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Experimental Film by Gemma Files5 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsMany people think of movies as disposable entertainment to while away lazy hours over a weekend of Netflix and chill. But to those who are captivated not merely by the film medium’s marriage of art and technology, but by its incredibly rich and storied history, film is the closest thing we have to an actual time machine. It is a window into another world forever lost. Search YouTube for “Oldest Film Ever,” and you will find yourself peering, even if only for a few short seconds at a time, directly 12 or 13 decades into the past.

As a way of documenting the human experience there has been nothing to equal the impact of film. Just imagine if we had film footage from the Roman Empire. (Or on second thought, don’t. It would probably be pretty appalling.)

Gemma Files’ Experimental Film is an exceptionally accomplished and mature work of literary horror and weird fiction that utilizes film not only as the gateway between past and present, but between our world and others best left unexplored. Files crafts a character-driven folk-horror mystery rendered with exceptional clarity, balancing finely detailed writing with suspense and emotional sensitivity towards both the strengths and the failings of its flawed protagonist.

Lois Cairns is a film critic and teacher in Toronto whose career has been in something of a slump, and the demands of raising a young son on the ASD spectrum are leaving her both exhausted and with a sense of guilt for feeling that her life and ambitions are being held back and left unfulfilled. One night while screening some student films, she comes upon some footage that seems pretty ancient. She interviews the filmmaker, a young dude named Wrob who’s one of those twee, pretentious dilettantes that you can usually find circulating around urban hipster art communities. (Wrob is such a total douche that he’s added a completely superfluous “W” to his first name.)

After some initial investigating, Lois becomes convinced that the footage was shot in the early 20th century by an enigmatic lady named Mrs. Iris Whitcomb, best known during her lifetime for the time she spent veiled in mourning over her lost son, Hyatt. Iris became obsessed with the spiritualist movement, for obvious reasons, and is known to have been provided with filmmaking equipment by her doting, wealthy husband, who hoped that a hobby would steer her troubled mind towards happier pursuits.

One day in 1918, Mrs. Whitcomb boarded a train, locked herself in her first class compartment, and disappeared while in transit.

The footage itself is very bizarre. It appears to be a dramatization of an old Wendish legend about Lady Midday, a kind of demigod known for approaching farmers and laborers out in their fields, trolling them with a series of leading questions, and then slicing their heads off if they answered incorrectly. Mrs. Whitcomb, it turns out, may not have just shot one movie, but several about this strange being.

With one of her students assisting, Lois believes that she has finally landed the project for which she can get the kind of grant that will help her advance professionally at last: the discovery of the long-lost surviving body of work — all of it recorded on dangerously combustible silver nitrate film — of Canada’s first honest-to-goodness female filmmaker. The further Lois digs into the mysteries of Mrs. Whitcomb’s past, it becomes frighteningly apparent there may be more to this Lady Midday obsession than old folklore.

When I say Experimental Film is literary horror, I mean it. If you’re looking for anything in the way of a conventional spook show in the Stephen King mold, you’re in the wrong room. Gemma Files, whose own background in film runs deep, spends a great deal of the early part of the book rooting her tale in the Canadian film community to such an immersive degree that much of the first hundred pages reads very much like a film critic’s blog. This has the benefit of grounding the story — which will go off in pursuit of mythicism and nightmare — in a solid reality. Also, Lois’s personal family struggles give her character an emotional core that feels so true, it’s often uncomfortable. There is her son Clark’s condition and the conflicted feelings of love and frustration it creates in her. One interesting detail is that he’s only able to communicate by quoting little snippets of dialogue from movies and TV shows. (These passages often feel distressingly personal, as if Files, whose own son is neuroatypical, is exorcising some demons through her art.) There’s her mother’s incessant nagging, heartfelt and sincere but no less aggravating for all of that. And there’s her husband, almost heroic in his patience and support. Everyone in this book feels like a genuine person, and it’s what makes the story connect so powerfully.

Experimental Film is a book that comes to weird fiction at a complete right angle to most anything else the genre has to offer. And like the earliest experimental filmmakers, Gemma Files is looking at her narrative — at horror narrative — through a lens cocked at a slight tilt to the rest of her contemporaries. The result gives us real people, real drama, a compelling and increasingly nerve-wracking mystery, and best of all, a tight plot that sticks the landing. It’s an experience that will linger with you long after the credits have rolled and the house lights come up.