If you've been kicking around as a movie fan for the last decade or so, chances are that you've at least heard Roszak's "Flicker" mentioned at least once. Originally published in 1991, the book was out of print for most of the last 15 years, and the available hardback-only copies of the book were, for the most part, fetching a prohibitive price at most used-book retailers both online and offline-- an asking price of around $50.00 being common.
Fortunately, in the last year the book has been reissued as a trade paperback, prompted by a resurgence of interest in the novel due to a rumored film adaptation coming from director Darren Aronofsky (he of "Requiem For A Dream" and "The Fountain" fame) and screenwriter Jim Uhls (who hammered out a screenplay for a little movie called "Fight Club."). Nailing down solid information about this film production has proven to be harder than grabbing a bar of soap in a prison shower; the project has been attached to Aronofsky's name for almost half a decade now, though Aronofsky repeatedly denies any plans to make the film in interviews. But then again, the book's reissue cover proclaims "Soon to be a major motion picture from the director of Pi and Requiem For A Dream!" It's all very confusing.
Like some film fans, this controversy over the film's on-and-off status prompted me to look into the novel itself, and when the news of a reissue surfaced last year, I kept my eyes peeled for a copy at my local book megastore. Months of combing the stacks proved fruitless, until last week, when in a fit of pique, I turned to the store's nearly-useless computer catalog to see if they had a copy in the store. To my surprise, they indeed had one copy, filed, for reasons known only to the drooling emo/goth chimps who staff the store, under Mysteries. Perhaps the mystery is supposed to be why a book universally regarded as a hybrid horror/sci-fi/thriller novel should be shelved next to the Rita Mae Brown/Sneaky Pie novels... but I digress.
As a long-time film aficionado and casual student of film history, the novel's premise is eerily inviting. The story's narrator is Jonathan Gates, who, at the novel's onset, is a young film buff immersing himself in the world of both popular and avant-garde cinema in the 1950s and 1960s. As he becomes a regular and then employee of a local repertory movie-house, he learns of a director from Hollywood's early years named Max Castle, who began making films in the silent era, and continued into the 1940s, primarily turning out schlock horror films. As he becomes exposed to more and more of Castle's work, though, Gates begins to realize that there's something different about Castle's films, something wrong... and the further he researches and digs into Castle's past, he discovers that there's reason to be alarmed. Not only is Castle a major, shadowy player in the early history of Hollywood, but there's evidence that Castle knew far more about the power of cinema than anyone else, and was using it for a specific purpose.
The plot that Roszak constructs is absurdly ambitious, offering a history of film that traces its roots back to the 12th century, and drapes the majority of it in secrecy and grotesque figures. Roszak patiently unfolds a tapestry of conspiracy which includes Nazis, Orson Welles, French film critic scientists, Hollywood recluses, Andy Warhol, the Knights Templar, and the all-powerful influence of "the flicker." This lunatic's lunch of disparate elements is surprisingly cohesive in Roszak's hands.
If you need a corollary, it's sort of like what "The DaVinci Code" would be like if it was about movies instead of paintings, and wasn't written by a barking moron. Roszak's prose is tight and intelligent without being pretentious, and the scope of the story, spanning twenty-plus years in the narrator's life and reflecting centuries of secret history, is consistent and well-laid. What makes the novel really work, though, is that there's a very clear current running through the work of genuine affection for the movies, and the power they have over all of us. Roszak has a solid knowledge of film history, and it comes through clearly in his work here. If you're the type who has spent an idle afternoon at your local library leafing through books about old movies, reading about films that are lost in the annals of film history, this will seem like familiar ground to you-- those old, lost films serve as "Flicker's" jumping-off point, and are the trail which the central character follows, chasing down the mysterious Castle's more and more obscure films, going (literally) further and further off the map. The central conceit of the novel is the question "what if we found some of those old, lost films? And what if, when we found them, we wish we hadn't?"