I didn’t care much for Night Film (2013), Marisha Pessl’s second novel – I should probably get that out of the way. But disappointments can be as instructive as wild successes, and so in that spirit, we’ll be doing a tandem review: the modern Gothic potboiler Night Film, and its classic antecessor, Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian.
Aiming for that sweet spot of literary genre-horror that we at Fiction Unbound love, Night Film tracks a hardboiled journalist’s investigation into the suspicious suicide of Ashley Cordova, daughter of horror auteur Stanislas Cordova. Cordova, a cult genius who has shuttered himself in his vast upstate New York mansion, whose films are So Terrifying the latter ones are banned, circulated in secret on the dark Web or screened in catacombs by fanatic Cordovites, is the obscure, charismatic, probably-evil center of the story, with the mysterious, magnetic Ashley as his tragic satellite. As our journalist hero and his sidekicks uncover Ashley’s story and the underworlds she moved in, we, as readers, confront the liberating and damning potency of a life lived at the extremities of human experience.
Or at least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. Night Film is good on paper, but not so good on the page. It is accomplished, but unpersuasive. We are told constantly about the soul-searing effects Cordova and his movies have on audiences, effects which our journalist narrator never seems to experience or credit. When we get details of these films, they sound like the Toronto Film Festival’s grittier official selections: interesting, but not exactly life-changing. Although the novel has some excellent sequences – including a prologue and finale that showcase the promise of Pessl’s scenario – its dark secrets are ultimately gray, its sinister figures only malicious. The following may count as a spoiler, but Night Film’s horror quantum reaches (at most) your run-of-the-mill New England Satanism: something Nathaniel Hawthorne did better ages ago in a short story where everyone was named ‘Goody.’
The novel includes lots of clever multimedia features – photos and websites, police reports, psych charts – many of which are well executed; but unlike, say, Possession, in which the snatches of poems or letters create an expansive, textured feel, the multimedia in Night Film often contracts the reader’s experience to the literal. Yes, that’s a faithful recreation of a Time.com slideshow or a crappy Geocities website, but does it make the novel more alive – or more mundane?
I really wanted to like Night Film; I have a guiltless, unabashed love for the European Gothic literature of the 18th and 19th centuries, and I keep waiting for someone to revive the genre. Jennifer Egan kinda did in The Keep; Toni Morrison, William Faulkner, and Hawthorne have each developed their own American Gothic, among others. To understand why I was disappointed, I reached for Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian (1797), my all-time favorite Gothic novel and possibly the best Gothic romance ever.
It’s your standard story of young lovers plagued by the near-supernatural machinations of a charismatic evil monk, the superb Father Schedoni; there are far-off cliff-side monasteries and castle ruins; there’s an orphan child of mysterious lineage and a dramatic discovery; the Inquisition makes its appearance in suitably threatening fashion. In fact, Night Film and The Italian feature many of the same devices, and aim for similar goals: Ashley Cordova and Ellena di Rosalba are our resilient heroines, making the most out of limited agency; Stanislas Cordova and Schedoni are our fiendish, tragic genius antagonists acting at the border of the human and supernatural. Both novels desperately want us to understand the vast, fearful virtue of the sublime, how a near-mystical terror can expand and mature our human capacities.
(They even share their urbane anti-Catholicism and subtextual gay panic! While The Italian has its monstrous, crypto-lesbian Abbess, Night Film fits in not only a gay, Satanist priest, not only the bisexual Cordova, but even a whole underground nightclub of trans courtesans, meant to depict the twisted decadence of New York’s moneyed élite, I guess. Casually homophobic, bi-phobic, and trans-phobic: it’s a heteronormative hat trick!)
But back to the sublime, which is the heart of it all. The Italian succeeds in its efforts precisely because Radcliffe is so dogged and unembarrassed in her pursuit of the sublime. She is not afraid to stop the plot dead and spend paragraphs describing the awful peaks and cataracts of the Apennines, or a striking face scarred by tragedy. Where Pessl gives us Ashley in a printed photograph of a scowling model, Radcliffe gives us Father Schedoni as follows:
His figure was striking, but not so from grace; it was tall, and, though extremely thin, his limbs were large and uncouth, and as he stalked along, wrapt in the black garments of his order, there was something terrible in its air; something almost super-human. His cowl, too, as it threw a shade over the livid paleness of his face, encreased its severe character, and gave an effect to his large melancholy eye, which approached to horror. His was not the melancholy of a sensible and wounded heart, but apparently that of a gloomy and ferocious disposition. There was something in his physiognomy extremely singular, and that can not be easily defined. It bore the traces of many passions, which seemed to have fixed the features they no longer animated. An habitual gloom and severity prevailed over the deep lines of his countenance; and his eyes were so piercing that they seemed to penetrate, at a single glance, into the hearts of men, and to read their most secret thoughts; few persons could support their scrutiny, or even endure to meet them twice.
Here she is describing the passage of Ellena and her captors through the mountain passes of the southern Apennines:
Along this deep and shadowy perspective a river, which was seen descending among the cliffs of a mountain, rolled with impetuous force, fretting and foaming amidst the dark rocks in its descent, and then flowing in a limpid lapse to the brink of other precipices, whence again it fell with thundering strength to the abyss, throwing its misty clouds of spray high in the air, and seeming to claim the sole empire of this solitary wild. Its bed took up the whole breadth of the chasm, which some strong convulsion of the earth seemed to have formed, not leaving space even for a road along its margin. The road, therefore, was carried high among the cliffs, that impended over the river, and seemed as if suspended in the air; while the gloom and vastness of the precipices, which towered above and sunk below it, together with the amazing force and uproar of the falling waters, combined to render the pass more terrific than the pencil could describe, or language can express. Ellena ascended it, not with indifference but with calmness; she experienced somewhat of a dreadful pleasure in looking down upon the irresistible flood; but this emotion was heightened into awe, when she perceived that the road led to a slight bridge, which, thrown across the chasm at an immense height, united two opposite cliffs, between which the whole cataract of the river descended. The bridge, which was defended only by a slender railing, appeared as if hung amidst the clouds.
Both passages are transparent melodrama, and it’s understandable why modern writers like Pessl shy from this sort of stuff: it’s long and plotless, and the prose isn’t that 'stylish.' It can easily bore and lose a reader; many of The Italian’s first readers did in fact complain of Mrs. Radcliffe’s incessant description of landscapes she’d never seen – she’d never even been to Italy!
But it’s essential groundwork for that sensation of sublime wonder Radcliffe and Pessl aim to recreate. For the Gothic is a genre of religious adventure. Radcliffe’s rational, Anglican mind rooted obsessively in her wild southern landscapes for the superstitions her religion rejected: Is there something beyond and more powerful than what our senses show? How should one respond to that potential? The precipice, the foaming cataract that could dash the carriage to pieces, is the supernatural’s visible analog, the thin bridge her readers cross from the novel’s naturalism to the terrors of ghosts and demons. Thus, Ellena’s “dreadful pleasure” in looking down into the abyss becomes ours as we chase phantom monks through dark castle dungeons. And just as the English Romantics believed one could assume or integrate some of the sublimity of terrific mountains by beholding them, we and Ellena are terrified into a more vivid and awake experience through the extremities of her ordeals.
That’s what Pessl wants Cordova to do to us, too, and I have to admire her for that vision. But there’s no bridge for us to cross from the worldliness of the realist novel to that terror. Witches and Faustian bargains and child sacrifice – it’s all there, but always perceived from a remove, and never by a person haunted by Radcliffe’s Gothic question. Only in the final pages, when our narrator follows the thinnest of coincidences to the edge of the world, did I get a sense of experiencing the outer borders of our human existence. It’s a sublime finish that hints at what Night Film promised all along, and what the Gothic genre can still offer our skeptical literature.