Monday 9 November 2015

The Lost Film.

The Lost Film is a two novella collection published by Pendragon Press. The writers involved are Stephen Bacon and Mark West – both of whom are authors whose work I’ve very much enjoyed in the past so it was with some degree of anticipation that I began reading the book. That anticipation had been building for some time, I’d first heard mention of the collaboration a good few years back on a now defunct forum where it had piqued my interest. The idea had been used to impressive effect in other books I’d read, most notably Ancient Images by Ramsey Campbell and Rough Cut by Gary McMahon so  I was keen to see if these novellas carried forward that high standard. Reassuringly, they do – they’re not perfect but they are bloody good and provide a couple of cracking reads.

First up is Stephen’s Lantern Rock, the title coming from the name of the small island off the Cornish coast which is the home of reclusive film director Lionel Rutherford. Journalist Paul Madigan travels to the island (which comes complete with its own lighthouse) to interview the director, along the way meeting, and ultimately travelling to the island with, Ellie who – it turns out – has her own agenda and reasons for meeting up with Rutherford.

The setting is suitably gothic, and this ambience is maintained with descriptions of the house in which Rutherford dwells, a residence he shares with his butler/housekeeper Jonas – who has his own mysterious past… A storm hits whilst Madigan is on the island, stranding him and Ellie and allowing him the time to uncover the deadly secrets hidden in Rutherford’s film Experiments in Darkness.

Exposure to the film unleashes forces which have lain dormant on the island, most notably in the form of Theodore Zafan, a dark magician and leader of a cult and the terrifying tall creatures which stalk the rooms and corridors of the house. The story is a slow burner, gradually building up layers of intrigue and menace and culminating in a bloody, frenzied finale. This change in tone is handled wonderfully by Stephen and the final scenes are suitably reminiscent of some classic horror films.

The Lost Film is Mark’s novella, the longer of the two and telling the story of Gabriel Bird, a private investigator hired to unearth the whereabouts of Roger Sinclair, an exploitation film maker form the 1970s who has seemingly disappeared.

His disappearance coincided with the making of what Sinclair regarded as his magnum opus, Terrafly – a film so terrifying it had the power to drive those who viewed it mad. As Bird begins his investigation, clips from this lost film begin to appear on the internet…

Mark’s extensive knowledge – and love of – films is apparent all throughout this novella and his references to characters and films (both real and imaginary) add layers of verisimilitude to the story. Bird’s investigations bring him into contact with a host of beautifully realised characters and the plot twists and turns. The whole “just Google it” hurdle to any investigation story is leapt with room to spare and Gabriel has to do some proper legwork to uncover exactly what is going on.

What is going on is one of the best ideas I’ve read in quite some time. No spoilers obviously but the concept of the Monochromatics – characters seen in black and white in colour film – is a brilliant one, as is their explanation. There’s many a nod to Hjortsberg’s Falling Angel (and, of course, its film adaptation Angel Heart) but also to Wim Wenders’ classic Wings of Desire, the novella providing a very dark twist on the latter.

My only issue with the story is the introduction of a lost diary. Exposition’s always tricky and the device of the hidden journal is a handy get out of jail card but I felt in this instance it wasn’t necessary. Gabriel’s journey takes him to the place where all this explanation occurs anyway and I think having the expository dialogue that’s in the journal in a scene with Gabriel himself would have made an even more powerful ending to the story. Mark says in his notes at the end of the book that the idea grew from a single line - and it’s a great line. It’s just a shame that it’s hidden in the diary extract.

This criticism aside, I think this novella is one of the best things Mark has written. The two stories work extremely well alongside each other too – and the authors have cleverly cross-referenced each other very effectively. Unfortunately there’s a typo count that just edges into the “this is annoying” category but The Lost Film is a great example of genre writing, both stories are gripping, high-concept and scary – which is pretty much a perfect combination. It’s a book I highly recommend and you can buy it direct from the publisher.

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