it’s really lacking is a climactic appearance by the helpful ghost of Al Waxman. Highly recommended.

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