Fiction Fragments: Gemma Files

Last week I wrapped up my month-long celebration of black women horror writers for Women in Horror Month/Black History Month with an interview with Zin E. Rocklyn, a.k.a. Teri Clarke. If you haven’t had a chance to read all of the interviews I did last month, take some time and and get caught up now. These women have a lot to say about writing horror while black and female and how their personal experiences and intersectionalities have an impact on what they write about.

This week, Girl Meets Monster is back to business as usual, with a fragment and an interview with Gemma Files.

Formerly a film critic, journalist, screenwriter and teacher, Gemma Files has been an award-winning horror author since 1999. She has published four collections of short work, three collections of speculative poetry, a Weird Western trilogy, a story-cycle and a stand-alone novel (Experimental Film, which won the 2015 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel and the 2016 Sunburst Award for Best Adult Novel). She has a new story collection just out from Grimscribe Press (In This Endlessness, Our End), and another upcoming.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Gemma. Thank you for taking time to chat with me a bit. Tell me about your newest collection of stories, In This Endlessness, Our End. Is there an overarching theme, or threads that connect the stories? Are all of the stories new, or are there some reprints? How do you decide which stories to include? Did you have a plan in mind when you started the collection?

GF: So, the funny thing is that as it turned out, all the stories in this collection were essentially written—finished, at any rate—within the time-period from about a year before Trump’s election to almost the end of his (hopefully only) term in office. The fact that they were originally intended to be published by my former home imprint, ChiZine Publications, which suddenly and acrimoniously collapsed in November of 2019, is also interesting, in hindsight; so is the fact that Jon Padgett at Grimscribe chose to pick the book up during a global pandemic. Which means that the overarching theme of all these stories is the sort of fear you feel when the world you think you know tilts on you in a way which only seems “sudden” at the moment it happens, as well as the guilt and grief which come when you realize you saw [this, whatever “this” is] coming from miles away, and simply chose to ignore those warning signs as they mounted because…well, because you wanted to. Because you liked your life, and the illusions it was rooted in. Because you hoped things had gotten better, and you forgot that every ten years, a generation comes of age who haven’t lived through the same things you have, so they have to have experiences which will prove the same basic facts about human nature over and over and over again. Etc.

It’s easy to say, of course, that the theme of every horror collection is fear. But I do find it oddly significant that the first story in the TOC—“This Is How It Goes”—happens to be set during the aftermath of a body horror plague that rips around the world like a creepypasta come true, moving from urban myth/internet rumour to immediate reality within forty-eight hours at the most. When I read it on The Outer Dark Podcast recently, I called it a “pre-pandemic post-pandemic tale.” So, these particular stories ring with a very current sort of fear, for me. Whether other people will see it that way as well is up to them, I guess.

The stories are all reprints, basically, though because I often get published in fairly obscure places, I expect that a lot of them will be new to most readers aside from those solicited by people like Ellen Datlow (“Cut Frame,” from her Hollywood Horror anthology Final Cuts; “The Puppet Motel,” from Echoes: The Saga Anthology of Ghost Stories). And no, I didn’t have this in mind when I put the book together, it just shook out that way. The one thing I have in common with the Joker is I’m not much of a planner.

GMM: So, you mention that you’ve written a story-cycle and a Weird Western series. What is the difference between a story-cycle and a series, and how does your process change from project to project–short stories versus stand-alone novels versus a series, etc.? Do you decide on what shape your stories will take before you write them, or do the stories evolve into the appropriate length to fit the story as you write them?

GF: The Weird Western series—my Hexslinger books—basically filled in a three-act, chapter-driven narrative over three separate novels. I’d made an outline at the very beginning for what I thought would be one book (A Book of Tongues), only to find that by the time I’d written 100,000 words I’d only gotten to what was fairly obviously the first break-point; I kept to that outline throughout, moving through it linearly, as if I was writing a trilogy of screenplays. The story-cycle, on the other hand—We Will All Go Down Together: Stories of the Five-Family Coven—was built around a base of stories reprinted and slightly polished from earlier in my career, ones which inhabited an urban paranormal universe I only slowly realized was anchored by the same cast of characters, all of whom were literally related to each other. I sprinkled them through in non-linear order, introducing those characters and the five families they belonged to as I went, while also writing/finishing four new novellas that made these connections clear and brought the overall story to a climax. I like to call it my Alice Munro book, except with evil angels, witches, monster-killing nuns and the Fae.

As for whether I made either of those decisions strategically…yeah, not really. Sometimes I think the only method I have for knowing if a story is finished is: “Does it feel ‘right?’ Okay, then.” I do know that with the Five-Family Coven stuff, I essentially wanted to prove to myself that polite, clean Toronto, Canada could be just as dark, weird and potentially awful as any other city written about from that angle by one of its citizens. It started out as what I called my Toronto Dark phase, then got more and more complicated, like a bunch of in-jokes which grew legs and started to walk on their own. And even now, I still continue to use that universe as the back-story of a lot of my more recent tales; a minor character from We Will All Go Down Together plays a main role in “Cut Frame,” for example, plus a minor role in “The Puppet Motel.” It’s there if you look for it. 

Otherwise, the shape of a story is usually dictated by the voice of the person who’s telling it, or the perspective of the person who’s living it. My plots are often a little more complicated than they need to be, but I don’t believe that plot and character can be completely separated. It’s not just “this happened,” it’s “this happened, because someone did something.” As Bill Duke says in Menace 2 Society, speaking for/to almost all my protagonists, “You know you fucked up, right?”

GMM: Why horror? What draws you to the genre? Have you written in other genres? What do you like most about horror as a writer? As a reader? After winning the Shirley Jackson Award, did you automatically feel like a bonafide horror writer, or do you still struggle with impostor syndrome? Has winning awards changed you as a writer?

GF: A deep and sparkling darkness has always been what draws me towards the things I love, at least in terms of art. I mean, I started out ostensibly liking science fiction, but soon figured out A) what I liked was actually space opera, because B) I’m really not that great with science, outside the purely biological. Also, my formative life was full of fear, so horror seemed like “home” to me…normal, natural, understandable.

Part of my journey after my son was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder was coming to realize that if a diagnosis of Asperger’s had been something people were looking for (in girls, or at all) back when I was at my worst as a kid, I might well have gotten one. I’m 52 now, so I’ve worked very hard to pass as neurotypical, but most of my life has been spent second-guessing my own instincts and berating myself for being born somehow “wrong.” The fact that that alone doesn’t make me super-different from a lot of other similarly diverse people isn’t lost on me, either; I’ve gotten away with a lot over the years, on account of reading as a typical cishet white lady. But again, I think it still has a lot to do with me feeling as if horror is the place where all the non-default people can meet, a place where becoming or realizing you’ve always been what most people see as “a monster” might not be such a bad thing.

“…horror is the place where all the non-default people can meet, a place where becoming or realizing you’ve always been what most people see as “a monster” might not be such a bad thing.”

I spent my high school years reading Tanith Lee, Peter Straub and Clive Barker, my university years reading Caitlin R. Kiernan, Billy Martin (then Poppy Z. Brite) and Kathe Koja. My favourite movies were things like Nightbreed and Near Dark, stuff about found families bound together by hunger rather than affinity. And all of this stuff came together in my writing, which from the very beginning was dictated by the old adage that if you can’t find what you want in the world, you may well be forced to make some. One of the things I’ve become very proud of, over the years, is the idea that I’ve somehow indulged or inspired other people doing the same thing, giving way to their own ids/needs and letting the devil drive. Someone told me once that my story “Kissing Carrion” told her it was okay for women to do that, and I was like: “Oh, the story about a woman who makes a puppets out of a human corpse so she can fuck her necrophile boyfriend with it, while the ghost that used to be the corpse hovers nearby invisibly going WHAAAATTTT?!? Cool!” I’m down for monster pride in any and every form.

Winning the Shirley Jackson Award for Experimental Film was a huge surprise, but that was also absolutely the award I knew I’d be happiest winning, because I’ve never pretended to be anything but a horror writer. Even my fantasy is always “dark”; even my nonfiction is always Weird. As Yukio Mishima put it, my heart’s yearning has always been to night, and death, and blood. But yeah, imposter syndrome truly doesn’t go away. I fight it by writing to a deadline, writing like it’s a job, and never fooling myself into thinking that the stuff which comes out of me is somehow so pure and beautiful it doesn’t need to be cut, tweaked or otherwise rewritten. Things can always get better, and an outside eye is a gift.

500+ WORDS OF SOMETHING NEW

Gemma Files

One thing a job like mine teaches is that people will say all sorts of things when they’re dying. It’s like the process breaks something open inside them, some long-buried infectious reservoir, a quick-draining sick-pocket. They don’t even have to know what’s happening, let alone accept it; they might still be entirely convinced they’ll survive, but it doesn’t matter. A sort of punch-drunkenness takes over, an irrepressible urge to confess.

 “I put my hand under the pillow, and that’s where I found it,” Mrs Camp told me, one morning, as I stripped her mattress so I could check it for night-sweat and all sorts of other fluids. “Then it bit down, so I couldn’t get it out again.”

“Found what, ma’am?” I asked, only half-listening. Wet bedsheets I could deal with; did, almost every day, and hardly just with her. It was sponging down the rubber mattress covers that always took up the most time, because we had to move the clients while they dried; bleach on urine never is the best smell, and it does tend to stick around. Some of (the bulk of) the lazy fools I worked with would just stick whoever they’d cleaned up for back in bed immediately, ignoring the fact that bedsores don’t react any better when crossed with cleaning product than feeble lungs do when exposed to corrosive funk. But screw it—no matter how much I longed to get shed of this job, I was determined to at least be a little better at it than those assholes.

“A mouth, wide open, like I said already. With teeth.”

“Well, that doesn’t sound good,” I told her, to which she smiled, revealing her own teeth.They looked like a busted-up china doll’s.

“No, it does not. Are you married, Kevin?”

“KeVon, ma’am. And no.”

“Oh, that’s a shame, then—big, good-looking fellow like you. I bet you’ve made a fair deal of women cry, in your time.”

Probably, I thought, the faces of all those poor girls I’d “dated” in high school suddenly coming back to me in a weird sort of flip-book flash, fluttering across my inner eye before breaking apart against the hard bone bell of my skull, disappearing into darkness. But not ’cause I wanted to, no, ma’am. Only ’cause I wasn’t strong enough yet to know who I really was, let alone to say it. 

“I do try not to, ma’am,” I told her, angling her wheelchair next to the flower-pots where I knew she liked it best. Those gardenias, heads bent over and dripping, plumped up fulsome on the very edge of decay. You could just see her faded eyes light up at the sight of them.

“Beautiful,” she told me. “Oh, Kevin. There’s still a whole lot to love in this world, isn’t there? Even now. Even here.”

“Yes, ma’am, there sure is.”

She nodded, sunk in thought. Then whispered, almost to herself, as I was turning back to see what might or might not yet be on offer from the kitchen: “But then the sun goes down and the lights go out. Then I go out, and they come in.”

At that last part, my heart gave a strange little leap, tapping itself against my breastbone like it was knocking on some door hid inside my chest. “Who’s that, ma’am?” I asked her, standing there with my hip thrown out so awkward it hurt, but not quite able to go on to my next step ’til she replied.

(God only knew, the membrane between sleep and death certainly did seem to stretch thin enough to see things through, sometimes, in life’s very last stages. Things you shouldn’t be able to see, under more normal circumstances.)

Mrs Camp just kept on staring at those damn flowers, though, like she was waiting for them to speak instead. “Oh, nothing at all, I’m sure, Kevin,” was all she said, at last. “Must be I’m being silly—mixing stuff up. Old people do that, you know.”

“Yes ma’am,” I agreed. “And young people too, on occasion.”

She nodded and lowered what she had left for lashes, then threw me a glance I’d’ve surely called flirty if she weren’t terminal, and knew herself to be so.

“Mmm-hmm,” she said. “That’s surely true.”

Do you have a fiction fragment? How about your friends? Would you like to recommend someone to me aside from yourself? Drop me a line at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Guidelines: Submit 500-1000 words of fiction, up to 5 poems, a short bio, and a recent author photo to the e-mail above.

Fiction Fragments: Ed Kurtz

Last week, I talked with Lucy A. Snyder about her Lovecraftian space opera, Blossoms Blackened Like Dead Stars. This week, Girl Meets Monster has the pleasure of welcoming Ed Kurtz.

edkurtzEd Kurtz is the author of over a dozen novels and novellas, including Sawbones, Nausea, Angel of the Abyss, and the forthcoming Boon. Ed’s short fiction has been collected in Nothing You Can Do: Stories and Blood They Brought and Other Stories. A Wind of Knives, a reissue of Ed’s queer Western novella, is out December 9. Ed lives in Connecticut with author doungjai gam.

Three Questions

GMM: When I finished reading your fragment, my first thought was, holy shit, I want to read more of this story. And my second thought was, is this story part of a larger subgenre? Are queer westerns a thing? So, I did a quick Google search and was reminded that yes, there is a history of queer and/or LGBTQ+ narratives (fictional and non-fictional) dealing with the American West. When you wrote A Wind of Knives, did you research the history of the queer West(ern), or did something else inspire your novella?

EK: There is definitely a small but vocal movement in academia and elsewhere to recover the lost and buried histories of marginalized peoples in the story of the American Frontier, which I should hope would pick up some steam as it goes along. One book in particular I cannot recommend highly enough is Re-Dressing America’s Frontier Past by Peter Boag (University of California Press). Chris Packard’s Queer Cowboys (Palgrave MacMillan) is also pretty indispensable. Now of course, these are both academic, non-fiction works. The only Western fiction dealing in queer themes that I’ve ever come across falls more under the umbrella of romance/erotica rather than traditional Western literature. That makes something like A Wind of Knives fairly rare and unusual, though I’d rather it wasn’t! It is my most sincere hope that younger folks will discover or re-discover the Western through this lens of the diverse stories yet to be properly told and ignite a new passion for such a rich genre with such a troubled and exclusive past. When I was writing the novella, then, no, there wasn’t much more to inspire it than my own desire to see someone like me in the kinds of stories I love to read.

GMM: Speaking of genres and subgenres, you’ve written under more than one fiction umbrella. What are your favorite genres to read? Do you prefer writing in one genre more than others? When you set out to write a piece, do you already have a genre in mind, or does the story evolve before someone else labels it as fitting within a specific box?

EK: It’s easier for me to say what I don’t do than what I do, but even then it tends to not be exactly true. For example, I can tell you I don’t write romance, and yet the vast preponderance of everything I’ve written, dark as it may be, tends to be love stories. I like to write about down-and-out people, folks who have been knocked around by life some in ways that maybe others haven’t so that it gives them a different perspective and maybe an edge. That kind of character is all over my work, whether it’s horror, crime, or Western. People you won’t find on the Hallmark Channel (though I find those people the most deviant of all). Most novels I’ve written started as more than one small idea over time that I eventually realized go together to form a bigger picture, so I wouldn’t say I start thinking about genre so much as who these people are and what kinds of problems they’re going to be facing. A Wind of Knives was originally going to be a sci-fi story, if you can believe it!

GMM: Something else occurred to me after reading your fragment. This reissue of your novella might be the last thing I see of yours in print. And, the more I thought about it, the angrier I got. I’m not going to go into too much detail about the terrible treatment you and others were subjected to by ChiZine Publications. If people are interested in learning more about the ChiZine controversy, they can read about it at their leisure.

Many writers, including myself, suffer from impostor syndrome and it often prevents us from moving forward with projects, or at the very least creates space for long periods of procrastination. ChiZine’s unethical treatment of you has led you to make a decision to quit writing altogether. I’m sure I am not alone in feeling cheated and saddened by that fact given that what happened to you hasn’t stolen your ability to craft good stories or diminished your past successes.

I know you can’t predict how long it will take for you to heal from this experience, but do you think there’s a story inside you that would change your mind about continuing your journey as a writer? What would it take for you to start writing again?

EK: There is at least one more thing you can expect to see from me later in 2020, which is my first full-length Western novel, Boon. The genesis of that one, which I wrote over the winter of 2018-2019 (and haven’t written anything since) is kind of fun. I had been tearing through dozens of traditional Western novels, all of them featuring these beautifully painted covers of white men astride horses against stunning vistas in the background, determined and hard, and I couldn’t stop thinking about how it would look if that rider was my Asian-American female fiancée instead? (So not very different from A Wind of Knives in that I’m still playing in the traditional Western sandbox, just without the white, straight, cisgender male exclusivity.) Eventually I sat down and just started writing the story of a Thai (then, Siamese) woman in 1874 on a nationwide mission of bloody, familial revenge. I like it a lot and hope others do, too. But really, I just wrote it for her.

Boon is the only novel I’ve written since 2015 other than a movie tie-in I did based on The Ranger. I hadn’t really planned on doing it, either, but the idea wouldn’t leave me alone. In that sense, it is entirely possible that particular brand of lightning might strike again, but I honestly don’t know. My experiences in the world of the small press over the last few years has been so overwhelmingly traumatic in terms of the way people are treated and cheated that I’m not sure high school can measure up to the pettiness and ugliness of the whole thing. To date, I have published with well over a dozen small press publishers and can name only one that has ever consistently paid me on time. On the other hand, I can name five or six that never paid me at all and ran for the hills with my money. Meanwhile, I’ve watched at conventions and other writers’ gatherings how writers often step on anyone they can to get ahead, often with a smile on their face, just to see their name on the cover of a book. It’s silly and gross and just plain exhausting to deal with all of it when all I ever wanted to do was tell some stories I hoped others would find something valuable about. Most of this really came to the surface by way of the whole ChiZine debacle, of course, but as outlandishly awful as that situation is, it’s not entirely unusual, either. It’s a pretty ugly business, deep down, and too often the ugliest actors are rewarded for their bullshit.

So, yes, it remains within the realm of possibility that I’ll write again. I can’t say for sure either way. I only know I’m not doing it now, and I have absolutely no drive to do so at all.

The mere idea of it makes me feel nervous and nauseous, like I’d be walking back into an abusive relationship I’d already gotten away from. But for now, there’s A Wind of Knives, and Boon is coming. Also, there’s still a fair amount of stuff in my files that hasn’t found the right home yet, or that needs a re-release, so I expect there’s more Ed Kurtz on the horizon, even if I’m not writing it at this moment. After that, who knows?

Exerpt from A Wind of Knives by Ed Kurtz

The dusk gathered purple on the hills a few miles distant from Daniel Hays’ fence, the sun having vanished behind them. Clouds hung low to the earth, thin; nothing above them but gray-blue sky and the first emerging stars. Daniel narrowed his eyes and took it all in, a familiar view, common enough, though he had not yet grown tired of it. Most evenings he watched the sun set and the black night take control of his modest farm, those he did not spend away from home or sick abed. But it was never the same, not to one with an eye for the subtleties of Texas at sundown. This one in particular held its own, remarkable in the way the wispy clouds soaked up the color of the setting sun against the northern hills, the thrushes hurrying to the treetops before pitch fell. It was a time Daniel typically spent with Steven, his long-time hand, often on the porch Steven himself built three summers previous. Neither of them was on the porch tonight. Tonight, Daniel stood by the fence, grasping the sanded elm for support and keeping his gaze trained on the hills. Behind him, halfway between the fence and the main house, Steven hanged silent and still from the high branch of a juniper tree.

It was a beautiful evening, but a bad one. And bad beget bad. He spent a few more minutes with the sunset, and when it went from purple to a deep, dark blue, Daniel turned back to Steven and pushed a sigh out of his lungs. The corpse was stripped naked; red, raw stripes checked its back, its ass, and the backs of its legs. Blood had crusted black where the stripes opened, attracting flies. Steven’s face was a swollen, bruised and broken catastrophe, his lips split and curled to reveal broken and missing teeth. His feet were dark with the blood settling in the lower extremities. His groin was reduced to a yawning, red-black pit—they had sliced the man’s genitals off with a knife, though whether this was done before or after they hanged him Daniel did not know.

As good a man as any Daniel ever knew, Steven was the last to deserve such an outrage, though his simmering anger did nothing to heal the wounds, replace his severed manhood, or resurrect a purpling corpse from the dead. Daniel had yet to cry out, or scream, or rage at the gathering night, and in all likelihood he never would. Instead, he tramped back of the main house, to the shed, to collect a ladder and an ax.

He climbed the uneasy rungs and brought down the whole branch. Later, when all was said and done, he chopped the tree down and salted the soil. For now, he removed the rope from Steven’s red, ripped throat and carried the body in his arms to the bunkhouse at the south end of the property. Once the bunk served as sleeping quarters for half a dozen hands, hard working Texans who toiled on foreign dirt, Mexican dirt, for Daniel’s late boss. When the War Between the States broke out, those who were left lit out; either gone to war on conscription or run off further west, to keep from raising arms against the Union they still viewed as their own country. Only Steven remained behind. Three largely quiet years on the frontier, two men and the farm they worked. Now there was no one.

Daniel laid the corpse on the cot and arranged the legs and arms so that it almost looked at rest. Steven’s left eye stared glassily; Daniel pushed the eyelid down with his thumb, but it popped back open. He felt his throat constrict and averted his gaze to the shadows filling the corners of the musty room. Daniel struck a match and touched its flame to the wick of the lantern on the floor. The lantern offered little light, but enough to see that which he would have rather not seen at all. Yet none-the-less, he looked. He looked at what was left of Steven Houpe, a good man. It occurred to him then that was what he would carve on the marker when the time came: a good man. He could not think of anything better.

“I am sorry,” Daniel whispered, touching his fingertips to the cool palm of Steven’s hand. It was not enough.

Do you have a fragment that has yet to see the light of day? Blow off the dust and send it my way at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!