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Literature / Night Film

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The novel really blurs the line between reality and fiction

2013 novel by Marisha Pessl.

When Ashley Cordova, 24 year old daughter of legendary cult horror film director Stanislas Cordova, turns up the victim of an apparent suicide, investigative journalist Scott McGrath is on the case. Years ago, McGrath's investigation into Cordova cost him his marriage and career. Motivated by a desire to solve the mystery of the seemingly cursed Cordova family, and bolstered by revenge, McGrath conducts a private investigation of the reclusive director that will lead him into some very dark places.


Tropes Found in this Work Include:

  • Abandoned Warehouse: Ashley's body is found in one.
  • Arc Symbol: The flying bird, in Cordova's films and in the book.
  • Big Applesauce: New York City is a huge Crapsack World full of Satanists, obsessive film fans, and all the best culture in the world.
  • Big, Screwed-Up Family: When factoring in non-genetic additions to the household such as Inez Gallo and Hugo Villarde, the Cordovas could be the archetypal example.
  • Chekhov's Gun:
  • City Noir: New York
  • Creepy Child: Ashley is described as this by several people who met her when she was a girl. She also plays one in one of her father's films, about a young girl who brutally murders her entire family.
  • Creepy Doll: Devold's daughter's doll. The doll was thought to be lost but then it's found in an abandoned kiddie pool, severely disfigured.
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  • The Dark Arts: Cordova is revealed to have been practicing black magic.
  • Deal with the Devil: When Ashley Cordova crosses the devil's bridge as a child, her soul belongs to the devil. Cordova tries to reverse this by trading the souls of other children.
  • Deconstructor Fleet: By the end, the novel has a lot to say about stereotypes of sexuality and portrayals of mental illness in the thriller and horror genres.
  • Defective Detective: McGrath's obsession with Cordova not only cost him his marriage, but resulted in him being publicly disgraced by the media.
  • Depraved Bisexual: Cordova, who had multiple wives, had a long affair with Villarde, and was also an escort to both men and women in his past. His ex-wife, Marlowe, says that it was a mark of Cordova's genius that he couldn't be "satisfied" by one gender.
  • Depraved Homosexual: Villarde, who was having an affair with Cordova on top of being a Sinister Minister.
  • Gainax Ending: If what happened in Cordova's mansion wasn't a Mushroom Samba and McGrath isn't undergoing Sanity Slippage, that is
  • Good All Along: For all the teases about Ashley's terrifying nature, one of the major twists of the novel is that she was actually protecting via magic, rather than seeking to harm, the children she and then, later, McGrath encountered.
  • Harmful to Minors: Ashley was five when she witnessed her father and some of the local townspeople participating in an occult ritual.
  • Loony Fan: More than a few of these are permanently camped out at The Peak and have made it their personal playground.
  • Lovecraft Country: Much of the novel takes place in and around New York.
  • Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Ashley is a posthumous version. She's astonishingly attractive, brilliant at everything, a piano prodigy, but she still loved Hopper.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: If you believe one version of the story, the Cordova family's troubles were due to Ashley being under a "devil's curse". If you believe another version, Ashley had cancer and everything that happened could be logically explained.
  • Men Are Generic, Women Are Special: Although both Cordova and Scott are men, their obsession is Ashley, while her brother, Theo, despite being apparently very haunted and playing an important role, is barely significant.
  • Most Writers Are Writers: In two ways: McGrath is a journalist and Cordova is a writer/director (and the book features pictures, extracts, and even a few sound clips).
  • Never Suicide: McGrath doesn't believe Ashley's death was a simple suicide, and several people who knew her say she had no reason to kill herself.
  • Old, Dark House: Cordova's vast estate, known as The Peak.
  • Rich Recluse's Realm: Stanislas Cordova lives in a mansion in upstate New York called The Peak. So far, it's normal enough...until McGrath gets there and realizes that Cordova and his acolytes built all the sets for his films and possibly performed deadly child-killing rituals in the enormous grounds, turning the entire place into a sort of terrifying interactive exhibit in which he was essentially worshipped as a king.
  • Rich Sibling, Poor Sibling: In a reference to Whatever Happened To Baby Jane, Marlowe and Olivia have undergone these switches. Marlowe was a highly respected actress while Olivia was a failure. However, after Marlowe got in a car accident, Olivia seduced her fiancé and married into his billions. Marlowe collapsed into alcoholism and plastic surgery addiction, has all failed marriages, and is ultimately broke and being secretly bankrolled by Olivia.
  • Satanic Panic: Stanislas Cordova is targeted by a mob who believe he is worshipping the Devil and murdering children in an attempt to spare his daughter's soul. It's left ambiguous whether he actually was.
  • Scrapbook Story: Downplayed, but there are several extracts, reviews, and news stories about Cordova, his family, and his films.
  • Secret Underground Passage: Cordova's estate is full of them.
  • Sexy Priest: Hugo Villarde, said to be very attractive and one of Cordova's lovers.
  • Sissy Villain: Hugo Villarde too, crossing over with Depraved Homosexual.
  • Spooky Photographs: There are several in the book.
  • Spooky Séance: During a dinner party hosted by Cordova one character describes attending, young Ashley suggests they play a ghost summoning game. The results are quite creepy.
  • Straw Hypocrite: By the end of the story, Scott McGrath, supposedly a normal guy investigating a bunch of freaks (or so he sees it), realizes just how much he's projecting his own perverse thoughts on to the Cordova family. Maybe.
  • Take That!: To the novels of Thomas Harris, and the many other works in the thriller genre that portray benign forms of mental illness and/or non-heteronormative sexuality as indicators for criminal behavior.
  • Troubling Unchildlike Behavior: Ashley.
  • Wham Shot: A rare example of this clearly happening in a novel. Scott is being chased through New York when he sees his stalker and realises that the man is missing a finger, meaning that he is Theo Cordova.
  • Wise Beyond Their Years: Ashley is said to be highly intelligent and seems far wiser than her young age.