Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Experimental Film by Gemma Files

"Every movie is a ghost story"--Only Gemma Files can take a story about a woman who is both journalist trying to make her mark and mother of an autistic child, tie it to Canadian film history, and twist it into a paranormal suspense thriller with her particular style of insidious horror.

Lois' story is pretty straightforward, at first--she discovers work from Mrs. Whitcomb, a woman with a mysterious past who disappeared decades ago and who may have produced film, making her Canada's first female film maker. The film that set her on this path is about an obscure folk tale figure, Lady Midday.  Lois digs up fascinating information, as she travels around Toronto for research, finding uncanny parallels to her life.

This story is rather autobiographical, with parallels to Files’ life experiences: as a mother of an autistic child, a Toronto resident, a film critic, an instructor in Canadian film history, and an artist who wants to leave her mark. This work does not have the shock value of her Hexslinger stories and is set in the contemporary "real" world, but there is a slow-burn thriller and suspense element with her continued fascination of the Unknown and its primal nature leaking into the real world. There is tension where readers have to wonder if Lois is going mad or if there really is some kind of outside force at work, and Files writes madness and obsession well. Lois is flat-out an unreliable narrator. Her narrative is fragmented with jumps back and forth in her account, and there are gaps where she had to use film footage and get others to fill in what happened because she does not remember.

Files' writing is strong, and her brutal poetic style is more subdued with this contemporary setting. The paranormal elements are not obvious until later when Lois makes the jump that the strangeness occurring is not from her possible madness but due to an otherworldly force. Files’ style of insidious horror and creepiness maintain this element of inhumanity and unknowable quality to these forces, exploring a level of darkness few authors capture well.  She explores Canadian film history and, by extension, Canadian culture. It is fascinating how she incorporates those into her story without it becoming a dry history lesson, distinguishing it from Hollywood film and what makes it experimental. The theme of movies as a ghost story is an intriguing one that Files captures well. A ghost story, not because of horror elements, but because it is an immortality of sorts, preserving people in a time capsule existence.

Look for Experimental Film in the VBPL Catalog.  For more of this brand of literary horror, try Gemma Files’ books and short story collections, as well as Caitlin Kiernan’s works.

Review by Tracy V.

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