Flicker, Theodore Roszak

Bantam, 1992 reprint of 1991 original, 672 pages, UK#6.99 pb, ISBN 0-553-40480-6

A dead movie reviewer recommended this book to me.

OK, so he wasn’t dead at the time, nor was he addressing me in particular, but I was an avid reader of the Usenet group rec.arts.movies.current-film in 2003, at the time the much-missed Toronto-based film critic Peter Harkness wrote a recommendation for Theodore Roszak’s Flicker.  I can’t say that I hunted it down in any serious fashion, but the book stayed in my mind and when I happened to see copies in a dealer’s room at a British SF convention in early 2010, I immediately grabbed a copy.

And what a great recommendation that was.  Flicker’s slug-line is “Sunset Boulevard meets The Name of the Rose”, and that does manage to give an idea of the movie trivia and occult knowledge that are blended so successfully in Roszak’s novel.  It’s a coming-of-age story that becomes a historical investigation before turning a horror novel.  It’s crammed with real and invented detail, and not even the radical technological changes that have happened since 1991 can manage to completely defuse its paranoid premise.

It starts leisurely enough, as a young Los Angeles man interested in movies during the fifties is taken under the wing of a complicated woman for whom movies and life are inseparable.  She understands films like few others, and her tutelage of our narrator is part argument, part passionate bedroom exertion.  Our protagonist is warped by the experience, but his true fall down the rabbit hole of Flicker starts at a wild Hollywood party in which they manage to steal a treasured movie from collectors.  Alas, it’s not the film canister they’re looking for, and so they end up with a film by mysterious German director Max Castle.  The film has a raw horrific power that neither character can understand, and so begins our protagonist’s journey to discover the truth about Castle’s movies… and then the real story behind Castle himself.

The first third of Flicker can be read as an affectionate homage to the (maybe) more innocent fifties and sixties, an era where students discussed movies with passion, and Hollywood existed as a playground to the stars.  There’s a great portrait of a small hole-in-the-wall cinema, and a nostalgic depiction of what it felt to be a young man living on a mixture of eroticism and pure love of cinema.  The copious amount of period detail is all the more astonishing once we realize that the novel was written well before the rise of the Internet and wide availability of historical film information.

But as the Max Castle mystery grows deeper, the novel shifts gear to something darker.  Something isn’t right about Castle’s movies, and this mystery soon comes to envelop our narrator’s life.  There are tricks inside those films that go well beyond subliminal messages to directly manipulate viewers’ brains.  As our narrator finds out more (twice getting information by sleeping with aging movie stars), the novels grows more and more sombre: Castle wasn’t the only one out there with the knowledge to manipulate people through the flicker of movies… nor the worst one.

As Flicker advances, it also dives deeper into a conspiracy theory that blends religious history and manipulation –movies not only being used as instruments of propaganda, but of social decay.  By the end of the book, Roszak makes an argument that purports to explain the acceleration and depravity of modern pop culture, using a number of outrageous fictional examples.  It’s an effective creep-fest as long as you don’t think too much about the overblown darkness of the author’s vision, or how crime rates have declined quite a bit since when this book was written.

It’s too bad that Flicker moves too leisurely to sustain the impact of its conceit, and often gets lost in the meandering of its own conspiracies.  A tighter third act could have helped the novel keep some of the impact that dilutes away in its extended epilogue.  Obviously, it’s best suited for hard-core film geeks: while casual moviegoers will like it, those with more historical knowledge of films will enjoy the references even more.  Still, it’s quite a wonderful reading experience: The dense narration is interesting, and the conspiracy theory is fit to momentarily blow anyone’s mind…

But there’s a reason why Flicker keeps much of its cult appeal even today.  It may even have inspired a few other works since then: Ramsey Campbell’s The Grin of the Dark runs along the same lines as Flicker, with a hero tracking down a demonic director using resources that include the Internet Movie Database.  As Harkness suggested in his recommendation, this isn’t one of the many novels about Hollywood and filmmaking; it’s a novel about movies and the experience of watching them.  Now that it’s back into print, it ought to move up on any film buff’s reading list.

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