Fiction Reviews

Silver Nitrate

(2023) Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Jo Fletcher Books, £18.99, hrdbk, 309pp, ISBN 978-1-529-43211-4


A film sound engineer-editor, Montserrat (or Monty, as she is often referred) who mainly works on horror projects finds herself caught up in a real horror story involving ghosts, necromancers and Nazis. This is a very different and more straightforward story than Moreno-Garcia’s startling earlier work, The Daughter of Dr Moreau.

For three quarters of its length this story flows well, with likable characters and a genuine sense of increasing menace around them, but the final confrontation with the dark forces at play is rather over-stretched and even confusing. Characters seem close to certain death or escape and then things just continue, with various figures just standing around statically while a few players are focussed on. It gets easy to forget someone else is even in the room at times until they suddenly say or do something.

Set in Mexico City in 1993, Montserrat’s platonic, (though wanting a closer relationship), best friend, Tristan is a washed up former-soap star few recognise any more. Tristan learns that a new tenant in his apartment block is the now aged Abel Urueta, a legendary cult fim director of the 1940’s, one of whose most notorious movies was never completed.

Monty and Tristan trace what little remains of the movie, and uncover the mysteries surrounding the supposedly cursed film. Urueta believes that its writer and star, who was a Nazi, willing to kill anyone (even on his own side) to survive the war, had used the old nitrate film to generate powerful spells geared up to granting him immortality. With the film left unfinished, the leaking forces of darkness are haunting Urueta. Though initially finding his claims too fantastical, the protagonist-duo find themselves haunted and also hunted by surviving people linked to Behind The Yellow Wall (the film in question). Things only get worse after a disastrous séance attempt to reach Ewers, the entity seemingly behind the haunting.

Montserrat finds herself learning occult arts ready to take the battle back against Ewert, (the Nazi actor and screen-writer) and his allies, living and dead. The supernatural elements are very well handled with, for the most part, an unseen antagonist who comes over with extreme malevolence.

Saturated with references and genuine love for genre cinema, with supernatural and cinematic magic seen as often interchangeable, it is only the clumsy over-cluttered and talky finale that ruins the illusion before the outcome is attained. It all gets highly expositional at times too.

Some characters who seem important are underused and absent without leave at points where their presence would seem invaluable, often with little explanation, but the interplay between Monty and Tristan carries great chemistry.

The title refers of course to the highly flammable nature of early film making celluloid, but the danger of all consuming fire is also a metaphor for the dangers and passions surrounding and involving the characters throughout. Much of the action is what has already gone on, learned of through ‘tell don’t show’ narration and in reading old diaries and film magazine articles.

One character who comes to the rescue ends up teaching Monty how to protect herself with various signs and symbols. He behaves like a Hogwarts Defence Against The Dark Arts teacher and then conveniently melts out of the story for the most part. It’s a shame as he is quite noir-ish and rather fun; I expected much more from him.

Monty develops magical skills the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Dr Strange would envy remarkably quickly.

For all its little flaws, this remains an impressive read.

Arthur Chappell


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