Experimental Film by Gemma Files

Read: 26 September, 2016

I picked up A Book of Tongues on a whim a few years ago, but I had trouble with the writing style and never really got into it. At that point, I had largely written off Files until a friend gave Experimental Film a good review. Even better? He mentioned that she’s Canadian! Well, it seemed rather clear that I would have to give her another shot.

Experimental Film is about Lois Cairns, a former film history teacher and current nothing. Out of work, and with her only experience in a field she isn’t qualified to work in, she finds herself stuck caring for her autistic son, and desperate to create an identity for herself.

The novel is a ghost story, but it’s also about the frustration of needing to mean something – particularly as a stay-at-home parent and the parent of a child who needs more than the average amount of attention.

It follows the standard psychological thriller of never being quite clear whether the supernatural enemy is really real, or whether the protagonist is simply losing her mind. I liked that, in this story, the protagonist is at the very centre of everything. There are characters who believe in the supernatural enemy and there are characters who don’t, but they all circle around the protagonist – they are all convinced, or not, by her (as opposed to the version of the story where the protagonist goes to the small town where everyone believes in the enemy but only she actually sees it, for example – such a town does exist in Experimental Film, but only historically).

Where Files adds to that standard horror trope is in having an enemy of a perfectly mundane sort – an obsessive and unpredictable stalker who is seemingly unstoppable. And while I wasn’t terribly impressed by Mrs Whitcomb/Lady Midday, Lois’s human enemy had my stomach in knots.

Which is as good a segue way as any to my thoughts on Lady Midday. In short, meh. There was some very creepy imagery, and I certainly felt primed to be scared several times throughout the novel, but there was never any “but whose hand was I holding?” moment. When I read The Woman In Black, I was forced to plough through a large portion of the book in a single sitting because I was too afraid to get out of bed, but Experimental Film never brought me anywhere close to that point. And at the end, when Lady Midday is finally confronted, she just didn’t live up to the hype. Files made the mistake of showing us the shark, and Lady Midday lost her creepiness.

I did really enjoy Experimental Film, even if it didn’t quite work for me as horror. The discussions of film were fantastic, and Lois’s descriptions of the Canadian film scene, in particular, were especially interesting. I have a friend who is a film-maker here, who participates in the festivals and such, and so I’ve gotten to see glimpses of that world through her. Getting to live it – albeit vicariously – here was a real treat.

I liked the writing style a lot better than A Book of Tongues. Lois is something of a meandering narrator, but it fit her character. In this case, the narrative style actually added something to the character development. It helped that her asides were often very interesting. This was one of those books that I fell into and read very quickly without needing to get myself another cuppa every few minutes.

The characterisations were, on the whole, excellently done. Most of the characters felt real – in that it was very easy to see myself in Lois (as a woman who was tricked into being a stay-at-home parent by economics and who is currently trying to re-enter the workforce and finding my self-confidence to be a little lacking), I’ve known Wrobs and Safies and Lees and Simons. They all felt like real people. Mostly. Doctors and cops felt a little removed, a little absurd. Dr. Harrison, in particular, didn’t act like any doctor I’ve ever met – he behaved so unprofessionally. But these are very minor characters that are only encountered briefly, and they are almost lost in the sea of excellent, rounded people.

The discussion of autism in the book was a little difficult for me. A large part of Lois’s character arc is in her coming to love (and be loved by) her autistic son, Clark. That acceptance of who he is is hard won, which means seeing a number of scenes in which she is demanding that he make eye contact, complaining about him, and even saying rather horrendous things about him while he’s right there on the assumption that he just won’t understand. This is an accurate representation of how many parents treat their autistic children, but it’s a painful one to watch. I can’t exactly fault a horror book for giving me the heebies, but this way of treating autistic children is so ubiquitous that it’s hard to tell if Files is refuting or simply parroting it. And, at some point, even unflattering portrayals are only adding to the noise. So even though Lois has her epiphany at the end, I still found the scenes discussing Clark to be very uncomfortable.

Experimental Film is a fun little horror, with an emphasis on the mystery rather than on the scares. It’s a psychological horror, too, with plenty to doubt about our narrator’s reliability. It’s a fast read, and it’s an interesting one. That it deals so authentically with Ontario and the Canadian film scene is an added bonus.

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Shock Value by Jason Zinoman

Read: 2 November, 2015

Shock Value tells the story of New Horror, the mostly independent movement in the 1970s to revitalize the genre, breaking from what had become the standard in horror: formulaic monster movies with the occasional gimmick (theatre seats with buzzers!) thrown in. The book tracks a few of the major players, like Wes Craven, Brian De Palma, Roman Polanski, John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, Tobe Hooper, William Friedkin, George Romero, and Dan O’Bannon.

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of the horror genre – so much so that I rarely watch anything else. So much so that Netflix can’t keep up with my consumption habits, even when I’ll happily watch their 1-2 star selections. But I tend to stick to my role of consumer, and I often don’t know the histories or the names of the directors (the catalogue enthusiast part of my brain is already sufficiently occupied by other topics). So it was interesting to me to get a little of the backstory.

Unfortunately, Shock Value felt a bit flat. The author hops around from figure to figure, and I think that I would have found it very confusing if I didn’t already know many of the names. Chapters just sort of meandered until they reached their page length, and I didn’t get the sense that they had focus or purpose.

Generally, I guess my complaint is just that the book “lacks soul.” It throws out the information, but it doesn’t dig deep, it doesn’t tell a story. The closest it got was in the discussions with Dan O’Bannon, who seems like he could have justified a whole book himself. That’s where Zinoman’s passion peeked through, and I was intrigued enough to look up more information. But for the rest, the writing just felt very flat, telling anecdotes in a detached and almost haphazard way.

For fans of horror, the book might still be worthwhile, and there were certainly bits and pieces of interesting information. But it could have been presented in a better way. It’s clear from O’Bannon’s sections that Zinoman does have passion, and I hope he let’s himself show it a little more in future works.

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