Marisha Pessl's 2006 debut novel, "Special Topics in Calamity Physics," had the breadth and swagger of a veteran's fifth or sixth effort. A rambunctious father-daughter road-trip epic, it thrived on clean narrative lines, clever literary references and a let's-go-anywhere attitude.
Like the cheery honors student who suddenly acquires a taste for painkillers and Gothic novels, Pessl's fine follow-up, "Night Film," is made of bleaker stuff. Its hero, Scott McGrath, is a disgraced reporter who's botched an investigation of Stanislas Cordova, a reclusive Oscar-winning director who trades in what Pessl describes as soul-shattering horror movies. Scott lost his job making indefensible claims that Cordova was abusing children or worse near his upstate New York mansion. But when Cordova's 24-year-old daughter, Ashley, dies after falling off a Manhattan rooftop, Scott is compelled to dust off his files.
Youth in peril is a consistent theme for Pessl. Scott is a divorcee with a young daughter, and he acquires two junior gumshoes in Nora, a teenage coat-check girl who was among the last people to see Ashley alive, and Hopper, who met Ashley at a camp for troubled teens. Between the brittleness of Scott's cohort and the dourness of Cordova's oeuvre, Pessl has framed a downbeat study of contemporary life. "Have you seen the world lately, McGrath?" a friend asks. "The cruelty, the lack of connection? … We're living longer, we social network alone with our screens, and our depth of feeling gets shallower."
If that's a simplistic sentiment, Pessl makes a point of complicating it, and the story moves fast. Pessl seems to have studied up on Stephen King, not just for the book's creepiness and occultist touches, but for its pacing. "Night Film" rarely drags over nearly 600 pages. Indeed, its bulk is designed to persuasively show Scott's transformation from skeptic to believer in ghostly spirits and bad vibes. (Photographs and Web-page screenshots bulk up the novel, too. This is the best novel of 2013 with a significant modeling budget.)
One synonym for "night film" is "noir," and Pessl embraces the genre's storm clouds and sense of instability: By book's end, Scott's sense of the line between mysticism and cold reality will shift often. Though Cordova is almost entirely absent from the book, his looming presence is essential to the book's mood. His philosophy is that "to be terrified, to be scared out of your skin, was the beginning of freedom, of opening your eyes to what was graphic and dark and gorgeous about life, thereby conquering the monsters of your mind." "Night Film" isn't horrifying the way Cordova's films are said to be. But concerned as it is with "how flimsy sanity was," it does a fine job of upending your assurances.
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer in Washington, D.C. He blogs at http://americanfiction.wordpress.com.