Experimental Film by Gemma Files
(ChiZine Publications, 2015)
Lois Cairns is an ex-film critic/ex-film professor who seems to be mired in a permanent funk. Her only son is on the extreme end of the autism spectrum and her mother and husband seem to have more love for the child than she. Feeling hopeless personally and professionally, Lois stumbles across an experimental film made by a wealthy Toronto art scenester that incorporates some fascinating found footage. Doing a little background work leads Lois to discover the secret film career of Mrs. Whitcomb, a turn of the century philanthropist who threw the majority of her husband’s wealth into the work of an unscrupulous medium. A side project appeared to be the filming and re-filming of an obscure Eastern European fable about Lady Midday, an angelic entity that tormented those who refused to toil in the fields. As Lois investigates further, she uncovers dark truths about Mrs. Whitcomb and the story of Lady Midday.
Experimental Film does a lot of world-building, almost 80 percent of the text is world building. Told from the first person point of view of Lois Cairns, the reader is educated on a large number of the topics, the main one being the Toronto academic film scene, and in some instance, the way film is funded by the state in Canada. There was a point around halfway through the novel that I began to feel fatigued from the amount of digressions being taken from the mystery of the story. Any time a supporting character is introduced, we’re given multiple pages of prefacing about who this character is in the larger film scene, rumors and relationships in Toronto that may or may not have any weight in the larger narrative, and just lots and lots of details. You often get lost in the details that the path of the overarching story becomes lost.
The horror that the story is leading is a very original one, but its reveal is a rough sequence in the novel. Lois and a side character are in a literal race against time to prevent the “gateway” from being opened that will allow the entity to kill again. It plays out as the type of confrontation I do not seek out in my horror fiction, a little too direct and too on the nose. The direct battle leads to a disappointing resolution and happy ending that I believe undercuts the entire horror of the piece.
There are excellent ideas here and a few scenes that are captivating, but the overall piece was disappointing. I was all right with Lois being a less than admirable character; I enjoy characters that are rough around the edges. Where the novel falls apart is with its constant digressions, losing the very delicate tension and atmosphere that great creeping horror needs to build.
Experimental Film poses the idea that film can be a form of haunting. As the back catalog of film, both professional and amateur grows in our culture, how do you think this phenomenon could be used effectively in horror fiction and media?
Lois Cairns is a protagonist who does not embody the benevolent, virtuous figure we see in a lot of popular fiction. She doesn’t adhere to traditional maternal expectations and is unapologetic for it, finding a way of communicating with her son that works for them both. How do you feel about unsympathetic characters in fiction? What about them helps you connect with their character or do you feel yourself disconnected?