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Silver Nitrate
by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted June 28, 2023

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I received a digital review copy of Silvia Moreno-Garcia's new novel from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. It will publish in three weeks, July 18. Silvia has written a wide range of stories, some of them mysteries that didn't include a fantasy or horror element. For most of this book I was thinking Silver Nitrate was another of that type. It's about a lost film, a woman obsessed with horror movies, and a chance encounter with the director of said film, the uncompleted "Beyond the Yellow Door." It wasn't until almost 3/4 of the way into it the true nature of the narrative was evident. Before that, any fantastical scene could be discounted as an over-active imagination, feelings of dread, even a supposed ghost sighting which might have been just a trick of light and shadow, along with traumatic memories.

The book is set in Mexico City in 1993. Montserrat is a 38-year-old woman working at the Antares Sound Studios, producing sound effects for films, as well as dubbing films into Spanish for the video market. She likes her job even though she could be making more money at a larger studio, but then she would have to deal with more people. She prefers to keep to herself and set her own hours, which is usually overnight when no one else is around. A friend since childhood is Tristán Abascal, a former soap opera star whose career faltered after the death of his girlfriend and co-star Karina, in a car accident ten years before. The anniversary of her death is coming up, with Tristán obsessing over the memory, which he couldn't avoid even if he wanted to, since the media keeps bringing it up. He doesn't want to talk about it since he knows no one would believe his side of the story, and the truth would tarnish Karina's reputation. Tristán has just broken up with current girlfriend Yolanda, moving to a new apartment, where due to mis-delivered mail he discovers the man living on the floor above him is retired film director Abel Urueta. Tristán was not the horror film fan, but he was often subjected to them when Montserrat dragged him along to the cinema, or forced him to watch rented tapes. He tells her of meeting Urueta, she insists on meeting him too, and when that happens she has to ask about "Beyond the Yellow Door."

Abel says it was never completed due to personal conflicts between several parties involved, including the person financing it, Alma Montero, a retired silent film star. She was in love with Wilhelm Friedrich Ewers, a German occultist who had commissioned the film to be part of his casting a spell that would make him immortal. Others involved included Clarimonde Bauer, Abel's girlfriend and hopeful actress, who was also having an affair with Ewers. When Alma found out she withdrew her funding and confiscated the film reels, supposedly destroying them. But not all of them. Abel was convinced not completing the film, not completing Ewers' spell, is what stalled his career, and others involved had also suffered negative consequences. When he learns about Montserrat's job he reveals he had managed to save one reel, which included the scene in which Ewers would articulate his spell, to have been recorded in post-production. Abel also had a book Ewers had written, along with script pages, so he, Montserrat, and Tristán dub the dialog onto a new print. The book's title references the silver nitrate film stock in wide use until the 1950s, but discontinued in most countries. It's low cost meant some countries, Mexico included, still used it into the '60s, in spite of its volatile, flammable nature. Montserrat was hesitant to handle the film, but her curiosity got the better of her, since she had read Ewers' book and researched other occultists. Then strange things start to happen, Abel's theory being that recording the spell and projecting the film might have brought Ewers back to life. He had supposedly been stabbed by a mugger, but perhaps someone from his occult group murdered him out of fear of his power.

There are digressions throughout; pages from Ewers' book and Montserrat's research into the occult. Quite a few real life people are mentioned, other Mexican directors and actors, but also occultists, including Jack Parsons and his wife Marjorie Cameron, both proponents of Thelema, which had been devised by Aleister Crowley. The Vril Society and the Ahnenerbe, Walther Wüst, Arnoldo Krumm-Heller, German actress and Nazi spy Hilde Krüger, along with Hitler's top henchmen, Himmler, Goebbels, Göring, and others interested in the occult. Ewers had stolen various beliefs from other cultures, which didn't make sense in the context of his obsession with the superiority of the Aryans, which he believed was the original master race, but diminished with interbreeding with untermensch. It also didn't make sense that Montserrat would become obsessed with him, since she was from a group Ewers would have despised. I know most writers don't think the dictum of "Show, Don't Tell" is always valid. In this case, when most of the story is flowing smoothly, too much digression and dialog can stall the momentum. In addition to the focus on Ewers' book, that also happens when Montserrat and Tristán encounter José Lopez, who under his alternate name of Romeo Donderis was co-screenwriter of "Beyond the Yellow Door."

I won't detail any more of the plot, only say the majority of the writing is in a very cinematic style, almost as if a screenplay. Descriptions of the settings, placement of objects, character movements, lighting and shadow, along with the requisite jump-scares you expect in a horror film. As I said above, a lot of that can be attributed to the character's mind-set at the time, and in a few cases, even though they may think they were awake, it could have been part of a dream. Mostly exciting, intriguing, and creepy. Lopez had either been part of Ewers' cult for a time, or else knowledgeable of it, and had come up with his own protective spells. Montserrat and Tristán use some of those spells, but a few of their own, including an alternate alphabet they had created as children, prove just as effective. Silvia has yet to write a sequel, and I don't expect one for this book either, but I would like to know what the future holds for Montserrat, who may be out of a job at Antares at the turn of the new year, 1994. She and Tristán had been friends for more than thirty years, although estranged at times. Can they possibly make it as a couple? In spite of what he's been through, I'm not sure Tristán is brave enough to try.


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Silvia Moreno-Garcia

July 18, 2023

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