Silver Nitrate – by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Still in the mood for horror, I decided to play relatively safe and go for Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s latest novel.

Title: Silver Nitrate

Author: Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Publication Date: 18 July 2023

Genre: Horror

Pages: 323

Standalone or Series: Standalone

Representation: Mexican setting & cast – Bisexual main character – Middle-Eastern main character – Disabled main character

Content Warning: Death – Murder – Violence – Gore – Racism – Sexism – Biphobia – Addiction – Bullying – Car accident – Suicide – Medical content – Cancer – Toxic relationships

Synopsis

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Daughter of Doctor Moreau and Mexican Gothic comes a fabulous meld of Mexican horror movies and Nazi occultism: a dark thriller about the curse that haunts a legendary lost film–and awakens one woman’s hidden powers.

Montserrat has always been overlooked. She’s a talented sound editor, but she’s left out of the boys’ club running the film industry in ’90s Mexico City. And she’s all but invisible to her best friend, Tristán, a charming if faded soap opera star, though she’s been in love with him since childhood.

Then Tristán discovers his new neighbor is the cult horror director Abel Urueta, and the legendary auteur claims he can change their lives—even if his tale of a Nazi occultist imbuing magic into highly volatile silver nitrate stock sounds like sheer fantasy. The magic film was never finished, which is why, Urueta swears, his career vanished overnight. He is cursed.

Now the director wants Montserrat and Tristán to help him shoot the missing scene and lift the curse . . . but Montserrat soon notices a dark presence following her, and Tristán begins seeing the ghost of his ex-girlfriend.

As they work together to unravel the mystery of the film and the obscure occultist who once roamed their city, Montserrat and Tristán may find that sorcerers and magic are not only the stuff of movies.

Analysis

Form & Style: Silver Nitrate is a single story told by two alternate voices; both written in third person, the points of view of Montserrat and Tristán come across as more or less distinctive at different points of the story, at times providing an insightful exploration of their complementary experiences, as well as new relevant information, other times blending into a more uniform and occasionally redundant narration, which is not helped by the author’s slight proclivity to repetitions. On the upside, the frequent references to the film industry, both in terms of mundane details and general imagery, makes the narration feel rooted in its main characters’ experiences, and the writing is overall pleasant enough, and well-suited to the story and ambience.

Setting: The novel is set in ’90s Mexico City, and more specifically in the world of broadcasting and entertainment, here portrayed less in its glamour and glory, and more in its peripheral galaxy of frustrations and fallen dreams. At the same time, the story often takes us back to more distant ages, thanks to its references both to Nazi occultism and to the world of black-and-white films. All in all, it’s an entertaining combination of old-timey vibes, that manages to be charming even in its more obvious cliches.

Characters: The two main characters, Monserrat and Tristan, are both irksome and relatable in their respective ensembles of sensitivity and fatal flaws. Their long-lasting friendship, at times dysfunctional and marred by the bitterness of unrequited love on Montserrat’s side, is one of the most appealing notes of the novel, combining heartwarming and infuriating moments, and coming across as very human and real as a result. In comparison, all other characters are closer to cardboard figures and plot devices – which isn’t entirely out of place given how the book plays homage to B-movies.

While I did love the characterisation of both protagonists, as well as their uneasy but unshakable bond, I wasn’t really enthused by their romantic resolution, which felt at once very predictable and tropey – of course, the two main characters of a pulp adventure must get together because what else? – and not as much as a happy ending as it tried to be, all too easily brushing off decades of misunderstandings and the obvious imbalance in their devotion.

Plot: Very much in theme with its setting, the novel is divided in three sections named “Opening Title Sequence”, “Feature Film”, and “Fade to Black”, which are respectively a rather lengthy introduction to the daily lives and concerns of our main characters, the story of their close-quarters encounter with terrifying magical powers and their even more unsettling wielders, and a very brief conclusion. These sections are somehow oddly proportioned, especially as the first takes perhaps longer than needed to even hint to the main themes of the story; I certainly don’t mind a slow-paced storytelling that gradually builds up atmosphere and tension (something that, for instance, Mexican Gothic did very well), here however I found myself wondering why we were devoting so much time to our characters’ mundane preoccupations if we already knew that the story proper was about something else.

If I could still justify such a choice as means to establish their drives and investment in their future mission, as well as to flesh out their admittedly well-crafted personalities, I was then disappointed by how little of their background was properly wrapped up in the conclusion, that is more focused on delivering us a paint-by-the-numbers romantic resolution, skating over a few other questions we might have had about their past and current predicaments. Nevertheless, once the story gets going the book is indeed quite engaging, enough to forgive (but never, ever forget) even its most obvious rough spots.

Themes & Overall Thoughts: As I mentioned, the novel is a homage to vintage entertainment, and to black-and-white horror movies in particular. It does more, however, than just casually blending occultism and pop culture – it establishes a link between the two, building a magic system that uses filmmaking, as well as creatively interpreted symbolism and personal beliefs, as means to pursue supernatural ends; it uses concepts that’ll sound familiar to anyone with even a passing knowledge of postmodern occultism, and that I enjoyed encountering in a novel.

Silver Nitrate also deals with the problematic roots of some occult traditions, especially as they flirted with racial suprematism. While the theme is copiously mentioned – given the Nazi background of the main Bad Guy, and a few discussions on who may or may not be a powerful sorcerer – the resolution isn’t especially original or insightful: the racist assumptions on magical talents are de facto debunked, but that’s just basically it. Not that any more enlightening take on the matter was required by the plot, I just had somehow higher expectations, given how other times the author had used horror themes as a rather brilliant metaphor for colonialism and exploitation. On the other hand, it could be noted that the characters’ different approach to magic goes hand in hand with the postmodernist take I mentioned above: Ewers’s occultism was steeped in racial prejudice because of its mindset, not because of some inherent quality of magic itself; not unlike how Montserrat and Tristán replace ancient runes with their personal lingo, which is much more meaningful to them.

All in all, Silver Nitrate does not recapture the state of grace of Mexican Gothic – the novel that made me fall in love with the author, and that perhaps I should just stop using as a frame of reference for my own good; it is, however, an entertaining read with a good ambience and some clever idea.

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