Review by C.J. Bunce
The ideas and situations in Steven Savile’s new novel Glass Town could hardly be more enticing: In 1922 Alfred Hitchcock began, but did not finish, a film called Number 13. One of the sought-after lost films of Hitchcock, little is known but some film stills and production information, leaving an opening to take the film as a linchpin for a noir mystery. Savile takes that film and several fascinating ideas and blends them into what becomes a horror story that incorporates compelling visuals from many possible sources: Dead Again, Laura, Vertigo, Portrait of Jennie, Hugo, The Illusionist, The Prestige, and even an element of Tron. The story doesn’t quite live up to all its antecedents, but it provides some interesting concepts for genre readers willing to dabble in a story full of sex, violence, and grotesque horror along the way.
The grand ideas ultimately are in need of a more refined and pared down plot and possibly a more compelling lead character–Josh is a descendant of a line of men who spent their lives infatuated with a lost actress who appeared in the Number 13. On Josh’s grandfather’s death he is reeled into a world of his own family connections and a history that he learns about and shares with us along the way as he, too, becomes infatuated with the missing actress and the interworkings of his family, tied into a well-known crime lord. But we never learn much about Josh and why we should care about him. Early London cinema and 1990s London don’t quite come through visibly, and the lack of more detailed world building results in a story that could be about a Boston or Chicago or Irish mob family as opposed to the familiar Victorian London of so many classic Gothic novels. We encounter many bleak and unsavory characters and over-the-top situations–the kind of grotesque fantasy of a Clive Barker movie instead of what could have been a more accessible mainstream mystery interweaving the aura of magicians, the historical authority you might find in a Connie Willis novel, or the command of the details of early film technologies you might find in a Kim Newman story.
Yet many great ideas come into play. Josh uncovers and meets a lost and long-dead magician who was able to pull off the ultimate spectacle–hiding an entire town in a glass lens. An evil ancestor of Josh used the magician to trap the actress he was so fascinated with in this world, a world where a day in this Glass Town can equal a week in the real world. The story’s bad guy can even manipulate characters within the films of the silent era to do his bad deeds in our world, and we first meet the famed actress as a ghost as she attempts to find a secret talisman of glass in Josh’s home. Much of the imagery is excellent–a walking and moving actress straight from the beginnings of filmmaking appearing in your living room, incorporating the flickering image of old film as she moves about.
Savile even incorporates concepts of the silent era into his magical concepts, but we’re not provided enough background of why they’re important to the era, like Rushes, Reels, and Negatives. All could use some explanatory, even minimal backstory and context. And we want more Hitchcock, more tie-ins to the production, but we do get to see a glimpse of the lost film as Savile envisions it through Josh’s eyes.
We’re left with what is primarily a creepy, slasher flick horror story closer to The Ring: theatrical ghosts manipulated as slaves, Silent Era comedians shambling as a singular disfigured ghoul, and not enough payoff with the missing actress every man seems to long for, like we feel about Gene Tierney’s character in the noir classic Laura. It’s good stuff, but could be greater, and you could see an ambitious screenwriter carving the story back to what’s best about it for a future feature film.
Great ideas, and sure to find an audience among horror fans but probably too dark for a wider audience, Glass Town is available now here from Amazon.