NIGHT FILM by Marisha Pessl

Every once in a while you stumble on a compulsively readable story. Sometimes it gets you right away, sometimes you don’t notice until you’re a hundred pages in, but you’re hooked – and you can’t stop. You literally can’t stop turning the pages. Exhaustion usually forces you – and you crawl into bed with your head swirling and wake up a few hours later feeling elated, thrilled about the prospect of jumping back into the story. You waste no time – you get yourself a cup of coffee and disappear into the page again.

Night Film by Marisha Pessl was a compulsive read. A heavy book, pages interspersed with journal articles, website screenshots, investigative notes, medical reports, and photographs. The pages were silky smooth, like quality printing paper. I picked it up randomly from my TBR pile last night… and read it until 2AM, when I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer… then picked it right back up this morning.

I was intrigued. I was haunted. I was picking up pieces of a puzzle, hearing echoes, listening to rumors and letting my imagination run wild. It’s a terrific mystery, in my opinion, changing shape as it gets bigger. Extremely fast paced and moving quickly around the chess board – you’re never sure if you’re the pawn or the queen. I loved it. I loved its rather ambiguous ending – What is true and what is myth?

Ironically, the characters are rather boring and cliche. In a way, this worked very well with the theme – that what we imagine, the stories we tell ourselves and are entertained by, reveal more of our true natures than our daily lives. None of the three main characters were that compelling – but what drove them, what caught them up in the mystery, how they each were pulled in by it and changed – that was fascinating. The people they encountered, the enigmas they attempted to decipher… the secrets, which often revealed themselves to be sour disappoints or shoddy ordinary events, doubled down on this theme – these things were dazzling and full of life. The mystery solved is boring. Answers do not enchant us – what ifs do.

So if you like mystery – and dark turns down darker passages – that don’t rely on descriptions of gore or horror, but rather the implication of such – then this book is for you.

Sovereign. Deadly. Perfect.

Night Film is one of those stories that invites you to scare yourself. It isn’t what’s happening in the book that scares you – it’s what it implies. What it suggests. What it makes you consider… and thus, if you have any imagination, you will start pulling all the dangling strings it gives you and properly cocoon yourself in horror.

Let’s consider the nature of fear with regards to the unknown.

The Unknown. To which there is no explanation. We are problem solving humans and we like answers, cause we are very smart thank you very much so smart we’re ruling the planet and oooh we are so smart we get it all, math, science, art, we got it baby. When we can’t get it… we don’t like it one bit.

Case in point – something small – the unexplainable sound. You heard something – clearly. Maybe it’s a voice. Maybe it’s a sound… a scratch, a bang, a eerie whine. It doesn’t matter. You heard it. And you can’t find its source. Imagine a phone ringing in your house – but you don’t have a landline and you just checked your phone and there was no incoming calls. Imagine a sudden bump, but it wasn’t your AC turning on or your refrigerator – you don’t have neighbors or housemates. You check your pet, but it’s curled up sleeping against you. What was that? You investigate… but find nothing.

Maybe you saw something. YOU SAW IT, damn it, and as much as you want to dismiss it that inexplicable sight comes back to you – over and over again – because you can’t explain it but your eyes and brain agree you saw it anyway. Or you felt something. A hand on you. A sensation. Whatever. It’s eerie and you don’t like it because there is no answer.

Case in point – something large – what happens after you die?

Scary things in the unknown can move out in all directions.

It can go down – what’s in the deep parts of the world? Movies like The Descent… even television shows like Dark which use our instinctual fear of caves and getting lost in darkness. Books like House of Leaves expound upon this notion – a maze in the dark that not only awaits you but inexplicably moves and grows. Paradoxes – like a scary version of Doctor Who’s police box – it’s bigger on the inside. Whether its giant squid or aliens, like Leviathan and The Abyss.

It can go up – space, mountain tops, isolation and remoteness.

It can go sideways – It can involve another dimension or world, perhaps, something distant and unimaginable that somehow breaks into our world has long been popular fodder for horror. Think of The Mist, think of Poltergeist.

And it can go inside. The thing that is unseen is also the thing that is unknowable. Like madness. To truly understand it, you would have to become it. And so it’s terrifying – the possibility of it, the closeness of its form and yet the impenetrable distance of its mechanisms. Most of us will never know what its like to kill someone. And fewer still to know what its like to enjoy killing someone.

The unknown can be The Other. Different cultures and religions. Just as what our races, cultures, and religions can sometimes define which unknown is most scary. For example – I was born and raised Christian in the American South – so most of the horror stories I was told as a child were, in fact, Bible stories. Floods and plagues and punishments and crucifixion and child sacrifice. Demons. Satan. Hell. These are the things that scared me most – so of course movies like The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby are far scarier to me than other unknowns. Because I was taught to believe in these unknown things. Its probably the same reason why certain cultures and religions may fear ghosts more than I do. These stories are intricately laced in their mythology, folktales, and religions.

What are they DOING over there? We don’t know and we fear we won’t like it.

Mysterious lost islands. Tribes hidden in the jungles. The groups who hide in shadows – the cave dwellers in The 13th Warrior, the heart-removing group from Indian Jones and the Temple of Doom. People who have broken off from society – like cultists.

Night Film taps into almost every point on the compass.

Murder. Madness. Mazes. Magic. Mystery.



Title: Night Film: A Novel
Author: Marisha Pessl
Originally published: August 2013
Page count: 602 (Hardcover edition)
Publisher: Penguin Random House LLC.
Genres: Mystery, Thriller, Suspense, Horror fiction, Noir fiction, Psychological Fiction, Experimental literature
Nominations: Goodreads Choice Awards Best Mystery & Thriller

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