What happens when Ringu is crossed with the Canadian indie film scene? Brace yourself, because the tale that follows is extraordinary!
I picked this novel up a while ago on Kindle, eager to finally read something from this celebrated horror author. And I was not disappointed! There’s a reason Gemma Files has received several nominations and awards, including the prestigious Shirley Jackson Award, for this novel.
Meet Lois Cairns, a woman on the edge of crisis – former teacher, ardent film critic, wife to a supportive husband, mother to an autistic child – who makes the discovery of a lifetime. While viewing a new experimental short film by a pretentious local filmmaker, Lois is inspired by a flash of true genius which she later discovers he stole from a much older work. Intrigued, Lois investigates and traces the film back to a small town in Ontario, the setting for a tragic tale.
The stolen footage was shot by Iris Dunlopp Whitcomb on temperamental silver nitrate film; a woman, Lois discovers, who may be Canada’s first female filmmaker. Iris lost her young son, who was also a special-needs child, and they both disappeared mysteriously nearly a century before. Iris’s work, strange scenes of a woman in white in a field with a sword, is based on the gruesome Wendish fairy tale of Lady Midday. The film and story spawns an obsession that Lois cannot ignore, despite the destruction it wreaks on her body and mind and her entire family.
The prose in this novel is beautiful, and the characters and their relationships are captivating. As a huge fan of folklore and fairy tales, I also absolutely loved the mystery of Mrs. Whitcomb and her obsession with Lady Midday. As many women have and will, I sympathized with Lois’s struggles. I’ve never been a mother, but I completely understood her battle with inadequacy (especially the frequent tiffs with her own well-meaning, if slightly judgy, mother). As women, regardless of our roles and duties, we all struggle with these issues; we’re constantly driven to live up to impossibly high standards, some of which are set by the women in our lives (sometimes moreso than the men, strangely enough). Thank goodness for Lois’s husband, Simon, who really was there for her no matter what even if she sometimes deserved more of a challenge from him. For Lois is not perfect by any stretch; but, are any of us? That’s what makes a great protagonist, in my opinion. She doesn’t need to be always likeable or always 100% right, because that’s not real. Love or hate Lois Cairns, but she is undeniably authentic which I adore because it really keeps one invested in the world of this novel.
If I had any criticism, it would be the frequent asides that delve with distracting precision into the history of Canadian film and the art of filmmaking itself. Not my cup of tea, but for some it will be fascinating as film is a hugely popular subject. Personally, I wanted to stay with the main story which became increasingly tense as one is dragged forcefully into Lois’s own obsession with these haunting pieces of old film and whatever spawned their creation.
And for horror fans, I have to say when the scares start coming…oh, it is more than satisfactory. There are a few scenes I read right before bed, which was probably a mistake because they kept me up half the night with terror. This was creepiness on a whole other level, vivid and disturbing because it felt so real. I mean, who hasn’t watched a horror film or heard a legend that was so scary you actually feared for yourself even though you know it’s fiction? We all remember that classic line from the trailer & marketing campaign for Last House on the Left:
“It’s only a movie…it’s only a movie…it’s only a movie”—yeah, until it isn’t!
Experimental Film is a modern classic – familiar in a way, but absolutely unique with its setting and characters. I mentioned Ringu, because it does share a similar premise – a mysterious taped recording that’s haunted enough to hurt and/or kill unsuspecting viewers. But the rest is purely original, at least for me. Lois and her struggles are relatable for any artist who’s given so much of herself in the hopes of making their mark but always seems to fall short. And the smaller but compelling story of Mrs. Whitcomb is one of the most thrilling mysteries I’ve ever watched unfold.
This is not your ordinary encounter with the paranormal. No, this is the tale of haunting which doesn’t break the mold so much as make its own mold. And in fact, Gemma Files says it best in her opening paragraph “…every movie is a ghost story”. Truly beautiful and delightfully gothic – you’ll never think of movies the same way again, nor will you ever underestimate the power of any ghost story.
Rating 4.5/5 Stars