Silvia Moreno-Garcia has not yet written two books in the same genre. Though that statement may depend on how you understand genre. Her latest novel, Silver Nitrate, can broadly be considered as ‘fantasy’ or ‘horror’ and Moreno-Garcia has done plenty of work in these two broad categories. She has dabbled in gothic (Mexican Gothic) and vampires (Certain Dark Things). Silver Nitrate is something else again, concerning itself with dark magic and the occult. What connects all of her works is her love of each particular corner of the genre and the associated tropes and her always engaging protagonists.
Silver Nitrate is set in early 1990s Mexico City. Montserrat is a freelance sound editor in what is a boys-club environment.
She was the only woman on the Antares team, which was probably why she never became a full-timer … There were a few women working at studios writing scripts that were used for subtitling and dubbing. There were also female translators … But full-time female sound editors? Those were as rare as unicorns.
Montserrat loves horror movies, the cheesier and more B-grade the better, but ‘the market for local horror productions wasn’t substantial enough to support two filmmakers intent on churning out scary flicks’.
Her best friend (and long-time crush) is Tristán, a former soap-opera star whose career was cut short by a tragedy. Tristán discovers he lives in the same building as Abel Urueta, a slightly famous horror film director from the 1960s. Urueta retired from filmmaking after his movie Beyond the Yellow Door collapsed before being completed:
From what [Montserrat] understood it would have been another horror film, different from Urueta’s previous historical entries … The plot? A cult, evil shenanigans … People were not muttering excitedly about it and hoping for a belated release. The only reason Montserrat had ever heard about the flick was because she had a soft spot for Abel Urueta.
Urueta tells Montserrat and Tristán a story about the film – that it was actually a way to channel magic and that the failure to finish it had brought bad luck to all of the cast and crew. He convinces the pair that if the three of them can finish putting the sound onto a particular short reel of the original silver-nitrate print he has, the bad luck spell can be broken. Thinking to humour him, the two complete the film, only to find that they have activated a dormant magical circuit giving them unaccounted-for luck – but also increasingly terrifying side effects.
Before long, Montserrat and Tristán find themselves in a world that comes straight out of their beloved horror movies. A world that involves a Nazi occultist and his followers, precognition, magical runes and the spirits of the dead. And they have to quickly learn the rules of this world in order to save themselves and prevent greater disaster.
As with all of Moreno-Garcia’s books, one of the great draws of this story is the finely drawn, complex main characters, who gain some of their power from their knowledge of the medium. Montserrat uses her knowledge of the history of horror film and the methods of creating it to her advantage as she develops her own rudimentary magical abilities. Tristán is forced to come to terms with the trauma that ended his career and consider the way he lives his life and the way he treats Montserrat. And all the while they are learning that the world does not necessarily work the way they think it does.
Central to the magical system that Moreno-Garcia creates for this story is the power of cinema and, in particular, the highly combustible silver nitrate film:
The Kineopticon in London, Laurier Palace in Montreal, Esmerelda Theatre in Chile … Nitrate fires through the decades. The ingredients of film – nitric acid, methyl alcohol cotton liners – were the same as those for explosives. Burnt offerings for an invisible god, that’s what nitrate was.
Montserrat discovers the memoir of the Nazi occultist Wilhelm Friedrich Ewers, who likens the spectacle of movies to ‘sacrifice atop a pyramid’, and this bookbecomes a magical source book for Montserrat, allowing her to start to understand how Ewers used movies to create and amplify his magic:
Movies were interesting to Ewers because they seemed to bring together all of the four elements he relied on with his magic system. The sliver nitrate used in films came from the earth; the spooling film to him was like a river of images; and the carbon arc lamps used to project movies were close to torches in his estimation, and thus connected to fire. These elements were unified and perfect with the inclusion of sound, which he identified as the air element …
Films were also spectacles, and Ewers seemed fascinated by the idea of many people coming together to increase the power of the spell.
This explanation both epitomises and exposes the weakness of Silver Nitrate. The magic system that Moreno-Garcia creates is a complex one. And in order for Montserrat and Tristán to fight back, they need to understand and use it. But this requires a little too much exposition in the form of lengthy passages in which they either read about or are told about how the magic works. And this only comes after a fairly long set up. But once the action really kicks into gear, Moreno-Garcia delivers – there are jump scares, haunted buildings, powerful runes, seances, malevolent entities, evil cultists and magical reveals. And it all builds to a darkly magical climax.
In Silver Nitrate, Silvia Moreno-Garcia follows in the tradition of horror stories about the occult power of film that includes Theodore Roszak’s 1991 thriller Flicker and the Japanese classic The Ring (coincidentally also based on a book from 1991). But as always, she gives her action a historical Mexican setting and bases it around memorable local characters, and in doing so makes the story her own. So that she once again demonstrates that she can deliver page-turning and thought-provoking novels in any genre and register.
This review first appeared in Newtown Review of Books.