SILVER NITRATE, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s dexterity with genre — oscillating between horror, thriller, crime and gothic — is well known by now, as is her penchant for mashing them with historical Mexican settings. Her stories have ranged from a quest narrative and romance in an alternate 1920s Mexico to a reimagining of H.G. Wells’s “The Island of Doctor Moreau” in the 18th-century Yucatán Peninsula.

“Silver Nitrate,” her ninth novel, is the latest in this mold, a horror mystery set in the decaying film industry of 1990s Mexico City about friends whose attempt to break a decades-old curse unleashes something even more terrifying.

Montserrat is a reclusive sound editor who’s caring for her sister, who has cancer. She has three loves: horror movies, her white Volkswagen and her childhood friend Tristán Abascal, a tall, handsome, washed-up actor. Montserrat is abrasive and nerdy; Tristán, “more Cantinflas than James Bond,” is smooth, but also a goof. When he reaches out to reconnect, it means he’s between relationships; this time he also needs to borrow her car.

The plot is set into motion only after a long conversation between the two friends and Abel Urueta, Tristán’s neighbor and a once-famous Mexican horror film director. Over whiskey, he talks about a production he never completed, “Beyond the Yellow Door,” which was co-written by Wilhelm Ewers, a Nazi occultist who believed that silver nitrate film was “a perfect medium for sealing spells.” But when Ewers died before “Beyond the Yellow Door” wrapped, his magic went haywire, destroying the highly flammable nitrate prints of the film, and inflicting a curse on the cast and crew.

Urueta, who has one last canister stashed in his freezer, has an idea: If Montserrat and Tristán help him finish the project, perhaps the curse could be lifted.

They agree, and at first, things go well — Tristán gets offered a big role; Urueta is approached about a retrospective of his work; Montserrat’s sister is healed of her cancer. But their fortunes are quickly reversed, and they are tormented by an onset of apparitions, deafening silences and sinister spirits. Montserrat is determined to decipher the dark magic and confront it head-on before a reckoning occurs. Tristán and Urueta scurry behind her.

This book does not linger in subtlety. The budding, slow-burn romance between Tristán and Montserrat is telegraphed from the beginning. Inner thoughts are projected to the point where revelations feel toothless, and key plot details are delivered in stiff dialogue. Moreno-Garcia couches this world in endless references to actors, directors, horror films, occultists and Mexican companies. At its best, it is a robust and haunting picture of 1990s Mexico City, its film scene hollowed out by neoliberal reforms and bad taste. Other times, the details weigh down the narrative.

Central to the book is the specter of Nazism in Latin America, the subject of books, movies and myths most notably in Brazil, Argentina and Chile, where many Nazis settled post-World War II. Their presence was less prominent in Mexico, but there were still Nazis “floating around” into the 1960s, as Urueta claims. Moreno-Garcia lays bare the compatibility of Nazi ideology with regional ideas of racial supremacy, discrimination against Indigenous groups and desires to mejorar la raza — “better the race.”

After this throat-clearing is over, the novel picks up, taking on an electrifying rhythm as Moreno-Garcia’s inventive and carefully arranged supernatural mystery unravels. Like our protagonists, searching for clues to ward off Nazi spirits and curses, the pages flow “directionless, yet confident in their steps.” Our only option is to follow as each scene unspools.

SILVER NITRATE | By Silvia Moreno-Garcia | 318 pp. | Del Rey | $28


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