Mask of Silver (Arkham Horror)
I’m a huge fan of Aconyte Books and the many board games and role-playing games that they are adapting into novels and anthologies, and I’ve been deeply impressed by the way in which they have slowly but surely expanded the range of properties to develop while still consistently retaining the high quality of prose, covers and authors shown in their earliest releases despite now having published dozens of titles. Of all of their product lines, I’ve most enjoyed their relaunching of the venerable Arkham Horror setting – the cover art has been absolutely stunning, the choice of authors inspired, and the stories themselves anything but clichéd and boring. That’s why I’m always so eager to review each of the Arkham Horror titles as Aconyte release them – I recently reviewed the latest in the series, the fantastic anthology The Devourer Below which blew me away with how it managed to tell eight individual horror stories while simultaneously threading an overarching narrative through them that introduced a new and terrifying cult to the salt-tinged Jazz Age corruption of the New England city.
For this review, I’m moving back slightly in the series and reviewing one of the latest Arkham Horror titles to be released in paperback, and kindly sent to me by the publisher alongside several others from different series: Rosemary Jones’ Mask of Silver. I’d been anticipating reading this entry in the series in particular for two reasons: firstly, there was that sumptuous, elegant and quietly unsettling cover art by Daniel Strange, and secondly Jones’ story was focused on the cast and crew producing silent, monochrome films – the really early kind released before the advent of the ‘talkies’ with their often eerie qualities that seemed a perfect fit for the Arkham Horror setting. The back-cover blurb just made the novel seem even more intriguing: Hollywood make-up artist and costumier Jeany Lin travels to Arkham to join her sister, famous actress Renee Love, on the set of enigmatic genius director Sydney Fitzmaurice’s latest horror film. Sydney is determined to maintain his reputation and outdo the recent efforts of upstart actor and director Lon Chaney – but Jeany and Renee cannot even begin to imagine the lengths that Sydney will go to in order to retain his status in the film industry; nor what it will cost them or their friends as filming progresses.
The novel’s prologue occurring in the early 18th Century sets the scene nicely, as a mysterious fire ravages the mansion of the wealthy Baker family; a loyal servant flees from the flames with the patriarch’s children, noting with disquiet that the intense heat and flames are not damaging the strange glass mirrors scattered throughout the property, nor harming the mysterious, ghostly hooded figures that roam the property. Faceless figures that are rumoured to trap the souls of unwary visitors in the cursed mirrors. It’s a fantastic, evocative opening that instantly creates an unsettling and mysterious atmosphere for the novel, and effortlessly draws the reader into the rest of the plot. Jones then travels forward to the ‘modern-day’ 1920s and deftly sketches out the novel’s characters – the cast and crew of the film. Jeany, our narrator and protagonist, an expert make-up artist and costumier; Renee, her sister, the beautiful and talented star of the films they all work on; Max, accountant and general assistant to the director, sent by the studios to keep an eye on film costs but then drawn into the company of the others; and of course the high-strung, arrogant director himself, Sydney Fitzmaurice. Despite the rave critical reviews of his latest film, Sydney is intensely aware of Lon Chaney’s rival films, and the endlessly deep pockets of Universal, the studio backing Chaney in his attempts to outdo Sydney and claim the mantle of superior director of horror features. Giving Sydney a background as a former circus ringmaster turned film-maker was an inspired choice by Jones, as it perfectly explains the director’s perfectionist, daredevil attitude towards film-making, always attempting to one-up his previous attempts, as well as his tyrannical attitude to working his cast and crew.
That relentless arrogance helps to drive the narrative ever-onwards, even as things become more and more disquieting, and the Lovecraftian elements begin to creep into the plot as it nears the final scenes of Sydney’s latest film. Just what is the significance of the silver mask that Sydney insists that Jeany crafts and Renee wears during some of her scenes, and what does it have to do with the strange mirrors in the building chosen for filming? Jones deftly and expertly ratchets up the tension as filming begins, intertwining the narrative with a rich tapestry of symbolism to create a tense and often quietly unnerving atmosphere as Sydney begins to obsess over the film and his fascination with the silver mask, mirrors and “invasions from beyond” builds into something almost physical that begins to affect cast and crew alike, culminating in a quite literally explosive finale. The engaging narrative is bolstered by some fascinating insights into the process of writing, casting and filming a Hollywood blockbuster during the Jazz Age; it rapidly becomes clear that Jones has done some thorough research into the subject as we get to see how clothes and costumes are made, the fragile film reel is stored and used, and the complex, often mathematical process of achieving the camera shots required by the director. There’s even an amusing sub-plot running through the film about how the much-theorised ‘talkies’ will never happen because adding speech to films would be ruinously expensive. Add to this colour and drama in the form of gossip about the hidden, seamy side of Hollywood in the form of affairs, divorces and even murders, and you get an incredibly atmospheric and engaging period piece interwoven with the Mythos elements.
And while the Mythos elements of the plot are brilliantly executed, especially once Sydney’s family history and its influence on him is finally uncovered, perhaps the most horrifying – and memorable – parts of Mask of Silver aren’t the machinations of eldritch, inhuman deities from another dimension; but the very human and very real horror to be found in the experiences of Chinese-Americans during that period. Jones goes into impressive and often quietly depressing detail about the prejudice, xenophobia and outright racism that Jeany and her sister face as they make their latest film, elements that accentuate and solidifies the occult horrors running through the plot. Because while the Lovecraftian terrors may be banished, no matter how temporarily or at what cost, Jones makes it unerringly clear that the structural racism baked into American society is not so easily overcome. Casual slurs, dismissive attitudes and unthinking stereotyping are always simmering in the background for Jeany; and having to keep one’s heritage a closely-guarded secret or lose everything is a horrifying burden to have to carry throughout one’s life. Ironically, while Lovecraft himself would likely have been horrified by it given his attitudes and predilections, the Mythos he helped to create is actually a useful tool for talented and thought-provoking authors like Jones to highlight and illuminate the negative elements of American society – both in the 1920s and 2020s.
Chilling, horrifying and thought-provoking in equal measure, Mask of Silver is a superlative piece of Arkham Horror fiction from Rosemary Jones, and is perhaps one of the best titles in the setting yet published by Aconyte Books. Deftly merging inhuman eldritch horrors and the very human horrors to be found in the United States of the Jazz Age, Jones has created a distinctly memorable and incredibly enjoyable monochrome-tinged adventure though Hollywood and the silver screen. At times almost writing a meta-narrative that comes across as a film itself, with a fantastic sense of period atmosphere and an enthralling and unnerving narrative, Jones has written a genre masterpiece – and one with more than sufficient hooks present to allow for a sequel – or two. I’d love to see more Arkham Horror titles from Rosemary Jones – or from any other setting published by Aconyte Books – and I think the publisher would be foolish not to contract with her in the future.