Silver Nitrate, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
I really found a gem in this book. Silver Nitrate is a clever, slow-burning horror, which combines old-school cinematography with Nazi occultism in such an effortless match that I’m surprised I haven’t seen it before. You can feel the love of old feature films and ‘90s era technology bleeding from the page, twisted through with hauntings and failed rituals to create a really unique read.
The pace was much slower than I was expecting; there’s a steady and considered build-up with nothing particularly supernatural happening until well into the second half. The first part is foundation-laying, and while it could have run the risk of being boring, it kept the balance perfectly between information-gathering, character building and plot momentum. The background film theory, the lore, the film technology of the ‘90s, could have felt like too much exposition, but on the contrary it was one of the highlights of the book for me, really feeding my inner photography enthusiast and film nerd. I felt like I learned something!
The two main characters, Montserrat and Tristán, had excellent chemistry. Montserrat is a workaholic with a love of old films and sound design, a healthy cynicism and a frustration with a career in a male-dominated industry. Tristán is an actor down on work, who carries around (quite literally, it turns out) the memory of his dead girlfriend, and the burden of a career that went up in smoke after her premature and tragic death.
Their interactions had the really organic feeling of two people who are very different but who have been friends for so long that their relationship feels like an entity in and of itself. Their characters were well-defined, and the parts of them which could have been irritating – Tristán’s narcissism and Montserrat’s antisocialness – I found endearing, in much the same way as they find them endearing in each other. At the end Montserrat’s natural aptitude for spell-casting tempts her to give in to the ghost of Ewer and claim her place in a world that would recognise her capabilities. She refuses because the source of power, Ewer himself, is a racist bastard who has magpied his way into occultism, stealing spells and rituals from every culture and person he encountered.
Their nuances carved real people out of them, and the subtleties of their characters brought them to life.
Speaking of subtlety, I really enjoyed the more subtle spooks, the hint at the occult – the shadows in the mirror, the deadened silence which announces Ewer’s presence, and which only someone as familiar with sound as Montserrat would recognise – rather than the bigger in-your-face supernatural scenes. The shadow dogs and the show-down at the end while the mansion burns were a lot of fun and made for a fast-paced read, but they felt a bit like a Hollywood film compared to the indie classic which the book was comfortably becoming from the start. The burgeoning fears, the is-it-real-or-just-coincidence use of magic, the quieter dawning realisation in both characters that it is real, it is all happening just like in the films they love, was the real strength of the horror for me.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia is a master of spooks, and this book packed a punch with its unfolding mystery of hauntings, flammables and Nazi secret societies. I’m not ashamed to admit I was afraid to put the book down for fear leaving the spell unfinished!
Thank you to Jo Fletcher for the advance copy!