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.

Black Like Me

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Family photo taken in the early 1990’s with my friend and classmate, “Vampire Liz.”

Just over a year ago, something happened to me that made me question my identity. In fact, since the election results came in and I woke up in Trump’s America on November 9, 2016, I’ve been thinking about identity a lot — mine, my son’s, my friends’, my neighbors’, my co-workers’, and complete strangers’. I’m not 100% sure what made me think about the incident that caused me to question the very nature of my own “blackness,” but it might be any number of news stories you can read at your leisure online dealing with the shocking reality that blatant racism is back in style.

At any rate, whatever resurrected this experience for me, I started thinking about it a bit more deeply. During a meeting I attended about a year ago to discuss the qualifications of candidates applying for a social equity position at a state university, a topic related to current events came up. Bill O’Reilly had said some stupid, unprofessional, racist bullshit about Congresswoman Maxine Waters’ appearance.

I could launch into a tirade about that alone, but that’s not what I’m here to talk about. Not today. What struck me about the topic of discussion, was the fact that the white woman who was upset about O’Reilly’s statements (even after his apology, he wouldn’t shut up and continued harassing Congresswoman Waters), managed, in the same breath, to commit her own act of unconscious racism.

The same woman who was talking about how upset she was because Congresswoman Waters had been attacked/criticized/mocked/marginalized for being “culturally authentic.” And then, she looked at me and said, “That’s the right term, isn’t it?” She committed an act of unconscious racial microaggression.

Now, to be fair, we were a group of faculty and staff working together at a university and engaged in friendly conversation about something we all took issue with, but then suddenly I was assigned the role of Black Person Expert. This wasn’t the first time, and I assure you, it won’t be the last time I get asked to put on that hat.

When I was younger, I operated under the misconception that if I was one of the only people of color in the room, it was my responsibility to speak for All Black Folks. I assumed it was my responsibility because it was an expectation of white people. Each time I was asked to speak for All Black Folks, it made me uncomfortable to be put on the spot by a room full of white people who were expecting me to educate or enlighten them on the mysteries of “blackness.” It made me uncomfortable for several reasons, including the fact that I worried I would say the wrong thing. The “wrong thing” was a double-edged sword, because I was either going to misrepresent black people by giving my opinion as an individual who had very little access to other black people growing up, or I was going to disappoint white people by not saying what they wanted to hear. These situations became even more uncomfortable when other people of color were in the room, but weren’t being asked for their input. By the time I was done speaking, I was almost 100% guaranteed to have enemies on either side of that one-sided conversation.

Why would I be chosen as the spokesperson for All Black Folks when other people of color were present? Well, because I’m not really black. I mean, unless it’s more convenient for me to be black.

When the white woman looked at me for confirmation that she was using the appropriate, politically correct terminology for…I don’t know…black people in their natural state of being, a few buried memories and neglected emotions came to the surface of my mind. But first, I laughed out loud at the absurdity of her question and the fact that she was using the term incorrectly.

Before I delve into what this one seemingly harmless question awakened for me, I just want to make something perfectly clear, just in case you didn’t know, THERE IS NO MONOLITHIC BLACK IDENTITY.

You can’t point to one person’s experience and say, “that’s culturally authentic.” Also, “cultural authenticity” is a literary term used to measure how well a book depicts a specific cultural group regarding language, everyday life, etc. So, I’m not sure you can even use the term to describe real people. And, even if you could, the woman’s use of the term in relation to Bill O’Reilly’s comments and the reality of Congresswoman Waters’ hairstyle doesn’t make a lot of sense. What distinguishes Waters’ hair as being culturally authentic?

To satisfy my curiosity and to make sure I wasn’t spouting bullshit like Bill O’Reilly, I Googled the term, and the only hit I got that referenced actual people was in relation to tourism and the practice of “performing” cultural authenticity. I think this is also called staged authenticity, in which an indigenous culture creates a version of their culture for tourists that may not match the actual lives of people living in that culture.

Even after confirming my suspicions about the term and its correct usage, it still struck a chord with me, and I felt the need to explore how I was feeling about it being used to refer to non-fictional people. People who don’t necessarily fit into the misconception of “blackness” being one identity. So, I Googled “what does it mean to be black in America.” Go ahead. Google it. I’ll wait.

A lot of people are talking (and have been talking) about the meaning of “blackness” and how we view ourselves and others. Now, this is a subject I could really sink my teeth into. I realized that reading about other people’s experiences would help me unpack my own feelings and reactions to that white woman’s question and expectation that I had the answer.

FYI, I don’t have the answer.

After searching for “what does it mean to be black in America,” I felt validated, comforted, empowered, and relieved to know that I wasn’t alone in dealing with this identity issue as a woman of color who doesn’t always fit people’s world view of “blackness.” I especially enjoyed reading a Washington Post article that looked at the experiences of three women and what it means to be “black enough.”

“According to Jelani Cobb, a historian and writer at the New Yorker, defining “blackness” is inherently complicated — because race is an invented category dating back to slavery, and the category can encompass a range of identities and cultures. People identify as black, African American, African, Muslim, Native American, biracial and sometimes more.”

Identity can be a slippery slope when you don’t fit into one checkbox. And, as most people who aren’t completely clueless realize, the shaping of your identity is more complex than simply belonging to one racial group of people. This is especially true if you don’t belong to ONE racial group of people, but rather two or more. And, don’t even get me started about the intersectionalities of class, gender, sexuality, political views, religious beliefs and economic status that make the complexities of race and ethnicity even more complex.

Just like there is no monolithic blackness, there is no monolithic whiteness (although, the implication/belief of its existence is the foundation of so many problems we’re all facing in the world today), no monolithic femaleness or maleness, no monolithic gayness or straightness, or any monolithic version of any identity. That’s right angry fascist Americans, like it or not, we really are all a bunch of snowflakes. But, that’s a good thing. Our differences make us stronger and more interesting at dinner parties.

My entire life has been about finding a place to fit in. Wondering how I will ever be enough — black enough, feminine enough, pretty enough, smart enough, financially stable enough — which really boils down to being loved for who I am and who I am not.

Who am I?  I am a college educated middle-aged woman of color who writes dark speculative fiction. I am a divorced single parent of a tween boy who can pass for white in the right setting. I am the daughter of a white woman and a black man. I was raised in rural Pennsylvania by my mother’s working-class white family who were not actively racist, but culturally bigoted.

As a teen I experimented with drugs and attended hardcore shows in Central PA with skinheads, skaters and punks. I identified with Goth culture, dressed all in black, and read every piece of vampire fiction I could get my hands on. Hell, I even met Glenn Danzig.

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Me and my BFF.

My best friend is a white man I have been friends with for over 30 years and we have family dinners and celebrate certain holidays together each year. We’re family. And, speaking of family, I’m really fortunate to be so close to my cousins who make me laugh and remember not to take myself too seriously.

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Cousins make the best friends.

So, if you’re hoping to put me into one monolithic category, good luck. The color of my skin does not determine the unique and diverse nature of my life experiences. And, it certainly doesn’t make me an expert on “blackness.”