Be advised: In order to derive the maximum level of pleasure from reading Marisha Pessl’s new detective-occult-noir-mystery extravaganza Night Film, you will be required to make a pact with the devil. The devil will appear in a cloud of ambiguously-scented vapor—sulfurous, yes, but with an unexpectedly pleasant citrus note—and with one plump and soft hand, nails buffed to a dazzling sheen, he will extend toward you some desirable readerly consumables: an intriguing setup, a propulsive plot, a mysterious villain, and a selection of entertaining set pieces. But his other hand will be a gnarled, twisted claw, and its yellowed talons will clutch a quill and parchment with which you will be obliged to sign over to him certain fundamental literary priorities: narrative credibility and psychological realism, for instance, and the adherence to basic standards of best practice in literary prose.
About a quarter of the way into this novel’s damn near 600 pages, I decided that if I wanted to keep enjoying it as much as I was, which was quite a lot, it was going to be necessary to make such a compromise; and so I glanced over at the little James Wood-shaped angel on my right shoulder, told him to sit this one out, and put quill to parchment. It paid off for a while, and then it sort of didn’t, as is often the way with your standard infernal pacts.
The novel is smoothly propulsive in its opening pages. There’s a short, creepily cinematic prologue in which our narrator, professionally disgraced journalist Scott McGrath, jogs through Central Park late at night and has the bejesus scared out of him by a bedraggled figure in a red coat who keeps appearing in the distance and moving in an unnatural fashion. Pessl then makes the risky but effective gambit of sending us straight into a series of Web pages reporting on the death of Ashley Cordova, the beautiful and talented daughter of reclusive horror film auteur Stanislas Cordova. We’re informed, via the New York Times website, of a police investigation into reports that she committed suicide by jumping down a disused elevator shaft. We then get an entire 18-page Time.com slideshow on the enigma of her father’s strange and disturbing films—surely the inaugural deployment of traffic-driving click-through tactics in narrative fiction. It’s a gimmick, but it works. Pessl is all business right from the start, and the business she’s in is the turning of pages. (I’m going to be very careful here, rest assured, because Night Film is the type of book that, once you start talking about it at all, you stray into spoiler territory pretty easily if you don’t watch where you’re going.)
McGrath has a personal interest in the case for reasons that are intimately linked to his aforementioned professional disgrace. He had been researching a biography of Cordova when an anonymous caller offered a vague tipoff about the director’s involvement in some horrible, undefined crime: “There’s something he does to the children,” the caller says, then hangs up. In an interview on Nightline, McGrath heedlessly blurts out (to Martin Bashir, one of the great blurt-extractors of our IRL time) that Cordova is a predator who needs to be “terminated with extreme prejudice.” He thereby brings down upon his head a ruinous $250,000 slander settlement, destroying both his personal finances and his journalistic reputation.
But when he hears about Ashley’s death, McGrath is convinced that there is more to it than the official record reveals, and he becomes obsessed once more with uncovering details about the life of the legendary director. Cordova, the book’s absent center, is an intriguing character, a neo-Gothic mashup of de Sade, J.D. Salinger, David Lynch and Count Dracula. He is largely invisible, but his is a detailed, highly realized form of absence; we glimpse him mostly through descriptions of his work, and through second- and third-hand accounts of meetings. He’s a cult outlaw genius-type figure who began his career making relatively mainstream horror films in the early ’60s, but whose artistic vision gradually became so extreme and uncompromising that the studios stopped backing his work, forcing him to finance and release it himself. His post-Hollywood output, collectively known as the “black tapes,” has a formidable reputation; the films are almost impossible to find anywhere—banned for reasons that, in a cultural moment when “torture porn” is an established film genre, are never quite made clear. Much of what we learn about him is revealed in a handful of interpolated sections, cordoned off from the main first-person narrative, which provide us with a dossier of miscellaneous cuttings—interviews, magazine articles, and screenshots from an Internet forum known as the Blackboards, a clandestine gathering point for Cordova’s underground army of fans.