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The Master Magician

Silver Nitrate

By Silvia Moreno-Garcia 

28 Apr, 2023

Doing the WFC's Homework


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Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s 2023 Silver Nitrate is an upcoming occult thriller.

Film-obsessed friends Montserrat and Tristán ended up with very different careers in the Mexican film and television industries. Montserrat became one of very few women working sound. Tristán capitalized on his good looks to become an actor. By the mid-1990s, both struggle against financial precarity. A windfall would be welcome.

The collapse of Tristán’s latest doomed romance could provide them with the winning lottery ticket the pair craves. Or provide them both with an express trip to the graveyard.

Forced to relocate after breaking up with his latest girlfriend, Tristán discovers mail intended for his new neighbor Abel Urueta. Recognizing Abel as the director of films Tristán and Montserrat watched as children, Tristán uses the misdirected mail as a pretext to strike up a friendship with the old man. They eventually learn the lurid tale of the events leading up to the sudden demise of Abel’s career.

Decades before, Abel was part of a project helmed by a German (possibly Nazi) occultist, Wilhelm Friedrich Ewers. The goal: to cast a spell using film as the medium. Things did not play out as planned. The production was almost complete when Ewers’ patron, former film star Alma Montero, discovered Ewers’ double-dealing. The project came to a sudden halt, Ewers was murdered, and its cast and crew suffered a wave of misfortune. Abel was one of the lucky ones. He may be poor but at least he is alive.

Montserrat sees that they might be able to earn a paycheck from this story. Perhaps she can sell the story to Enigma, a popular pseudoscience television show. This will require prying more details of the story out of Abel, as well as doing research into Ewers’ life.

Ewers proves surprisingly obscure even by the standards of an obscure German occultist living in Mexico. With effort, Montserrat is able to piece together a picture of the German, although it is contradictory in details. The image that emerges is of an ambitious, unpleasant racist, who nevertheless may have had genuine occult powers.

Abel has no interest in selling his story to Enigma. Instead, he proposes a more ambitious plan. Use Abel’s print of a crucial scene in Ewers’ film to complete the spell and reap the occult benefits Ewers promised decades ago. To do that he will need an actor and a sound person. Conveniently, Tristán is an actor, while Montserrat is a sound person.

What could possibly go wrong? It will be just a little dabbling in the dark arts using a spell whose true purpose may have been deliberately obfuscated. Tristán, Montserrat, and Abel are about to find out what could go wrong.


In Tristán’s defense, he is all too prone to poor decisions. The one that kneecapped his career was letting his popular actress girlfriend drive drunk, which cost his girlfriend her life, left Tristán scarred, and inspired the dead girl’s irate father to paint Tristán in the media as a predatory monster. Getting drawn into a dead Nazi’s grandiose occult machinations is entirely on-brand for him.

In Montserrat’s defense, her plan was perfectly sensible: put together a story lurid enough to satisfy Enigma, sell the script, cash the resulting cheque. Her only error was being Tristán’s friend, and being insufficiently well acquainted with the word no” where he is concerned.

Readers may be amused to see Edward Bulwer-Lytton (Victorian author for whom the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest is named) figuring in the plot. He was the author of The Coming Race, a novel which not only inspired the brand name Bovril, but also somehow convinced avid fans that there was a kernel of truth hidden in the fiction. Ewers’ school of occult flummery descends in part from The Coming Race.

It may seem a bit of a mixed message that in a book that takes a dim view of racism that a Nazi managed to produce working magic (not to mention found a cult I probably should have mentioned before now), magic that used abject nonsense as a starting point. But it can be true both that Ewers was an occult genius and that his ideological blinders meant that his model of how magic works was catastrophically incomplete.

Having committed to many working hours at the theatre, I had planned to read part of this book and finish it next week (a recipe for having to start over, given memory issues). What actually happened is that I read the whole book in one go, never encountering a moment when setting it down seemed a reasonable choice. I don’t often encounter books I cannot set aside.

Key to the experience: both Montserrat and Tristán are flawed but endearing characters about whose fates the reader will care. Having dabbled in dark forces and drawn the attention of murderous cultists, their fates are very much open to question. I expect readers will find the experience as enthralling as I did.

Silver Nitrate is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Barnes & Noble), and here (Chapters-Indigo). While Silver Nitrate is listed here (Book Depository), Book Depository closes on the 26th, so I don’t know if there’s any point to order a July release from them.