Many and many a year ago I read Ramsey Campbell’s Ancient Images. At least, I think I did. I remember owning a copy of the paperback published in 1990, the one with the little window cut into the cover through which you can see the main character’s (unconvincingly) frightened visage. For some reason those covers with windows were popular in the 90s. Anyway, I had it for awhile—bought it new, in fact. So I must’ve read it, right? The thing is, I can’t remember a damn thing about it other than that it had something to do with a secret horror film from the Golden Age of cinema. To be honest, I may or may not have finished it. My defense is that, as a teen I really wasn’t ready for the kind of veddy veddy British horror that Ramsey Campbell specializes in. I’ve since become a massive Campbell fan, incidentally.
That brings us to Experimental Film by Canadian author Gemma Files, which tackles something quite similar. I am a regular listener of the This Is Horror podcast hosted by Michael David Wilson and Bob Pastorella, and on the strength of Files’ interview I purchased this book. I do not regret it. Not one single little bit.
The story follows Lois Cairns, a semi-famous Toronto-based film critic specializing in indie and experimental films (hence the title) who discovers via local filmmaker Wrob Barney’s pretentious surrealist project Untitled 13—a sort of film collage—snippets from an unknown director’s silent-era short which appears to depict a cruel and little-known Wendish demigod called Lady Midday. Seeing the incredible potential in bringing to light a lost female filmmaker, the otherwise frazzled and burned out Lois suddenly finds new purpose and begins to dig into the history of what turns out to be an entire cache of films featuring the same frightening character. Adding to the intrigue is the fact that said director, one Iris Dunlopp Whitcomb, disappeared from a moving train before making a name for herself, and her cache of films was discovered half-buried in the woods somewhere north of Toronto. Clearly someone wanted them forgotten.
Lois recruits Safie Hewson, a promising student from her days as a teacher at a now-defunct film school, to help her produce a documentary about Whitcomb and her films, and that’s when things really start to go sideways. As it so happens, Lois and Whitcomb have much in common, right down to both of them having special-needs sons who are socially dysfunctional but nonetheless remarkably individualistic and creative. Lois’s child, Clark, is autistic, communicating with the world around him through TV commercial catchphrases and other bits and bobs of language picked up from his exposure to media. Lois too, as with Whitcomb herself, is someone who doesn’t quite jibe with society. These connections prove to be more than just coincidental as Lois’s growing obsession with Iris Whitcomb and, by extension, Whitcomb’s own obsession, Lady Midday, pull her and her family into darker and darker psychological and spiritual territory.
Lois Cairns is a barely disguised analog of the book’s author, and that is, in fact, it’s greatest strength. There’s a reason why ‘write what you know’ has become a well-worn standard of authorial advice—it lends the story verisimilitude, and a writer often feels more confident when she knows what she’s talking about, and that often translates to a bolder voice and more interesting story choices. Files utilizes her immense knowledge of film and art history and the local film scene in and around Toronto to great effect. But lest you think the story gets carried away with the almost clinical observations of Lois’s chosen field, Files emotionally anchors the story with Lois’s chronic struggle with self-doubt and her painfully acute observations on the joys, fears and frustrations of being a parent to an autistic child. These aspects alone are a sturdy framework for drama and mystery of literary caliber; that they are in fact the backdrop to a horror novel with a fascinating and frighteningly original villain that’s somewhere between cosmic Lovecraftian monster and exotic folkloric deity is damn near miraculous.
Gemma Files is a true spiritual successor to Peter Straub and Ramsey Campbell, masters at creating brilliant protagonists who attempt to hide from the horror of reality by cloaking it in rationality and intellectualism, only to have their conceits ripped apart in the end. For my money, this is horror at its best. Certain popular horror authors choose to gear their fiction more to the Everyman, and there’s certainly no shame in that, but I tend to get more scares from the work of writers like Gemma Files, who understands what it’s like to be a hyper-aware creative type in a world full of people who don’t get you. That’s dreadful enough on its own, but when you throw in something otherworldly on top of that, well, that’s what I call a horror novel.