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Silver Nitrate, Silvia Moreno-Garcia – a book review

Silver Nitrate is one of my top reads of 2023. Unlike Mexican Gothic which felt predictable and contained too little characterization (see my review here), Silver Nitrate gives us gorgeous characterization. Montserrat and Tristán are richly portrayed as two people in an asymmetrical relationship. Tristán reads like a narcissist, and we suspect that he loves Montserrat, his best friend since childhood, only because of what she gives him – stability, safety and adoration. However, if this suggests that Montserrat is a doormat, nothing could be further from the truth. She is prickly, obsessive, fearless, and intelligent. At times, she wonders (as do we) why she doesn’t cut Tristán loose, but we see that she gains something more than nostalgia (for simpler times) from their relationship.

Silver Nitrate is far from predictable. The truly scary scenes are few and far between, but there is an ubiquitous miasma of dread that seeps into the main characters’ lives after they agree to help Abel (Tristán’s neighbour and one-time cult horror director) complete his film; and this keeps the reader on edge throughout. Apart from the deceased Wilmelm Ewers, a Nazi occultist whose film they complete, the strongest forces in the story are women, and the magic they manipulate and control is breathtaking. Moreno-Garcia leads us through a strange world where the dead are ever present, attack dogs are created from darkness, and when combined with strong intent, words are powerful weapons.

The ideas of occultists and writers from Europe and magical practices from pretty much everywhere, form the basis of Ewers’ magical practices. A sickly child, and now haunted by the shadow of his own imminent death, Ewers believes a magical ritual, recorded on silver nitrate film, and shown to an appreciative audience is the key to his rebirth as a healthy man.

“Yes, Crowley. I believe Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty inspired Ewers, too,” Urueta said, looking thoughtful. “Artaud thought theater was the only medium that could create a ‘communion’ with the audience that was akin to a ‘magic exorcism.’ Artaud went to Mexico, by the way. He lived with the Tarahumara, consumed peyote, and participated in a shamanic ritual. Ewers obviously found Artaud’s ideas delicious, but he loved film, not theater […] The Vril Society […] based on the ideas of a British writer called Edward Bulwer-Lytton […] thought there was a life force called vril, which, when controlled, could grant someone immense power. Of course, they also thought it was ancient Aryans who harnessed those powers.”

In short, Silver Nitrate grapples with some of the most toxic ideas and philosophies of Western esotericism, including white supremacy. But this is not a political treatise, and even Montserrat, despite her healthy self-respect, finds some of Ewers’ ideas seductive. This is a book about friendship, magic, the power of words, movies, and Mexico in the 1990s; where, as Moreno-Garcia frequently tells us, you have to leave your car in a parking lot a couple of blocks away from your building (this repetition was my only issue with the book). Silver Nitrate takes a long, hard look at racism, sexism, and the diaspora of Nazis to the Americas. Honestly, it has everything you could want from Gothic Horror and then some.  

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