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Double-Feature Book Review:
The Ritual of Illusion & Hollywood North

September 2nd, 2019

The thing I miss most about movie-going in the 21st-century is the lack of double features. I used to love watching those as a kid, sitting in a single-screen theater and letting a pair of thematically linked features roll over me.  Things like Jack the Giant Killer & Last of the Vikings or Jason and the Argonauts & Siege of the Saxons or Die Monster, Die & Planet of Vampires, or even Frankenstein Meets the Space MonsterCurse of the Voodoo (yeah, they weren’t all classics).

Perhaps it’s my fond memories of those double bills that even today has me seeking out interesting pairings in genre entertainment. To wit, the topics of today’s post: two books about filmmaking and the supernatural. And fittingly, as was often the case with those double-features of my youth, the first is one that I missed upon its initial release. The second is brand new, due out this week.

The Ritual of Illusion
by Richard Christian Matheson
PS Publishing (HC)
Crossroads Press (eBook)
October 1, 2013
118 pages

I somehow missed this tour de force when it debuted at World Fantasy in Brighton, UK, in 2013.  Such oversight is indicative of one of the problems facing the contemporary reader. There’s so much stuff out there that even the best of it can be overlooked. That’s one of the reasons why we shouldn’t put too much stock in best-of-the-year awards, as it often takes time for truly remarkable works to get the attention they deserve, and that is especially true when those works challenge the conventions of form and content. Case in point, Richard Christian Matheson’s remarkable novella The Ritual of Illusion.

Centering on the mysterious career and disappearance of fictional starlet Sephanie Vamore, the story is presented as a series of articles, transcripts, reflections, and excerpts from interviews. Reading like pieces of flash fiction, the segments link together like frames of film to create a persistent, page-turning narrative about the nature of film, stardom, and the supernatural power of cinema. What I find particularly fascinating about the book is the way its minimalist approach creates a fully-realized sense of time, place, and mounting dread.

Last summer, after finishing the book, I took part in a panel discussion on “The Best Recent Horror” at the Confluence SF convention in Pittsburgh. You can read some highlights of that discussion here.

I can’t recommend the book enough. Check it out. You’ll be glad you did.

Hollywood North: A Novel in Six Reels 
by Michael Libling
ChiZine Publications (HC, PB, eBook)
September 3, 2019
360 pages

Just released, this novel by World-Fantasy-Award finalist Michael Libling works as a time-machine to transport the reader back to the not-so-halcyon days of the mid-20th century.

Told from the point-of-view of what critic Barry Malzberg calls “perhaps the cleverest use of the so-called unreliable narrator that I have ever seen outside of Nabokov or perhaps Evan S. Connell Jr,” the novel presents the coming-of-age adventures of Leo “Gloomy Gus” Berry, a disaffected kid with a fondness for movies — particularly the horror and sf flicks that played in matinee double-features in the 1960’s. His cinematic preoccupations pepper his narrative with film references that are sure to delight anyone who came of age during the cold war.

Told at a leisurely pace that allows for the development of a rich sense of place and time, the novel moves into horror territory when Leo and best-friend Jack happen on a collection of title cards used in the production of silent films. Along the way, they learn that their sleepy Canadian town was once home to a nascent film industry, one that came to a suspicious (and diabolical) demise before they were born. It’s a chilling book with a narrative that will creep up on you and linger like a specter afterward. It’s easily one of my favorite novels of 2019.

In the spirit of the vintage double-feature, the books complement each other in subtle ways that are even greater than the sum of their remarkable parts. A great way to spend a weekend. So pop some popcorn, kick back, and let me know what you think.

Also, if you have any double-feature reads to recommend, please pass them along via the comment button or social media links at the bottom of this page. I’ll try to share some of them in an upcoming post.

In other developments, work on the redesign of this website continues apace — albeit at a slower pace than anticipated. To paraphrase Douglas Hofstadter: Stuff always takes longer than you think.

The big change so far is that the text now flows freely around the graphic in a way that should facilitate reading across all platforms. About half the users visiting this site do so with mobile devices, and the old format didn’t quite work on small, vertical screens.

Currently under construction are some new banner designs (courtesy of W. H. Horner Editorial & Design), which should start appearing soon (though likely not as soon as I think).