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What I Think: A Review of Marisha Pessl's Night Film

marisha pessl night film book review

I was first introduced to Marisha Pessl when I was wandering the aisles of Blue Bicycle Books in downtown Charleston (if you're ever in town, definitely stop by and support a local bookseller!). I found her debut novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, which has nothing to do with science and everything to do with awesomeness. Her writing was snappy, her metaphors were original, the characters were quirky but believable and it was chock-a-block full of literary metaphors. 

Add in the fact that there was a murder mystery at the heart of it, and I was sold.

When I heard the Pessl had another book coming out, I immediately put it on my Christmas list. I knew nothing about it other than that she wrote it and that it was darker than Calamity Physics

I love Gothic novels. Love them. I love them so much that I wrote my masters thesis on post-World War II British Gothic novels. And when I say "Gothic," I don't mean books that feature dismal teenagers with heavy makeup; I mean novels that deal with the darker parts of life, like murder, the paranormal, death, greed, etc. There's also a strong commentary on some aspect of society, like religion, family structure, or politics. (If you're interested in very early Gothic novels, check out The Monk or The Castle of Otranto). 

Okay, so enough of Literature class. 

Night Film is a modern day Gothic novel, and it is awesome. It's everything that Calamity Physics was and more. 

The Plot
In the novel, reporter Scott McGrath decides to investigate the apparent suicide of Ashley Cordova, the daughter of elusive, famous horror film director Stanislas Cordova. McGrath, who years before tried (and failed) to do an expose on the elder Cordova, fell from grace in his investigative reporting career when the expose made radical claims about Stanislas' involvement in the murder of missing children. 

As McGrath delves further into the death of 24-year-old Ashley, he comes to believe that there was no way she killed herself. He also sees another way into the failed story of years back; rather than take on Stanislas directly, he'll back into the story through Ashley. 

The winding story takes McGrath and his two sidekicks (the sickly sweet Nora and the rakishly handsome Hopper) from an abandoned warehouse to a creepy house in the woods to an asylum and beyond. There is no shortage to creepy locations throughout the novel, and Pessl describes each of them in detail. 

I can't give much else away without completely giving away the plot, but suffice it to say that if you start the book, you'll want to block out several hours to commit to it. I will say that the ending will drive some people crazy, but, as McGrath states several times in the book, sometimes discovering the truth isn't the most important thing--getting to the end of the story is. (I loved the ending and thought that it was exactly what the novel called for. It's also similar in feel to the ending of Calamity Physics, if you've read that.)

What I Liked
I loved the multimedia aspect of the book; there are multiple pages where Pessl includes mocked-up magazine articles and webpages about the Cordovas. 

The creepy factor was pretty awesome, too. Even though it's not a horror novel by a long shot, there's this slow building tension that kept me on edge the entire time. I won't lie--there were a couple of times when I had to get up with Britton in the middle of the night and I had to actively not think about the book because I didn't want to creep myself out. It was different enough from the other Gothic/ murder novels that I've read to keep me entertained from beginning to end.

It was also a pretty easy read. Though the book clocks in at over 580 pages, I blasted through it in about two and a half days. I even sacrificed precious sleep to stay up and finish it. (New moms know that something has to be pretty awesome to give up sleep!) While the writing is quick and witty, I can't imagine that anyone would have a difficult time following the plot points. It's set up like a standard murder mystery novel with the "detective" (in this case, an investigative reporter) following a set of clues like Hansel and Gretel following breadcrumbs. 

What I Didn't Like 
This might be a minor thing (though several other reviewers have mentioned it, too), but Pessl goes crazy with the italics in this novel. Even after some reflection, I'm not sure why so many italics are sprinkled throughout the book. At first, I thought there might be a message in the emphasized words (a la the Easter Egg wordplay that Mark Z. Danielewski uses through his House of Leaves novel), but nope--they were just italicized words. Each time I got to a phrase or sentence that was emphasized, I was kind of jolted, and thought, "Well, maybe this is really important." Sometimes it was, sometimes it wasn't. Like I said, it was minor, but it annoyed me just enough to remember it when I was done reading. 

I also didn't like the descriptions of Cordova's films. He's touted as this super freaky director who's later filmes are banned from mainstream theaters, but the descriptions don't really live up to the hype. One of the films is supposed to be about a man who may or may not have killed a young boy in the neighborhood; another is about a family whose youngest daughter kills them all; yet another is about a gardener falsely accused of murder. While they sound vaguely intriging, I wasn't ever convinced by the descriptions that these films would be banned because of their content, or would cause viewers to change their worldviews after a screening. In Pessl's defense, however, I don't know what she could have made the films about that would make me more convinced here. Giving details to something is inherently less frightening than the complete unknown (which is why there are so many shadowy bits to horror movies), so I think she was fighting a losing battle from the start when she tried to set up the specifics of these terrifying films. 

The Bottom Line
Overall, this was a great book. I enjoyed every second of reading it, and I'm planning to re-read it soon. 

I really, really want someone else to read it so we can talk about it. I feel like I only covered one- one hundredth of my thoughts on this novel above. If you've read it, let me know! 

If you're looking for a creepy mystery story that will captivate you, definitely check out Pessl's Night Film

If you liked this, you might also like:
  • Marisha Pessl, Special Topics in Calamity Physics
  • Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves
  • Elizabeth Bowen, "The Demon Lover"
  • Richard Harland's "The Fear" (this short story kind of/ sort of has a similar premise to Night Film, and is very, very creepy)

This post is a part of an ongoing series of book reviews that I do from time to time. 
Read my other reviews: