Lois Cairns is the put-upon protagonist of Experimental Film by Gemma Files. (It’s one of the many outstanding novels from ChiZine Publications.) Cairns is a former film professor, a film reviewer, and the frazzled mother of Clark, a child on the autism spectrum. At a routine Toronto film screening, Cairns recognizes something unique in the usually blasé work of pretentious filmmaker Wrob Barney (yes, “Wrob”) — within his experimental work, he’s “sampled” a piece of intriguing silver nitrate film that appears to be early 20th Century. Cairns is deeply affected by the footage in disturbing ways that cause her health to deteriorate, but the more she discovers, the more obsessed she becomes.
After some initial digging, Cairns discovers that the sampled — or stolen — snippet of work is from a long-dead socialite who might very well be Canada’s first female filmmaker, Mrs. Iris Dunlopp Whitcomb. This could be big news not only for Cairns, who could be on the receiving end of a National Film Board grant, but for film history.
As Cairns investigates, she finds out that Mrs. Whitcomb — a recluse after her son disappeared — also mysteriously vanished aboard a train. Even odder are the burn marks and residue from a fire within the cabin, left in her wake. Was she playing a highly unstable silver nitrate film in her compartment? And why was there no corpse at the scene?
Things get even stranger as Cairns continues her exploration into Mrs. Whitcomb’s past. More short films are discovered, all of which feature an odd, veiled woman enacting versions of Wendish folklore — particularly of a legend called Lady Midday. As Cairns gets closer to unraveling the mystery of whom Mrs. Whitcomb really was, the destructive migraines she regularly experiences become vicious and turn into seizures, which land her in the hospital.
There are other physical attacks on her health, but I’ll leave you to discover exactly what those are on your own. Perhaps the most disturbing part of Cairns’ journey is that her fragile son Clark has begun to receive visits from what might be Lady Midday, a long-forgotten and cruel goddess who demands worship. The child’s health and life could very well be at stake — especially since it seems that this goddess may have been summoned by the very fact that Mrs. Whitcomb’s films have been discovered.
Vulnerable children are at the very heart of many successful and unnerving horror films and stories; The Shining, The Bad Seed, and Night of the Hunter come to mind immediately. By the very fact that they are children — small, weak, and with sometimes unreliable narratives — their plight can be harrowing. Add to that Clark’s condition and the way he mainly communicates by quoting Disney movies, commercials, and television, and the stakes grow even higher.
At times, we learn about Lady Midday in an epistolary format within found letters to and from Mrs. Whitcomb and various correspondents and authors, as well as her rich husband, Arthur Macalla Whitcomb. We discover, along with Cairns, that Mrs. Whitcomb’s tragic past harbors horrifying secrets. Her past is made that much more bitter when we find that things might have been okay for Mrs. Whitcomb — if for only that one event that occurred in the name of benevolence, good intentions, and love. Sometimes, love is simply not enough to escape from a grievous fate.
Files knows her film — particularly, the inns and outs of the film industry in Canada, with its politics, tax credits, and provincial history. While Experimental Film is distinctly Canadian, it's never so esoteric that readers from other countries can’t understand what’s going on; it’s all explained well, and in depth.
Not only does this knowledge make for fascinating reading of Canadian film and its past, but Files uses film terms in the novel itself. Sections are marked “Title Cards,” “Act One: Film History,” “Act Two: Film,” “Act Three: Screening,” and “Credits.” Those designations are basic, yes, but they help to build the novel into escalating suspense. We also delve into film as Cairns discuses life in film analogies in passages such as these: “Think of these few paragraphs as a single frame, and aperture, a tumbler’s tiny hole. Stick in the key and watch it turn. Then watch whatever opens… open.”
More so, Files appreciates symmetry in film, as her protagonist’s story eventually begins to mirror (to disturbing effect) events in the past until they climax in such a way that no one is ever the same. For instance, Mrs. Whitcomb’s young son was on the spectrum as well — and vanished not long after she discovered that he was drawing pictures of Lady Midday.
This cruel, minor deity begins to make unwanted appearances directly in parallel with Cairns’ and Clark’s health disasters and hospital visits — and of course, there’s the sociopathic experimental filmmaker who kick-started the plot — the trust-funded, sociopathic Wrob Barney who’s threats are definitely not to be taken lightly. As both the living, the dead, and the supernatural descend upon Cairns and her family, you’ve got to wonder who is going to make it out alive.
As such, Experimental Film is not the type of book in which people escape unscathed; in fact, the opposite is true of several characters in varying degrees. That’s something to be appreciated in a world in which popular media often seems to be watered and dumbed down for safe consumption by the masses. However, our society appears to be on a bleak downswing as of late, and the arts reflect this more often, particularly in stellar works of fiction, television, and film. If you want to be creeped out by a story with folklore elements, Experimental Film by Gemma Files should be on your reading list, stat.