Today we have an interview with Gemma Files! Gemma has been a force on the horror literature scene for around twenty years now. Almost a genre unto herself, she is a definite forerunner of the current weird horror scene and a monumentally important figure in the history of horror literature. With constant new works coming out from Gemma’s pen, she is as vital and as current now as she was with her first horror tales. One of the things I love about Gemma’s work is how self-obsessive and personal it is, whether she is writing queer westerns seething with sinister occultism, love stories that go beyond death, mysterious tales of ancient alien forces infecting our world, or stories of kinks pushed to the limits of our flesh, Gemma writes the kinds of works that only she could write, and the horror literature scene is a better place for them.
I feel that with your collections Kissing Carrion and The Worm in Every Heart you exploded onto the field of horror fiction with an incredible new and personal voice, and are one of the true originators of what one would call modern-day weird horror. Breaking away from what a lot of more mainstream horror was doing, here was fresh work that was bizarre, erotic, confrontational, and poetic. It’s incredible the vitality and the freshness that you have maintained along your writing career!
Thank you very much! At the time, I went very quickly from the high of “oh, someone wants to publish literally all the fiction I've written thus far” to “man, it's like both those books dropped into a fucking well and disappeared, especially The Worm.” This was around 1999/2000, because I'd hooked up with the publisher at WHC 1999, which I attended because I'd won the International Horror Guild award for Best Short Fiction for “The Emperor's Old Bones”; it was a whirlwind of amazing feedback, as writer after writer I'd admired for years basically came up and told me they'd been following my career. My career. Which, at that point, broke down to me writing weird, hypersexual stories in my underwear at 2:00 AM from a tiny little no-bedroom apartment in Toronto, at least two of which I'd sold to a magazine run off on a mimeograph machine and put together with electrical tape, for the grand payment of $5.00 US. I had no idea I was even making any sort of impact at all, up 'til then. “I've been incredibly lucky,” I remember saying to my Mom, a bit later. “But was it luck, or was it work?” She asked me. I'm still not sure.
You have had a new collection come out from Grimscribe Press, “ In That Endless, Our End “, and it is just a masterclass of using various tropes, genres, and styles to express a very personal voice. Why is writing horror fiction important to you and what is it that keeps you coming back to it?
I used to say that I'd started out writing SF but very quickly figured out I don't know enough about science to fake my way through a whole story, but that's not really true—my real first influences were space opera and fantasy (especially unabashed decadents like Tanith Lee, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, C.L. Moore, and Robert E. Howard). When I was in the worst part of my life, however, I finally collided with vampire fiction through the one-two punch of Dracula and 'Salem's Lot. Previously, I'd been absolutely terrified by any hint of horror, especially in terms of horror films...one of my most frightening memories involves trying to “watch” The Shining on blocked motel cable during a school trip to Nantucket, which reduced the movie to occasional flashes of blood and the soundtrack. But I'd also always been fascinated by stuff like history, mythology, archaeology, monsters, witchcraft (which I studied as a haphazard practitioner), the Fae, etc.
With 'Salem's Lot, I suddenly saw how horror could infiltrate the present day, how it might have relevance even to my own current world of adults who got drunk and smoked too much weed, of EST and Inner Child therapy, of disco music and bell-bottoms and bullying. Then, in middle and high school, I started boosting terrible horror boom paperbacks from bookstores and eventually imprinted on people like Anne Rice, Robert R. McCammon, Skipp and Spector, and Peter Straub, whose characters had a psychological realism I recognized, and mirrored. Horror just seemed more believable than most other stuff, to me; it echoed the various observations I'd made while trying to negotiate my way through the world as an undiagnosed neuroatypical child shoved into a woman's post-puberty body, too smart for my own good, with shit impulse control and no social skills to speak of, vibrating with horny rage. It still does.
The big thing that resonates with me in horror even now is that horror deals with the most universal feelings, the biggest questions, and it takes them on directly. One of my autistic tendencies is that I hyperfixate and monologue about my hyperfixations, while another is that I used to try to bond with people by blurting out far-too-intimate anecdata, because for a long time I valued honesty over making people comfortable. (Note to self: When people ask you how you are, just say “I'm fine, how are you?” and let them talk, like a quote-quote “normal” person.) But all the things I ever felt that I'd been ostracized for talking about in public worked perfectly as fuel for my horror writing—they just fit there. Then I discovered Clive Barker, Kathe Koja, Caitlin R. Kiernan, and I realized that with horror, there were no rules—you could make poetry out of your own pain, wax rhapsodic about your strangest fantasies.
Essentially, as Yukio Mishima put it, my heart's yearning has always been for Night, and Death, and Blood. Horror helped me realize that there was a place to put all that, somewhere I could produce the kind of stuff I'd always wanted to read—the kind of fiction which tells you that you can be a terrible person who does terrible things and the world around you won't crack apart, or if it does, maybe that's for the best. I often talk about “monster pride,” and for a long time, I really did think I was a monster. That there was something inherently wrong with me, simply because of the way my brain worked and the stuff I was interested in. Horror accepted me and helped me heal from a lifetime of internalized ableism, gender issues, sexuality issues, rage issues, etcetera...it lets me be my best self, both in real life and otherwise. It's where I feel most comfortable, and useful.
Maybe an over-asked question at this point, but one still very relevant. The age of Covid and the shutdown of a large chunk of our civilization has changed the lives of, I would assume, every single person on this planet in some way. And a lot of people are getting hit hard. Disease, unemployment, social isolation, and a creeping uncertainty about the future seem to be the landscape we find ourselves in. What role do you see horror, as a general genre and as a literature, playing in this new strange reality we find ourselves in?
I think that a lot of people—mainstream people—spend their whole lives pretending that if they ignore or deny the fact that bad things do indeed happen, those things won't happen to them. And I've always found that attitude pretty ridiculous, not to mention more-than-borderline harmful; it's like that New Age bullshit about how if you allowed yourself to entertain dark thoughts, you'd eventually get cancer. (CANCER DOES NOT WORK THAT WAY, GOODNIGHT!) It cultivates a flinch response to anything that makes you uncomfortable to consider, which means you never go any deeper than you feel like you have to.
But a long time ago, I realized that the only thing I could say I absolutely knew in any true way was myself, which—when you think about it—does sound damn autistic. Through therapy and experience, I was forced to analyze my own reactions and habits, my internal tapes, my traumas, in order to just grow enough of a shell to make it through my daily interactions with a world I still felt as if I had no real part in. To get a job, to have relationships, to find a way to live that wasn't constantly painful for me, or the people around me. To love not just other people, but also myself.
Horror is very good for playing out your darkest “if this/then this” chains of association. Horror presumes that darkness is not just a part of the universe, but a necessary part—that it teaches you what you can survive, how much stronger you are than you think. That it provides the contrast needed to understand what really matters. And all of those things are very useful skills to cultivate when the world around you seems just as traumatized as you are, if not more. When “nice, normal people” start worshipping false idols and strange gods, bending every hint of morality into an excuse for forever-war, screaming at each other about stuff that has nothing to do with anything, not only questioning the idea that things are indisputably true or false but actively implying that you can just lie about how you want things to be and the world will simply...reshape itself. I couldn't make this shit up, I sometimes want to say, except (of course) that I know damn well I can, and have, and will do again. More grist for the bloody, eternally-grinding mill.
TL;DR: On some level, I've always felt we lived in a horror universe, and now we kind of do. It's not like I'm happy about it, but it's kind of ironic if nothing else.
Your early horror fiction seemed, to me, to largely be about characters having to come to terms with the darkness that lurked inside their very bodies and minds. Characters that were faced with the bleakness of reality, both in relationships and in the possibilities of existence, but either tried to take on and embrace the icy desolation of life or tried to overcome it. Your more recent horror work seems more concerned with characters who find themselves in some nebulous mystery and finding the limits of what can be known about oneself, the human, and the outside world, the non-human. These characters usually ending up in some kind of state of vertiginous confusion. Obviously, there is an interplay throughout all your work of various styles and obsessions, but there would seem to be a definite shift in the direction of your work. Would you find this a reasonable quick assessment of the changing of your horror fiction over the years? How do you see where your early horror fiction stands compared to recent works?
Hm. Well, I think that evolution has a lot to do with the idea that, in hindsight, I didn't really know who I was back then. That I was still sort of...circumscribing the limits of my own personality and imagination, mapping out what I was and wasn't prepared to do. I think things changed, or started to change, around the time that my son was born. He'll be seventeen this year, which is frankly insane, but he's my soulmate, the love of my life. I've learned more about myself through my interactions with him than any other relationship has taught me. And now I know what I can do, what I'm capable of, who I am, in a far firmer and more...positive way than I ever did before. He's made me patient, and kind, and considerably less full of the sort of rage I only much later realized was actually fear disguised. I used to think I hated people, but now I know I was simply afraid of them, and that I have no reason to be; sure, they can hurt me, even kill me, but they can never destroy me.
So yeah, my older stuff was maybe more colourful, a bit fairytale-ish, almost comic bookish in its gleeful excess, and I think I can still do that, when I want to. But all the stuff in “In That Endlessness, Our End” came out of a period of great upheaval, when everything I'd assumed was stable was suddenly overthrown. Trump was elected. Literal Nazis popped out of the woodwork. My publishers collapsed. I lost half my friends, possibly forever. And this is all before the fucking pandemic. It was like I could see something coming, and I knew it was bad, but not how bad. And now I do, and I'm still here, and so is my son, my husband, my family, my life. Maybe it's luck, maybe it's work. One way or the other, I believe I'll just keep going.
You are a well-known critic and fan of cinema and the horror film, let me ask you this, if you say, instead of pursuing writing you had become a successful filmmaker, what are some horror films that you think would kind of give a view as to the kind of horror films you would have liked to have created? Films that represent you as an artist and have similar viewpoints and obsessions as you?
In a lot of ways, I think of my fiction as my “films.” The great part about writing stories is that you can control everything, pop in and out of people's thoughts and perspectives, produce the perfect sound and/or image right on cue. You don't have to negotiate, or cooperate, or care about what price your ideas are exacting on the team supporting and enabling them. I used to tell my screenwriting students that the sooner they understood they were writing a template or blueprint that a whole bunch of other people were (hopefully!) going to make into something they might not even really recognize at the end of the process, the better. I understand the necessities of production; I've been around it all my life, watching it from both behind and in front of the camera. It's a lot of hard work, and I'm definitely not qualified for it.
That being said, however...the films I admire take horror seriously, aren't afraid of excess, and have a weird sort of romance about them—something blood-soaked and beautifully photographed, grotesque and arabesque in the Poe-like sense, with a nice sense of both the liminal and the numinous. I'd love to do an adaptation of Elizabeth Hand's “Near Zennor” with an overall Kiyoshi Kurosawa feel but a touch here and there of Guillermo del Toro, in keeping with its Creepy Narnia/Alan Garner's Elidor sensibility. And speaking of which, how about a Ben Wheatley-style version of Elidor, set in the 1970s, with a screenplay by Stephen Volk channeling Nigel Keale? Or a version of Stephen Volk's Whitstable, maybe animated, with rotoscoping based on extracts from Peter Cushing films? Or a Clive Barker anthology film combining “In The Hills, The Cities,” “The Age of Desire,” “Down, Satan” and “The Testament of Jacqueline Ess,” as interpreted by Marjane Satrapi, Brandon Cronenberg, the Brothers Quay, and Rose Glass?
There are two types of horror movies I return to over and over: The ones that make me itch (inspiration) and the ones that make me happy (comfort food). Some of the former include Kairo, Cure, Hellraiser, Hellbound: Hellraiser II, The Devils, most Val Lewton, Session 9, Alien, The Ritual, May The Devil Take You, most David Cronenberg, Brandon Cronenberg's Possessor, etc.; the latter include Dario Argento's Suspiria, Fede Alvarez's Evil Dead, Event Horizon, The Collection, most older John Carpenter, various gialli, Come True, etc. Each list is subject to constant amendment, and each gets longer the longer I stay alive. (BTW, I recently finally watched The Untamed, and enjoyed the hell out of it.)
A lot of your horror fiction, especially your early work, I would consider fair to label as “transgressive” with issues of the body, identity, and sexuality. And I guess I mean transgressive as meaningfully pushing at where the socially accepted boundaries of what fiction can discuss and describe are. What does transgression in fiction mean to you? Also, are there non “horror” transgressive works that were an influence on you? Say maybe in the realms of erotica or surrealism or other non-horror genres?
One of the things about transgression, I've come to believe, is that it's less about pushing the envelope and more about questioning assumptions—giving voice to all those thoughts we aren't supposed to have, let alone talk about. I felt like when I had the main character of Experimental Film talk frankly about how defeated she felt when she interacted with her autistic son, that was transgressive—must have been, since it's the thing so many readers and critics chose to focus on. Half of them thought it was morally repugnant, while the other half thought it was brave; the latter half apparently felt recognized in it, which is certainly more what I was going for. In terms of my intention, while I was writing it, I just wanted to be as honest as I could be, and since I ended up making myself cry, I think it probably worked. But then again, I guess I often just don't really think about how other people are going to react when I put something down—it's more about “does this feel right, or wrong? Does it feel organic? Could it go another way? No? Well...okay, then.”
I'm definitely going through menopause now, which is interesting. Sometimes I feel like a total crone, uninterested in anything sexual at all, but then other times it'll all come rushing back and I feel the urge to go nuts with what other people might consider inappropriate content. There are always going to be readers who feel I'm going too far, especially right now, when younger people (she said, in an Old Lady Voice) appear to have decided that any sort of discussion re sex being something that really does happen on occasion because most human beings are saddled with a reproductive system that makes them get horny for each other is somehow triggering. I mean yes, sex can be traumatic, and awkward, and weird, and dysfunctional; it's a super-vulnerable process, often involving inserting bits of ourselves into each other, that can feel amazing even while it looks incredibly silly. It involves a lot of negotiation, or should, and sometimes a bunch of other emotions get caught up in the process, even negative ones. So I might not ever write anything quite as full-bore semi-pornographic as (say) A Book of Tongues again, but I'm also not ever going to pretend it doesn't exist. And I'm never going to completely lose my taste for body horror, considering I'm a lifelong fan of both John Carpenter's The Thing and David Cronenberg.
To some/the majority of people, though, simply not writing from the default can seem transgressive, aggressively so. By which I mean that whenever you slip in information here and there which disproves their assumption that everyone they read about should be exactly like them (white, cis, straight, male, American, conservative, Christian, in whatever combination), these particular readers react like you just played a nasty trick on them. Like: Why you gotta rub my face in all that gay/trans/female/POC etc. stuff, man? Why you gotta make everything political? But I made a decision a while back that I was going to try to write as few default characters as I could get away with, main or otherwise, because frankly, why not? If all they want to see is themselves, they can always look pretty much anywhere else. (I made a similar decision not to show male-on-female rape directly, either, because I'm already seen enough of that in popular media to last me the rest of my life, and I've kept to it. If people find THAT transgressive, then excellent—maybe it'll make them think about why they expected to see it in the first place, as well as how they were trained to think it was “normal.”)
Let me be clear: I like the way things have changed, mainly. I like being forced to consider the perspectives of other people, because part of the pleasure of writing, for me, is allowing myself to inhabit many different sorts of characters with many different sorts of beliefs, experiences, capacities. I may joke about Gen Z and their current flirtation with nu-Puritanism, but I get where it comes from. And I truly believe that the more demand is put on us to be inclusive and just in our fictional portrayals, the more that default will finally start to shift, if only for the simple reason that it'll prove to The Powers That Be how they've been neglecting a whole lot of intersectional markets they could be tailoring their “content” towards. Yes, capitalism is a scourge, but it's pretty practical, too. Sometimes the simple drive to sell stuff for money to new bunches of suckers can succeed in sparking change on an institutional level, even where all the well-intentioned debate in the world doesn't quite seem able to.
There seems to be a resurgence of really interesting horror films being made recently. Films that seem to combine the adventurously weird films of the 1970s with a more cerebral art house feel. What do you feel about modern horror cinema? Are we approaching a new golden age? And what recent horror films would you single out for excellence?
Like most things, modern horror cinema cycles back and forth between what sells best and what wasn't made to sell at all, but sometimes manages to find its own set of intersectional audiences. For every Conjuring Part 3 (and by the way, I rather enjoy the Conjuring films), there's a Sator, a Saint Maud, a The Dead Center. Considering how universal the emotions and concepts horror tends to play with, I'm really not surprised that a lot of it tends to be pretty populist, reactionary, and restorative; sometimes I'm even in the mood for that, as my Fun Horror list proves. But I do feel positive about the fact that it's a much wider range of stuff we get to see in general, these days, now that streaming is replacing theatrical as the arbiter of the scene. Tubi is a godsend. I can always find something I want to see, and if I still have to pan through a river of crap to find those nuggets, it goes a whole lot faster when I'm doing it algorithmically.
I find a lot of your work seems to explore the boundaries of “the beautiful” and “the abject”. Do you find beauty in horror and the abject? Or maybe beauty is itself a strange and abject thing/concept?
On the Weird Studies podcast, Phil Ford and JF Martel have an entire episode in which they unpack the ways that actively perceiving beauty can function as a method for breaking the ties of human experience and touching something Outside, something that changes to fit and educate every individual who interacts with it...it's something that demonstrates the outer parameters of possibility, if that makes any sense. And I guess that idea is something I've found myself chasing all my life, from that time I stumbled over the “documentary” version of Erich von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods on: A moment of numinous realization that would change my perspective on the nature of the universe and my place in it without anything even having to be said aloud. Which sounds religious, I suppose, but why else do we talk about a new world of gods and monsters? See, see where Christ's blood streams in the firmament; see that wheel a'spinning, way up in the middle of the air. Are we husks, or hosts? What can we ever expect, besides a long degeneration followed by decay? What happens to all those thoughts, all that love, when the last electrical charge winks out inside our mushy meat-brains? I mean, it's all the same shit, really.
What are you working on now and what can we look forward to seeing next from you?
There are three novels I'm currently working on, in no particular order—Nightcrawling, my side project for a good five years now, which is like Experimental Film in that it spins off from a very particular part of my life; In Red Company, which I've described as a combination of The Devils and Midsommar, and takes place in Northumbria around 998 AD; and a currently untitled novel or novella I pitched as “Dracula Untold, except instead of Dracula it's Erzebet Bathori.” I also have a new collection coming from Trepidatio in 2022, called Dark Is Better, and a whole bunch of short stories, because people keep on asking me for those. Which I'm fine with, believe me.