East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Folk horror and movies

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As I nurse the worse cold in ages, there’s little I can do but write. I’ve a lot of things to write, but luckily all the urgent work was done before my ill-advised decision to go and attend Libri in Nizza. So I am taking a brief pause from my writing, and I’m catching up on my to-read list.

I’ve just started and finished in two days flat Gemma Files’ novel, Experimental Film, that I was given as a gift a few days back, and boy, was it a brilliant book!

Gemma Files’ novel manages to fuse the themes of folk horror with a very modern take on film-making as modern alchemy and as modern-day religious ritual. In the book, a film critic investigating an old film-maker and her lost works stumbles on more than she expected, very soon slipping into a world of ancient Slavic peasant gods, spiritualism and strange phenomena.

The novel is multi-layered and presented as a memoir written by the main character – an unreliable narrator, a woman fighting her own physical problems (such as chronic pain and a painkillers addiction), living day-to-day as the mother of a boy on the autistic spectrum, while trying to make a living in the cut-throat world of research grants and film institutes.
Indeed, the narrative snakes between the mundane problems of the main character and the rapidly increasing weirdness that her research is provoking.

In tracing a secret history of cinema, Experimental Film reminded me of Theodore Roszak’s Flicker, to this day one of my all-time favorite horror books – in Files’ novel, just as in Roszak’s, films are presented as a modern form of magic, and film-going as a ritual that is deeply intertwined with social structures. Both novels play a fun game of mixing real and imaginary bits and pieces of the history of cinema, and while Roszak’s book is more far-reaching but manages to keep its horrors out of the picture, hinting at them more than showing them, Gemma Files manages to tell a very personal and intimate story, while putting everything on the page, with almost voyeuristic precision.

The broken flow of the narration, coupled with the broken narrator, can sometimes make Experimental Film hard going, but all in all it is an original and intelligent horror novel, built on some novel ideas and some very atmospheric set-pieces.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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