Fired at almost the same time as her son Clark's Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis, former film critic turned teacher Lois Cairns is caught in a depressive downward spiral, convinced she's a failure who's spent half her adult life writing about other people's dreams without ever seeing any of her own come true. One night Lois attends a program of experimental film and emerges convinced she's seen something no one else has—a sampled piece of silver nitrate silent film footage whose existence might prove that an eccentric early 20th-century socialite who disappeared under mysterious circumstances was also one of Canada's first female movie-makers. Though it raises her spirits and revitalizes her creatively, Lois's headlong quest to discover the truth about Mrs. A. Macalla Whitcomb almost immediately begins to send her much further than she ever wanted to go, revealing increasingly troubling links between her subject's life and her own. Slowly but surely, the malign influence of Mrs Whitcomb's muse begins to creep into every aspect of Lois's life, even placing her son in danger. But how can one increasingly ill and unstable woman possibly hope to defeat a threat that's half long-lost folklore, half cinematically framed hallucination—an existential nightmare made physical, projected off the screen and into real life?
The Shirley Jackson and Sunburst Award-winning Experimental Film by Gemma Files takes you on a journey of discovery and fear as the malign influence of a very old film begins to permeate every aspect of film teacher Lois Cairns' life. As she struggles with her son's autism diagnosis, a terrifying being tries to rip its way into our world, and reality starts to unravel. An existential nightmare made physical, projected off the screen and into real life. – Sandra Kasturi
"Gemma Files has one of the great dark imaginations in fiction—visionary, transgressive, and totally original. With this new novel [Experimental Film], Files explores the world of film and horror in a way that will leave you reeling. A smart, sharp page-turner with heart and depth."– Jeff VanderMeer
"Experimental Film is sensational. When we speak of the best in contemporary horror and weird fiction, we must speak of Gemma Files."– Laird Barron
This all started a very long time ago for me . . . longer than even I could remember at the time, though since my mind is a black hole of influences, little that gets sucked inside its orbit ever fully escapes again. Because stories lie hidden inside other stories, and we always know more about any given thing than we think we do, even if the only thing we think we know is nothing.
For example, if I'd Googled Mrs. Whitcomb's name at the beginning—not that I would have had any reason to—here's what I would have gotten, probably on the very first hit, from Hugo J. Balcarras's Strange Happenings in Ontario (Hounslow, 1977):
No account of Ontario's classic unsolved mysteries can be complete without making mention of the presumably lamentable fate of Mrs. Iris Dunlopp Whitcomb, wife of Arthur Macalla Whitcomb, discoverer and owner of the now-defunct Quarry Argent Lightning-Strike Silver Mine. An avid amateur painter, photographer, collector of fairy tales, and life-long follower of the Spiritualist creed, Mrs. Whitcomb had led a hermit's life since the tragically unsolved disappearance of her only child, Hyatt, who suffered from developmental disabilities.
Though his bed was first found empty one morning in early 1908, Hyatt Whitcomb was only declared dead seven years later, in 1915. Unable to persuade his wife to accompany him, Arthur Whitcomb relocated to Europe, where he funnelled the money from his mining concerns into the development and manufacture of munitions, perhaps anticipating the outbreak of World War I.
Meanwhile, electing to stay in their former home until she had proof of what had happened to Hyatt, Mrs. Whitcomb pursued comfort through the Overdeere-based Spiritualist congregation of medium Catherine-Mary des Esseintes, for whom she bankrolled an increasingly expensive series of public fundraising events and private séances. She also "took the veil," affecting a variety of opaque and heavy full-body mourning, which covered her from her habitual broad-brimmed beekeeper's hat to the hem of her skirts, dressing first in all black, then all grey, and eventually all white. Although acknowledged to be kind and pleasant in person, she became a figure of superstitious legend amongst the children of Quarry Argent, who viewed her approach with dread.
On the morning of Saturday, June 22nd, 1918, Mrs. Whitcomb surprised her attendants by calling for a motorcar. Wrapping herself against prying eyes, she demanded to be driven to the nearest train station, where she bought a return ticket to Toronto, waited an hour and a half for the train to arrive, then boarded. All she took with her was a sizeable, rigid leather case with heavy straps, the contents of which remain unknown.
After having her ticket clipped, Mrs. Whitcomb telegraphed ahead, informing the final station on her route—Toronto—that she would be arriving shortly, and expected to find food and lodging waiting. She gave no hint of the reason for her journey, and retired to her private compartment. This was the last anyone ever saw or heard of her. Thus she disappeared from both the train and from official record, completely and irrevocably.
(Reprinted by permission of the author.)
I interviewed Balcarras during my research phase, back when I was preparing to write . . . well, not this book, but the book I thought I was working on, at the time. He was in his late eighties, physically frail yet clear-eyed and alert, his enthusiasm for the topic wholly un-withered. He was only too happy to tell me why. "Because, you see," he said, "there's a lot more to Mrs. Whitcomb's story, and I've always wanted to tell it—but I could never verify much, not directly, and Hounslow's lawyers were sadly obsessed with backing things up via documentation. Still, there was a witness to Mrs. Whitcomb's presence on that train . . . in a manner of speaking.
"In 1953, when the Whitcomb Estate's funds were running out and the house was in the process of repossession, an Overdeere woman named Gloria Ashtuck came forward. When she was eight, she said, she'd travelled from her hometown to Mixstead, Ontario to visit her paternal grandmother, and had only just then realized that the train she'd been riding on had to have been the exact same train from which Mrs. Whitcomb vanished.
"According to Miss Ashtuck, she was on her way to the train's washrooms when she passed a first-class compartment whose interior blinds had all been carefully drawn. She paused, attracted to the compartment by an unfamiliar noise issuing from inside—one strange enough that she felt physically compelled to stand there for a few minutes, trying to work out what it might be. It sounded 'mechanical,' 'repetitious,' somewhat like the rattling of chain. The sound was accompanied by an obscured yet hypnotic flickering of light leaking out through the tiny crack in the blinds. Then, as she lingered, she saw the handle of the door begin to move, something rustling around behind the blinds, as though whoever occupied the compartment were about to emerge . . . at which point she turned and ran all the way to the dining car, where her parents were waiting, as though every devil in Hell were chasing her. Held it the rest of the way to Toronto, or so she claimed."
He spread his hands ruefully, an embarrassed showman. "Needless to say, nobody she told gave it much weight—the memory of a frightened eight-year-old, decades past. As far as they were concerned, the Whitcombs were all exactly as dead as the law needed them to be."
"What do you think she was so afraid of?" I asked him.
Balcarras simply shrugged. "No idea. But I can tell you this much, young lady: she stayed good and frightened, right up till the day she died. Said it gave her the screaming meemies just thinking about it." He raised his wispy white eyebrows. "Still, you understand the import? This was on the final approach, somewhere between Clarkson and Union. Most people uninterested in the supernatural tend to assume Mrs. Whitcomb simply disembarked, unseen, at another station. But if Gloria Ashtuck was correct, somebody was still in her compartment that day, well after their last chance to leave had already passed."
I hesitated a second or two before asking the next question; I was still trying to keep my ideas confidential, back then. But I had to be sure.
"Did you ever hear about Mrs. Whitcomb making movies?"
He studied me, shrewdly. "Funny you should ask. When they opened up the compartment in Toronto, they found exactly two things inside. One was a scorched, discoloured sheet, hung up by pins across the window, which was odd, because—as I said—she'd already pulled all the blinds. The other, meanwhile, was the melted remains of a machine no one could easily identify, probably because it wasn't something exactly in widespread use back then: a portable film projector, one of the earliest models. I saw a drawing someone on the case had made of it, and was able to connect the dots. Mr. Whitcomb sent his former wife a hefty allowance every few months or so, right up until the end; makes sense she'd have been able to buy herself the very latest toys, she only took a mind to."
"So her trunk might have contained this projector, along with a film reel—something she was going to watch while in transit."
"It seems likely. And given the period, that also might explain where the fire came from." In the pages of his book, spread open on the coffee table between us, Balcarras tapped a black-and-white photograph, so grainy with copy reproduction and age it looked like a piece of cross-stitch embroidery. "Clear signs of heat damage, but little accompanying smoke. The investigators agreed afterwards that this indicated a brief but intense conflagration, possibly chemical in nature. Oh, there were the usual rumours, of course." He waved a dismissive hand. "A kidnapping gone wrong, perhaps conducted by Industry-hating anarchists and Fenian protestors toting explosives, all that. But I think you and I, Mrs. Cairns, are of like mind as to a far more probable cause.
How much do you know about silver nitrate film?"
I pushed back the urge to say It's Ms., not Mrs.; evidently, he'd seen my wedding ring and made up his own mind. "It explodes?"
"Somewhat volatile, yes, which explains why it's no longer in use. Because, amongst other things, the nitrocellulose stock would occasionally ignite when run through the gate of a projector. The silver in the emulsion would act as an accelerant, continuing to burn until the film was entirely consumed, and leaving very little trace behind. Doesn't require oxygen to stay alight, either; it'll keep burning completely underwater, at over three hundred degrees, and it produces toxic gases. It was a nitrate film fire that caused the Dromcollogher Burning in Ireland in '26—forty-eight people killed outright, many more injured. Burned the entire building to the ground."
"That still doesn't explain what happened to Mrs. Whitcomb," I said.
"No, it obviously doesn't. But at the time, people genuinely thought that silver nitrate fires were so hot they could consume a human being entirely—somewhat like spontaneous human combustion, to cite another, equally foolish superstition." He settled back in his armchair. "Interesting you asked about her little hobby, however; far more people making 'flickers' at home than you might think, especially if they could afford the equipment. But that was something else they made me take out—wasn't relevant, they said." He snorted.
I came close to spilling it all then, betrayed by that excited delight you feel when you realize, yes, somebody else knows about something you thought only you had stumbled across, that you've finally met somebody who'll understand. But at the last second, I chose not to—clinging, still, to the dark ambition at the core of that excitement.
It was my name on the line, here. Balcarras had had his day.
"They've recently recovered a few fragments of stuff they think she might have produced," I said at last, which was not technically untrue. "From 1914 to 1917, by preliminary dating."
Balcarras nodded, unsurprised. "Hadn't heard about films, per se, but I do know she shot footage at Kate-Mary des Esseintes's performances, her 'Thanatoscopeonic Resonance Gatherings'—documentary records, to prove these things she and her group got up to were real."
(As mentioned in Balcarras's piece above, des Esseintes was a North Ontario spirit medium, fairly famous at the time, somebody who'd followed the Fox Sisters' lead and combined Spiritualist beliefs with public demonstrations, though she mainly did cabinet work and ectoplasmic materialization rather than simple table-rapping. She formed the community centrepoint for many contemporary Spiritualist "seekers," with Mrs. Whitcomb one of her most fervent supporters, financially and otherwise.)
"Of course, by that time, Mrs. Whitcomb was also enmeshed with Kate-Mary's little protégé, the one she adopted, later on . . . Vasek Sidlo. Fifteen years old at the time and sightless since birth, supposedly. Kate-Mary called him an imagist—spirit photography, all that. He was going to be her link with the new generation of Spiritualists, their very own Edgar Cayce, or what have you. And Mrs. Whitcomb was quite besotted with him too, though in a different way, of course."
"Are you saying they were—involved?"
"Oh, no no no!" He waved his hands. "Not on her side, at least; she had a very maternal interest in young Vasek, probably because he'd been brought up in the orphanage her mother had founded. And just like with Kate-Mary, she thought he might be able to get her closer to solving the mystery of what had happened to poor Hyatt. . . ."
"But on Sidlo's side?"
"Well, she was beautiful, everyone agrees on that. It's too bad no one ever took pictures, before the veil."
"He was blind, though."
"Supposedly. And even so—blind, not dead."
At the time, I thought Balcarras had gone off on a tangent, obsessing on gossip so old it was almost mummified. However, as with so much about this story, I'd eventually find out otherwise . . . but not until much later.
"What do you think happened?" I asked, flipping open the last page of my notebook.
"With Mrs. Whitcomb? Might've been a multitude of things, some more likely than others. But I'm inclined to think she took the easy way out—just stepped out of the wreck of her life, doffed her famous veil, and left by the doors, along with everybody else. Without the veil, no one would ever have recognized her. She'd have been free."
"Free to do—what?"
"Oh, I'd like to believe she settled down, changed her name, had more children. Anything but the obvious."
"That train was going full speed, Mrs. Cairns. To get off mid-jaunt would have been suicide, literally. But then again, maybe that's what she wanted, eh? To be with her boy again."
"Best-case scenario, sure. If he was even dead."
"Exactly. We don't know—and odds are, we never will." Balcarras shook his head, sighing. "Poor girl. Poor, foolish girl."
We sat there together a moment while I tried to think of anything else to ask. Then he leaned across the table, giving what he might have thought was a charming leer. "You're very easy to talk to, my dear," he told me. "Who was it you said you wrote for, again?"
Lip Weekly I could have said, at one point; Deep Down Undertown, had I wanted to tell the truth. Instead, I found myself blurting out, before I could think better of it: "Oh, well . . . these days, myself, mainly. I guess."
"No publisher's contract yet, eh? All this work done on spec, so to speak?"
"Not really, no. And—yeah."
"Hmmm." He patted my hand, as if in consolation. "Something to look forward to then."