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Book Review: Experimental Film by Gemma Files

experimental film

Gemma Files’ We Will All Go Down Together was one of the best books I read last year, so I was stoked to see that she has a new novel out. Experimental Film is a subtly creepy affair, the sort of book that would have been an event had it come out in the pre- horror boom 70s, but it’s also weirdly timeless.

This timelessness is in part due to the plot itself, which follows film historian Lois Cairns and her gradual obsession with A. Macalla Whitcomb, an obscure early 20th century Ontario filmmaker whose contributions to Canadian cinema seem to have been written out of history. Before long, Lois stumbles on a mysterious film and an ancient Wendish folk tale. And then things start to get weird.

Experimental Film succeeds on a fundamental level by giving us fully- realized characters to cling to among the escalating tension. Lois is a stubborn, resourceful protagonist and her often difficult relationships with her mother and Clark, her autistic son, feel familiar and ring true. Files is so good at making us investing in the characters that even Ms Whitcomb comes alive through her correspondence, her work and the accounts of those who knew her. It’s a neat trick and it makes all the difference.

Elsewhere, the faerie family tree of We Will All Go Down Together crops up here and there to remind us that the story takes place in the same world and the milieu of movie buffs, government grants, thwarted ambitions and continuous infighting is evoked with scalpel- like precision (presumably drawing on Files’ background as a film critic). All the Canadian film industry minutiae can get too much at times, but it does serves a purpose, grounding the story to a specific contemporary setting and helping suspend disbelief once the supernatural elements start creeping in. And this is the kind of horror that is most difficult to pull off. Experimental Film is partly an updating of M.R. James’ ghost stories and partly pagan horror; and this theme of the numinous infringing into everyday life could come across as hackneyed. Instead it works because Files can take myths that we take for granted and remind us of their magnetic, timeless power. We Will All Go Down Together was also successful on that regard, but it had the benefit of matching a familiar, popular genre slot- namely Urban Dark Fantasy. Experimental Film is a different kind of story, one that is older and somewhat less cosy. It reminded me a lot of Fritz Leiber’s Our Lady Of Darkness and believe me, anything that can be compared favourably with Leiber is worth reading.* Highly recommended.

*Not familiar with this one? You should be: http://www.crowsnbones.com/2012/08/our-lady-of-darkness-by-fritz-leiber-a-supercoven-review/)

(-Dimitris Kontogiannis-)

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