Hal Underwood has worked in a video shop for too long and has seen too many films. Drawn into a strange shop in an unknown part of film by a sign of ‘rare videos and DVDs downstairs’, he finds a tape of a forgotten Italian horror film from the 1970’s. As he repeatedly watches what seems to be a neglected masterpiece, and delves into the history of the film and its director, he finds the film entering both his dreams and his day-to-day life and begins to have trouble distinguishing reality from fantasy….
Two or three times during Neon Phantoms its hero hears the voices in his head saying “Accumulate, assimilate, film is the life blood”, which is probably, even if they’re not aware of it, the creed of almost any film nut out there, though with ones like me you can slightly change it to “Accumulate, assimilate, review, film is the life blood” as even if I haven’t planned to write a review of a film I’m about to see, I can’t help but watch it with different eyes now I’ve been reviewing films for HCF, and before that on a few movie forums, for what seem like forever now. Then again, I knew that Neon Phantoms was speaking to me, and that I was already falling in love with it, really early on when Hal, for a couple of pages, seems to have wandered into one of my favourite films of all time, though not being very well up on his Mario Bava he’s not aware of being ‘in’ said film. Sean McCloy’s quite extraordinary [to me anyway…I haven’t read any of the books to which it is apparently similar like Theodore Roszak’s Flicker, Ramsey Campbell’s Ancient Images and Tim Lucas’s Throat Sprockets], self-published debut novel is more steeped in movie love than anything else I’ve read, but it doesn’t fall into the easy trap of just piling on the film references of the “I’ve seen this, aren’t I cool?” kind which so many films in particular tend to do, partly because they are so well ingrained into the fabric of the story and its world, and partly because it’s often such a witty and intelligent look at film love and doesn’t shy away from saying how being totally mad about something is not always a good thing!
The exact locale, not really stated, could be any number of towns, while the time isn’t quite the present – DVDs still share shelf space with videos and the word ‘Blu-ray’ seems to be unheard of. The main character is easy to relate to if you love your movies and even if you’re stuck in a dead end job and your life doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. McCloy’s writing style is very easy to get into, deftly establishing setting, character and even mood with great economy. He doesn’t waste much time in getting to the really interesting stuff, though it was around a quarter of the way through where things really took flight for me as Hal watches his video of The Jack-O-Lantern Man and researches the movie. The film sound like both one of the best Italian horror films ever made and something that could begin a franchise [what a great villain!], and McCloy really convinces the reader that it, its mysterious director, and the troubled stories surrounding both, could almost really exist. There a superb attention to detail here while you feel that the book could almost go anywhere when McCloy starts to have these odd visions and dreams related to The Jack-O-Lantern Man and things begin to get decidedly creepy.
Amongst all this, McCloy gives us some light relief involving some of its characters, especially Hal’s constantly grumpy boss, his wacky story ideas, and a weird religious cult which thinks movies are the work of the devil. There’s also a girl who could be Hal’s dream girl [as described she could almost be my dream girl!] though has a mystery about her. Around half way I felt the book was starting to lag somewhat with too many overly long dream scenes which, though cleverly set out like pages from a film script, overly repeat themselves somewhat and could have been reduced in number, but things do then pick up for a final section which adroitly and even [perhaps surprisingly] logically brings most of the seemingly disparate elements of the story together while still leaving the reader with some questions. I kind of expected things to go down a different route, but was happily surprised things panned out the way they did because I do love to be surprised.
The changes in tone are expertly managed and many of the film references are well enough handled so that a reader who isn’t aware of them whatsoever and doesn’t know their Freda from their Fulci can still enjoy what is happening on the page and may actually find things scarier. I especially loved the use of the little girl from Kill Baby Kill and Spirits Of The Dead, and the strange, but in the context of the book, logical explanation of the character which here is not just a case of Fellini unashamedly stealing from Bava! Neon Phantoms may have an adoration of films exuding from every word, even tending to describe many things in cinematic terms, but it also knows how, as with any obsession, it’s easy to go too far and let it take over your life. The most compelling passage of the book is a section where Hal takes a few weeks off work, and, though he tells everyone he’s going on holiday, he actually holes up in his abode with dozens of movies and sets out to watch all of them in as quick succession as possible, and during night time, day time being the time to sleep. He’s like a heroin addict becoming taken over by his habit, yet if you’re like me you’ve probably all had times when you discover a new genre or kind of film and can’t get enough of it. Neon Phantoms reminds us how wonderful loving cinema is, but also warns us about letting it totally control us.
Neon Phantoms explores several related themes such as fandom vs. cultdom and illusion vs reality, and throws in lots of pointed and often amusing comments about various films from its characters [it’s not often you hear or read somebody expressing a hatred of The Shawshank Redemption], McCloy showing a distinct knack for sharp, acerbic dialogue. The book alternates its font style quite often which keeps things fresh though this device became a little overused for my taste. You can’t fault the amazingly successful mixing of slightly heightened reality with out and out fantasy which is quite hard to pull off successfully, and the often breathless outpouring of ideas which may not all be developed fully but leave plenty of potential for a follow-up book or books if McCloy decides to embark on a return to this world. I hope that he does. Neon Phantoms is an extremely well written first effort from its author and should please both film crazies [a love of Italian horror may help but is not essential] and those just out for an unsettling, slightly trippy, reading experience with plenty of wit and observation along the way. After all, haven’t we all been there, or almost been there, at some point in our lives with our favourite hobby?
You can buy Neon Phantoms here: