The point of showing experimental films, for me, was to demonstrate that if they were only willing to step outside the established system, it was perfectly possible for any film-maker to get away with not actually having a "point." That they could, in fact, defy the Hollywood rules that stated they even had to have one in the first place. Because in experimentalism, the film itself was the point, the question and the answer, all in one. In its purest form, done right, watching an experimental film is the closest you can come to dreaming another person's dreams. Which is why to watch one is, essentially, to invite another person into your head, hoping you emerge haunted. (Experimental Film, p. 39)
Ever since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was scammed by the Cottingley fairies, purveyors and consumers of the fantastic have nurtured a fertile and enduring fascination with the medium of film. Whether this is because film itself—the creation of an image, and later moving images, through the impact of light on metallic oxides—seems just a little bit magic, a little bit spooky, is open to debate. Certainly it's possible—but then again, maybe the opposite is true, that the camera, in providing us with objectively verifiable images, documentary evidence, is seen as an arbiter of the rational, the anti-ghost, the eye that must be trusted because it cannot see, and therefore cannot be fooled—either by the design of charlatans or through its own mute prejudice.
Whichever theory seems more likely—probably it is a mixture of the two—what cannot be in doubt is the profusion of weird novels, stories, and of course films that use film in some way to tell a story, a story so shocking we would not believe it, had the proof not been captured independently for us: in black-and-white or glorious Technicolour, on silver nitrate or in pixels, on a wobbly projector screen at the back of the village hall or on our best friend's iPhone. What these books and films share in common is their insistence that we shouldn't rely on what they tell us, that we should see for ourselves—a thousand words of hearsay in one distinct image.
Theodore Roszak's Flicker (1991), Marisha Pessl's Night Film (2013), Ramsey Campbell's Ancient Images (1989), Joel Lane's The Witnesses are Gone (2009), Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves (2000), The Blair Witch Project (1999), Ringu (1998), Paranormal Activity (2007), Sinister (2012), Lake Mungo (2008), The Canal (2014)—all films and books haunted by a set of images, and all, in their ways, revelatory. For some protagonists, the very act of viewing them proves deadly. The art of the haunted film lies in daring to show us that which should not be seen—not simply to prove that thing's existence, but to press the claim that the world itself is the hoax, that the film or set of photographs offers proof of a reality beyond. If we watch the video tape in Ringu, we may die, but if we believe the Navidson Record in House of Leaves, we are forced to reconstruct our understanding of death itself.
Gemma Files's new novel Experimental Film goes one better than that. It insists that film is not simply the recording medium—the proof of strange—but that it is the conduit for strange, the transparent pathway through which strange might gain access to the quotidian, and there wreak havoc.
Lois Cairns is a film researcher in Ontario, specialising in the art of Canadian film. It's a relatively specialist field, and Lois is dependent on her lecturing job to support her own writing. When her position at the Toronto Film Faculty is unexpectedly made redundant due to cutbacks in funding, Lois must find another project quickly, preferably of the kind that will attract a generous grant. When she attends a showing of new experimental film shorts at her local independent cinema The Ursulines, she sees a film by Wrob Barney, a film studies major and all-round arsehole: rich, entitled, full of himself to the point of surfeit, and known to be obsessively vindictive towards his enemies. His film, though, Untitled 13, immediately compels Lois's attention:
And then there was a woman, stepping out from behind them, either around the backdrop's edge or through a cunningly hidden slit cut into it. She was brighter than everything else yet far harder to see in any true detail, covered as she was in a whitish veil that draped from her head to her feet and dazzled, sewn perhaps with glassine sequins, or tiny shards of mirror. She leant down to whisper in one figure's ear, dwarfing him—was he played by a child? A child with a false beard, recoiling from her with his hands up?
Cued, her own hand came out from behind her back, and I could see she held a sword, angling it to reflect till it had almost turned white: curved and sharp like a sabre, like the blade of a scythe. So bright it hurt the eyes.
At which point, the screen went black. (p. 44)
The key sequence has clearly been sampled from a much older piece of film and Lois knows she's encountered its imagery somewhere before. After a painstaking search, she finds the information she's looking for in an old school textbook for English teachers, ideas for creative writing projects based around Canadian myths and folk tales:
A Fairy Tale of the Wends
Collected and translated by Mrs. A. Macalla Whitcomb
First printed in The Snake Queen's Daughter: Wendish Legends and Folklore (p. 47)
The text in question appears to be a variant retelling of a central European folk tale, "The Noonday Witch." The witch would appear to people and ask them questions. If they answered incorrectly, or tried to bargain with her, she would behead them with her sword, itself constructed from the brightest rays of the noonday sun. No more and no less cruel and unusual than many other fairy tales, perhaps, and yet Lois cannot leave the thing alone:
All I can tell you, in the end, is this: the more I studied "Lady Midday" line by line, seeing almost every phrase of it reflected in my memories of Wrob Barney's Untitled 13, the extent to which it already disturbed me began, at length, to disturb me even more. (p. 51)
Under the pretext of conducting an interview, Lois discovers from Wrob Barney how he came to find the old clip of film in the first place. Engaged as an assistant to his professor, Jan Mattheuis, Wrob travelled upstate to retrieve stocks of old silver nitrate film as part of the Ontario Film Recovery Project. The samples used in the making of Untitled 13, Wrob tells Lois, came from the Quarry Argent folk museum, part of which is Whitcomb Manor, the former home of wealthy mining magnate Arthur Whitcomb, whose wife Iris disappeared following the inexplicable vanishment of their vulnerable son, Hyatt.
Iris Whitcomb was known to be artistic, and eccentric. As Lois delves deeper into Iris's past, her certainty that she played a hitherto unrecognised part in Canada's film history is proved correct. She also discovers that Iris had a tragic past, in Europe. Determined to find out what it was that so obsessed Iris Whitcomb about one obscure Wendish fairy tale, Lois becomes ensnared in a web of increasingly convoluted and increasingly terrifying revelations.
More worryingly, Lois's own life seems somehow to be replicating Iris's, and as she draws closer to the truth about what finally happened to Mrs. Arthur Whitcomb, so Lois realises that her own family and indeed the wider world may well be in danger from her discoveries.
As a ghost story, Experimental Film works wonderfully well. Files manages her source materials—European myth, the history and character of a remote and rural segment of eastern Germany, spiritualism, and occult belief—with a dextrous expertise, nesting layers within layers in an intriguingly complex narrative but without ever allowing the various strands to become baggy or discoloured. We read on because we are desperate to know what happens next. In Iris's backstory, in Lois's overnight sojourn in the woods around the Lake of the North District, in the discovery of the paintings in the secret shaft inside Whitcomb Manor, there are moments of serious unease and real frissons of horror. Indeed, if Experimental Film were a film, it isn't one we would feel secure in watching alone with all the lights out. Even in the latter stages of the book, where the pieces start falling audibly into place and we rush headlong towards a fiery climax—which is without fail where so many lesser horror novels come fatally undone—Files keeps her head, maintaining at least some of the mystery right to the end and never once falling into generic cliches. It's a tense book, a beautifully constructed book, a book we would read a second and third time with equal and most likely increased pleasure.
Yet there is more to Experimental Film than just a good story. "Begin with action, always," Lois instructs us near the beginning of the novel:
Framing is where you make your most important narrative decisions, in film—that's something else I used to impress on my students, or try to. What's inside the frame versus what's outside, what's actually shown versus what's only told. (p. 14)
Even from the way the novel's table of contents is presented to us—TITLE CARDS, Film History, Film, Screening, CREDITS, STING—it is clear to us from the beginning that Experimental Film is just that: not simply a story with that title, but a novel that attempts to impart to us something about narrative structure, about the way film works, about the subject of innovation in art. Experimental Film is a film of itself, in fact, a film so experimental it eschews the medium altogether, restricting itself to a crabbier and less tractable medium: that is, words. In telling us that she's going to tell us about the ghost house, Files—through Lois Cairns—reveals her hand whilst simultaneously denying us a clear sight of it, making it plain who is the director here and who is the audience:
And this is where we'll start.
Because this is where something important happened to me, and since I am the protagonist—not the hero, never that—of this story, it matters that I tell you about it. Because it will set the tone, creating shock and suspense, before I double back to fill in character details and backstory. Because it will give you a taste of things to come, a valid reason to sit patiently through all of the exposition that unfortunately has to follow. (p 15)
For me, it is this open declaration from the author that she cares as much about structure as she does about story that makes me feel most excited, not just about this book but about this writer.
Files's own experience in film studies has clearly exerted a defining influence on this novel, and is to the book's huge advantage. Lois's insights and opinions on the subject of Canadian film are delivered with authority, and with the kind of passionate conviction that speaks of deep and lasting involvement with a subject, the very opposite of those novels where one suspects the subject-peg upon which the narrative is forced to hang—brain surgery, medical law, classical dance, whatever—has been chosen more for its latent potential to impress an audience than from genuine attachment on the part of the author. Experimental Film is an object lesson in how "writing what you know" can pay off handsomely.
I also want to say something about the novel's treatment of motherhood, mental illness, and the subject of caring for children with special needs. Lois Cairns is a complex and vulnerable person, prone to depression and mood swings. She is also a highly motivated individual of considerable creative gifts. Here for once we see the male partner in the relationship—Lois's husband Simon—in the supporting role, with Lois's career and ambition granted centre stage. Motherhood is not something Lois planned for, and is not a role she always feels comfortable in—a prevarication that is counterpointed by her awkward, fierce, and unconditional love for her autistic son Clark:
He was my child, a part of me, and I recognised that immediately; we lay in bed together for what seemed like months after, rarely separated by more than a few feet. He smiled early, laughed early, crawled early. When I wanted him to sleep, I'd put something I'd worn into his bassinet, knowing the smell would comfort him; when he heard my voice, his eyes lit up. I never doubted that he loved me, or that I loved him.
In my darkest moments, though, I have to wonder how much of our affection, as parents, is for the child we think we're going to have, the child we think we're entitled to, instead of the one we actually end up getting?
That future I saw for Clark, though, when he was a baby . . . that was gone. It wasn't coming back. That left only the present, which felt unbearable on occasion, though it wasn't, because nothing was. Sad but true. (pp. 86-7)
That motherhood is hard, that it does not always come naturally, is a fact that is not addressed in literature often enough. We can infer from Files's biography that she addresses it here from a place of deep personal experience. That the writing in these sections is so direct, so rich in insight, and so thoroughly unsentimental brings an aspect that works, once again, entirely in the novel's favour. In the confessional urgency of Files's narrative, in its emotional candour, I often found myself reminded of Caitlín R. Kiernan's writing, in her novel The Drowning Girl (2012) especially. I can think of no higher praise.
To end with the ending. In his treatise on horror fiction, The Darkening Garden (2006), John Clute puts forward the hypothesis that, such is the trauma of seeing the world's true nature, the protagonists of a horror novel most usually emerge from the narrative forgetful of what has happened to them, driven insane by the revelations forced upon them, or dead:
The central sense conveyed by Aftermath, after all, is that there is nothing to be done, that there is no cure to hand, no more story to tell, no deus ex machina, no statement that It Was All A Dream . . . A structurally similar awareness of terminus pervades our understanding of Return in fantasy, though in this case the end of Story constitutes a pastoral arrival in Eden: there is no more story to tell because there is no problem. But Aftermath is all problem, like muskeg: problem without solution, a geography without watershed. (The Darkening Garden, Aftermath)
Clute goes on to talk of this kind of terminal Aftermath as a defining feature of World War One and Holocaust literature especially, but this is also a pattern we see confirmed in much of horror fiction. We think first perhaps of the terminal madness visited on many of Lovecraft's protagonists, and Stephen King in particular goes in for the memory-wipe option (let's call it the Donna Noble) so frequently it is almost a default. That Files rejects such a conclusion, that she insists upon knowledge as a burden one owns, is refreshingly audacious:
Maybe the iconoclasts were right—any image is an anchor, a trap, an open invitation. When you see the god, a god, you either forget or you go mad, trying to forget—ekstasis, the Greeks called it, "to stand outside oneself." A removal to elsewhere.
But there's a third choice, or at least I've found so: remember, no matter how it hurts to, and deal with the consequences of remembering. Submit, and bear your scars proudly. (pp. 302-3)
We know what we know, Files seems to be telling us, and we find the strength to go on because of that, not in spite of it.
Nina Allan’s stories have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best Horror of the Year #6, The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2013, and The Mammoth Book of Ghost Stories by Women. Her novella Spin, a science fictional re-imagining of the Arachne myth, won the BSFA Award in 2014, and her story-cycle The Silver Wind was awarded the Grand Prix de L’Imaginaire in the same year. Her debut novel The Race was a finalist for the 2015 BSFA Award, the Kitschies Red Tentacle, and the John W. Campbell Mciteorial Award. Nina lives and works in North Devon. Find her blog, The Spider’s House, at www.ninaallan.co.uk.
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