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.

Women in Horror Month Fiction Fragments: Zin E. Rocklyn

Wednesday, I spoke with Valjeanne Jeffers and she shared a fragment from the next book in her Mona Liveling series, Mona Livelong: Paranormal Detective III: The Case of the Vanishing Child.

Today, Girl Meets Monster welcomes Zin E. Rocklyn.

Zin E. Rocklyn is a contributor to Bram Stoker-nominated and This is Horror Award-winning Nox PareidoliaKaijuRising II: Reign of MonstersBrigands: A Blackguards Anthology, and Forever Vacancy anthologies and Weird Luck TalesNo. 7 zine. Their story “Summer Skin” in the Bram Stoker-nominated anthology Sycorax’s Daughters received an honorable mention for Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year, Volume Ten. Zin contributed the nonfiction essay “My Genre Makes a Monster ofMe” to Uncanny Magazine’s Hugo Award-winning Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction. Their short story “The Night Sun” and flash fiction “teatime” were published on Tor.com. Their debut novella will be published by Tor.com in Fall 2021. Zin is a 2017 VONA and 2018 Viable Paradise graduate as well as a 2022 Clarion West candidate. You can find them on Twitter @intelligentwat

Ten Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster and thank you for being part of my first Women in Horror Month series, Zin. What projects are you currently working on? Is horror your primary genre, or do you write in other genres? If you write in other genres, which do you feel most comfortable writing, and why?

ZER: Thank you for having me! I write primarily horror but use it across genre. Combining horror with other aspects of Speculative Fiction is what makes it fun. The genre I like to write in most is the weird because of how much freedom there is in writing it.

GMM: When did you first know that you were a horror writer? How did you develop an interest in the genre? What initially attracted you to horror stories? Which writers influenced you then? Which writers influence you now?

ZER: I’ve been a horror writer from the very beginning. My brother, who is 8.5 years older than me, made it a point to scare me in any way he could so he started with A Nightmare on Elm Street. But it backfired! I fell in love with horror instead of being frightened. I saw a way to express what I felt like was a growing darkness within me and I almost immediately took to the page. I found the Fear Street series by RL Stine not long after at around the age of 7 and used that as a framework to learn how to write as well as how to scare folks. Clive Barker was my next great discovery. His prose and imagination appealed to everything I aimed for in my fiction. Books of Blood Vol I-III is still considered a Bible to me. Barker is still a huge influence, as well as NK Jemisin, Octavia Butler, and Toni Morrison.

GMM: The documentary, Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019), explores Black horror and the portrayal (and absence) of Black people in horror movies. As a definition of what Black horror means begins to take shape, Tananarive Due says “Black history is Black horror.” What do you think she meant by that? Can you give an example of how this idea shows up in your own work?

ZER: This is essay material, but I’ll keep it short: despite the efforts of revisionist history, Black people have never been treated like humans in, at the very least, this country. Our survival against these odds is our history, our present, and unfortunately, our immediate future. Writing is my way of fighting for the truth. My stories always feature a Black woman lead, no matter how hard history tries to erase us and our contributions. I speak to my experiences in my stories as a way to flush them out as well as show the world that we are here, we matter, we are worthy.

GMM: As a WOC writing horror/dark speculative fiction, do you feel obligated to have a deeper message in your stories? Can writers of color write stories without broader messages about identity, class, and racism? Is it possible to divorce yourself from that ongoing narrative within our culture when you set out to write a story?

ZER: I do feel that pressure to have a deeper message in my work, but I’m learning to let that go and simply tell the stories within me. By default, my presence within horror and writing horror is a message unto itself. Me showing up is message enough, so there’s no definitive way for me to divorce myself from that ongoing narrative. Our presence is our protest, so I encourage folks of colour to just simply write anything they want!

GMM: What are your top five favorite horror movies, and why? Top five horror novels? Which book or movie scared you the most?

ZER: Aw, man, my favourite horror movies: 28 Days Later, Silence of the Lambs, Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight, Shelley, and Attack the Block. I like meditative horror as well as action and humour.

Favourite horror novels: Dark Property by Brian Evenson, Blood Child by Octavia Butler, NeverLand by Douglas Clegg, Wounds by Nathan Ballingrud, and kindred by Octavia Butler. These novels shaped the writer I am today and continue to influence me. The book that scared me the most was actually a collection of short stories mentioned before: Clive Barker’s Books of Blood Vol. I-III. These stories still haunt me, and I sleep with the lights on anytime I reread them.

GMM: How do you feel about white-identifying writers who write stories about non-white characters? What problems have you encountered? What potential issues do you see with white-identifying writers telling BIPOC stories? What advice would you give those writers?

ZER: While I definitely feel people should be able to write what they want; I also caution intent versus impact. Our experiences are unique to what is in popular media about us and to live the experience is completely different to being on the sidelines observing. My advice would be to hire authenticity readers and more than just one. Our experiences are not monolithic so make sure you gain more than one perspective and not just one that agrees with you.

GMM: All writers have experienced some form of impostor syndrome. What has your experience with impostor syndrome been like? Did you ever have a particularly bad case of it? If so, what caused it and how did you manage it?

ZER: I’m going through it now! LOL! I think most writers go through this phase multiple times in their careers; it’s part of the deal when you have a talent that’s so subjective to its audience.

GMM: About a year ago, I bought a T-shirt you designed that says: “Support Black Women Who Write Weird Shit.” First, and foremost, what do you consider “weird shit”? And, second, where can people order their own T-shirt?

ZER: Weird shit, to me, is the uncanny, the thing in the periphery that makes your heart skip for a second. It’s the unsettling feeling you have when something is just a tad off. Once I launch my website, I’ll have t-shirts for sale!

GMM: Zin E. Rocklyn is a pseudonym. I won’t reveal your real name unless you are comfortable doing so. Why use a pseudonym? What are the benefits? Drawbacks? What dark secrets are you hiding?

ZER: LMAO!! I have no issue with my real name being out there. I chose a moniker to pay my respects to the source of my imagination: family.

GMM: If you could give advice to your younger self about writing, what would it be? How would your journey be different, or would you keep things the same?

ZER: You are good. Keep writing. And, yes, you can write that.

“In Full Bloom” by Zin E. Rocklyn

12:15

He’s slight in every sense of the word. Fine-boned, like a delicate bird. Pale and sickly. Shoulders rounded, back slumped. A heavy breath from paper-thin lungs could break him.

I want to cradle him.

I want to wrap my large, dark hands around his tiny torso and squeeze. I want to read the notches of his spine with my heavy fingertips, pluck and play his pronounced ribs with my thumbs. My fat tongue fights to taste his powdery flesh. My ears yearn for the crinkle of his reedy skin.

I need him.

Just as he needs me. He’s my baby, my child, a man born of my desire and aching. He is my manifestation.

He looks to me. For care. For comfort. For protection.

And all I want to do is hurt him.

He knows that look. Understands it. Me. More than I know myself.

My steps are careful, but I am clumsy. Big feet, stubby toes, long limbs. I am everything he is not.

I am his God.

He is my Goddess.

And we hate each other for it.

Long fingers curl into a ball tight enough to crack air. The strike is solid, satisfying.

The sight of red pleases me. He whimpers. I giggle.

The tear is angry, but not alone. More crowd his blind eyes until they fall together, storming down the misshapen hills and valleys of his face. They gather at the peak of his chin, clinging to one another, impregnating each other until there is nowhere to go but down.

Rain meets concrete and I am empty once again.

I turn away, but his claw-like fingers find a wisp of my shift. Clinging. Pulling.

I step forward, dragging him. One inch. One foot.

I stop to peer over my shoulder, to see if he’s still there. If he’s still devoted to me.

His flesh has betrayed him, streaking gore across the gritty floor, leaving him in strips and chunks.

It is my turn to whimper. To moan. To mourn the loss of such beautiful, delicious meat.

I kneel to him. Take his face in my grotesque hands. Press my plump mouth to his sealed lips. Drag my hot tongue along the bitter muscle that is his.

And I squeeze.

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.