The following interview with Gemma Files, award-winning author of the Hexslinger Trilogy, first appeared in PstD Volume 3. She and contributing editor James K. Moran spoke about horror movies, sexuality, fear, and Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hours” theory.
JKM: How would you introduce yourself?
GF: Gemma Files began as a film reviewer, and now writes the sort of things she’d like to see at the movies. Overwhelmingly, these narratives are dark in slant, ranging over a spectrum that includes everything from classic M.R. Jamesian ghost stories and nihilistic body horror to what may or may not be the only current queer-positive Weird Western novel series featuring random black magic and bloodthirsty Aztec gods.[i] Critics have called my work both poetic and pornographic, which I’m fine with.
JKM: You say you write the sort of things you’d like to see at the movies. What would you like to see at the movies?
GF: My baseline default for movies is, predictably, horror—but the main problem with horror as a movie genre is its very predictability. So, what I’d like to see at the movies would be a far wider offering of protagonists, for one thing, since people seem to think that if bad stuff is going to happen, you “need” to make your central characters as “white-bread-likeable” as possible, and I disagree. Only stupid horror has that sort of kneejerk moral component, that “If you were really nice people then this wouldn’t have happened to you (because these sort of things only happen to bad people)” subtext, though horror with no moral compass at all is equally annoying. It also saddens me to look at today’s horror movies and realize that intersectional issues of race, sexuality and gender were actually better-represented back in the 1980s or early 1990s than they are today, in 2012. I also think that the fake-out happy ending/SURPRISE TWIST! first offered in Brian de Palma’s Carrie needs to be retired for a while; it’s become the biggest cinematic horror cliché on the planet.
JKM: And does the opposite hold true—that is, are there any particular movies influencing your writing at the moment?
GF: Oh, always. I divide movies into three categories: Ones I don’t want to watch again because they’re so scarring (though I take careful note of what I found scarring about them, in hopes of being able to replicate it), ones I find flawed but interesting (I like to think through how I would reframe narratives in order to do what I think they’ve narrowly missed doing, or how their general tone and design are so physically beautiful/evocative that they mitigate whatever problems I have with their construction otherwise), and ones I consider touchstones for the sort of horror I’m interested in. In the latter category I’d place classics like The Exorcist, Near Dark, Alien, Hellraiser, Psycho, and Carpenter’s The Thing, but also more recent or less well-known films like Brad Anderson’s Session 9, Peter Weir’s The Last Wave, The Seventh Victim, Angel Heart, Candyman, Dust Devil, The Crimson Rivers, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure, the Finnish movie Sauna and the Belgian movie Left Bank. Two nights ago I watched a weird film called Yellowbrickroad that was like The Blair Witch Project crossed with a Jeff VanderMeer short story, and I’ll be keeping that one around, for sure.
JKM: What’s a movie so scarring that Gemma Files does not want to watch it again?
GF: Why, top of that list would be Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs, thanks for asking. I own it, I’ve watched it, I have infinite respect for it, but I put it in storage almost immediately after viewing it. Martyrs is a trip, that’s for sure. Part of its power comes simply from Laugier’s utter commitment to envisioning the worst things in (almost) real-time, playing them out with an almost palpable weight and impact, as though he’s shooting a documentary, except for the fact that this “documentation” also extends to dream sequences, memories, hallucinations, and visions. And the character of Madame is chillingly understandable, which lends the final sequence its sting. I also own Pan’s Labyrinth, but I haven’t really watched it all the way through. Although I have watched The Devil’s Backbone, so it’s not just a matter of Guillermo del Toro. I guess it would all come down to what Videodrome would call “a philosophy.”
JKM: How would you describe your philosophy in regards to such films?
GF: I respect films like that if they’re unflinching, not just in terms of gore but in terms of exploring the reasons behind every character’s actions. Nobody in Martyrs gets off scot-free; even poor Anna has her own psychological issues that drive her into enabling Lucie, thus ensuring she’ll end up in the position she eventually ends up in. Her need to nurture is at least slightly toxic at base, but it’s also the thing which supposedly forms the moral base of the sort of Christianity that gives rise to the ideal of martyrdom: she literally cares more about others than she does about herself, which is admirable if you believe she’s moving towards something “more,” some real transfiguration—but pathetic and tragic if you believe all she is moving towards is pain, death, and complete dissolution. And Laugier never answers the questions inherent in her actions, one way or the other.
JKM: Why do you respect films that are unflinchingly gory?
GF: Because while I don’t think it’s a necessary element of every story, if you commit to using it, I think you have a responsibility to get across just how wrenching and unattractive it is. Granted, there are some highly stylized films I enjoy which might be accused of fetishizing violence (Dario Argento’s Suspiria comes to mind), but those branch off into the area of opera or theatre for me—pure spectacle, impossible to take seriously. Martyrs wants you to take it seriously, and the treatment of violence as a disgusting, dreadful reality is a large part of that.
JKM: I’ve heard the argument, from Glen Hirshberg in particular, that the franchised McSlasher fare of the 1980s such as Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, etc. changed the definition of horror for mainstream viewers. That is, if you say ‘horror’ now, one can presume this means slasher and gore cinema and disregards the other types, such as suspense, thriller, and supernatural horror. What do you think?
GF: When I was around 18, I used to tell people I wanted to make horror movies. “Oh, like Friday the 13th?” “No, like Hellraiser.” But nobody could make the distinction, in the same way that nobody mainstream can distinguish between horror writers—their minds just go to the one they’ve heard about, the one who’s sold/distributed the widest, like Stephen King. Still, I guess that’s better than being continually mistaken for wanting to be the next Eli Roth.
JKM: Would you say that the Scream model is dead? While I haven’t seen Scream 4, the reviews I pored over all agreed that the series was far too self-referential to be effective. Did you see it?
GF: I did see it, eventually, and I do think that that model is pretty played out. It’s interesting—the goreno model at least plays with the idea of “real” emotions, and once you’ve done that, you can’t really go pseudo-TV again. Same with the million-sequel model, though there are always exceptions (the Paranormal Activity films, for example—I think they work because they’ve removed any hope of exorcism from the equation, so nothing anyone in any of those films does can/will change the original situation, and the only thing that shifts is perspective). There has to be something to distinguish the theatrical horror story from the TV horror story, and part of it may be the understanding that because you only have two hours to work with, what you do between shot one and shot none should at least have a type of permanence.
JKM: Could you please expand on the idea of the goreno model?
GF: The reason they call it “goreno” is because it’s assumed to be a type of pornography—a narrative arranged specifically for the audience’s pleasure, something they can watch without necessarily taking part in, and separating themselves from it whenever its “reality” starts to interfere with their fetishistic enjoyment. The best directors (and believe it or not, I’d place Eli Roth in this category) play with this idea, trying to catch the audience out, to prevent them from separating themselves in time and force them to identify with the characters. This becomes really interesting in Hostel II, for example; you think you can choose to identify with the killers rather than the victims, only to have that dynamic suddenly flipped on you in a way that seems to pass judgement not only on the killer characters and the business that exploits/enables their disgusting impulses, but on the audience itself.
JKM: What do you think of the idea that pornography, like this type of horror, shows viewers what they don’t usually get to see, and the corollary, that horror films, much like porn, can desensitize the viewer, resulting in a desire for more?
GF: I’ve heard that theory, and I certainly do think there’s a type of trope fatigue that sets in, plus the understanding that this is not in fact real, that it’s special effects, which allows people to gain a slightly contemptuous distance. This is why I try to keep things fresh by concentrating on the characters and their situation, and opening myself up as far as I can to believing in what’s happening.
JKM: Getting back to your point about “white-bread likeable characters,” what are some films that involve these central characters?
GF: I think it got worse during the mid-1990s, when the post-Scream model took over and suddenly “horror” meant a cast of routinely young, attractive, almost all-white people getting threatened and killed—there were no older people, no imperfect people, no difficult people, just this bunch of catalogue models with signifiers and quirks instead of personalities, people you could reduce to “the bitch,” “the jerk,” “the nerd,” “the jock,” etc. But the fact is that horror has often been a hugely conservative genre, particularly in terms of film, so the stories horror tells are all too often ones in which a threat from outside rocks the normative basket, then is defeated, leaving said basket normative once more. Families get back together, the house is clean, the child isn’t possessed, the reset button is clicked, the end.
JKM: Have you done any stories that take the attractive heroine/hero concept and stand it on its head?
GF: Have I? I never think of my protagonists as occupying that very narrow multiple-privilege slot, though of course I may be fooling myself. What I do know is that I’ve very rarely written either a restorative narrative with a cisgendered white dude at its heart or a Final Girl narrative, because A) I don’t believe in the restorative horror model and B) lots of other people are doing Final Girl narratives, so I don’t really feel like I have to.
JKM: By restorative horror model, you mean that order is somehow reset, in the end, by the surviving hero?
GF: Yeah, that’s exactly what I mean. “And now everything’s ALL RIGHT because everything’s EXACTLY THE SAME, good night.” It really shows a puerile sense of storytelling when people go that way—I mean, even at the end of something like Poltergeist, an otherwise pretty classically restorative narrative about a threatened family that gets bound back together by the process of defeating evil, they at least now know that A) the supernatural exists and B) they sure as hell don’t want to sleep in the same room as a TV anymore.
JKM: If resetting everything back to normal is failed horror fiction or cinema, what would you consider successful horror? What should horror do to the audience or reader? What has the best horror you’ve read done to you?
GF: Horror should leave a stain. Horror should leave a scar. It should change people. It should teach, for good or ill. All the stories I’ve loved best are like that. Kathe Koja’s Skin takes body-modification performance art as far as possible, revealing the destructive tendencies inherent in self-mutilating creativity. Michael McDowell’s The Elementals is about a Southern family that has a mutually parasitical relationship with a group of invisible psychic leeches and shape shifters that masquerade as their personal ghosts. Caitlin R. Kiernan’s The Red Tree features the act of examining something unnatural that turns that unnatural thing’s attention on you. The list could go on and on. I know it when I see it, and thankfully, I’ve seen it a lot, though you sometimes have to dig pretty deep.
JKM: Why do you think that so many horror films now tend to feature Caucasians? Moreover, why do you think the makers of these films are so remiss in their representation of different kinds of heroes?
GF: Part of that comes out of horror’s innately “othering” nature, so filmmakers get into these contortions where they don’t want to explore any culture other than the most absolute Midwestern cookie-cutter small-town one, for fear of giving offense. I mean, I understand they exist and that they’re easier to shoot in, but the fact is, I’ve lived in a big city my entire life, so my model for normalcy is far more Larry Fessenden’s Habit than I Know What You Did Last Summer. And filmmakers are also afraid to cast non-default people in the bad guy role, because then they’re saying that “all” non-default people are like this, by extension. But then again, no one wants to cast non-default people in the protagonist roles either, because they get killed and/or suffer. If they get killed and the default protagonists survive, it suggests non-default people are convenient cannon fodder to be fridged to make default people teary-eyed; if they suffer and survive, films still possibly send a problematic message because they were made to suffer in the first place.
(It’s not just about race, gender and sexuality, though. I can still remember realizing that some time during the late 1990s, everybody onscreen suddenly became rich or at least upper middle-class. It was positively cheering to go see A Haunting in Connecticut and be like: Oh yeah, they CAN’T just move, because the son has cancer and they’ve sunk everything they have into this cheap-ass house in order to pay his bills with the rest. Except that then, a second later, I realized this was supposed to be a “true story” period piece. So close!)
JKM: As for featuring gay heroes, one would think, with the advance of gay rights, such as same-sex marriage and civil unions, that filmmakers would step up and portray such characters.
GF: And better yet, that’s the slot which all of us occupy, increasingly. And while I get that there’s an escapist element in genre, horror doesn’t seem like the place for that…it’s the places where you get to explore your fears, ALL of your fears, especially the ones with a solid basis in real life. I always remember Stephen King talking about The Amityville Horror in Danse Macabre—his survey of horror culture—and explaining that the real horror of that story was characters becoming increasingly trapped in the world’s worst fixer-upper, with bills mounting and cheques going astray, their marriage collapsing under the weight of debt as much as the pressure of the Unseen. And again, when they remade the film, this stuff was there, but it was posited as a period piece rather than fully updated. Which makes sense if you think of Amityville as a “real” thing that happened, but…I just think it would’ve had so much more impact if you’d forgone the recognition value of the name-check, and remade it from the ground up, translating it right into the financial snake’s nest we all occupy.
JKM: Why do you think that sexuality and gender were actually better-represented in the 1980s or early 1990s?
GF: You know, in a weird way, I think it had to do with the fact that horror wasn’t a blockbuster genre with mainstream pretentions as yet. People knew they’d make money on a horror film, because you always did, but horror was very much a denigrated, exploitation-oriented thing, playing the grindhouse circuit, on video, on late-night TV. There’s a huge softcore undercurrent in movies from that era which drives films like Vampyres or Daughters of Darkness—so long as they put in a requisite amount of skin, the writers and directors could do anything they wanted with the rest of the movie. So it was sort of easy to make decisions based on who showed up for the casting call, or switch gender on roles like Ripley in Alien. It was also a very easy genre for people who wanted to make overt political statements to hide out in. You watch George Romero’s 1970s films, and you’re sort of amazed he’s getting away with saying the things he is about America (and his refusal to stop framing his narratives politically may well explain why every movie he’s made subsequently has become more and more indie, as much as any slacking off in creativity or the fact that having coined all the formative zombie tropes makes him look played out). I can’t see anybody making a movie as full-on blackly comic as [Dan O’Bannon’s] Return of the Living Dead today, especially not with the same ending, and a lot of that is because everyone’s going for a PG-13 rating in order to get the widest possible audience, which means you have to keep things slick and shallow. (That said, as demonstrated during its re-release, the hard R originally given to The Exorcist apparently now qualifies as a modern-day PG-13. Which means people could be pushing the envelope a hell of a lot further in terms of emotional and philosophical content, and still retain their all-important rating.)
JKM: I would like to get an idea of not so much where your ideas come from, but rather what scares the hell out of you. Have you ever used your dreams in your fiction, for example?
GF: All the time. As for what scares me, it’s the usual stuff. I used to be extremely agoraphobic, to the point where I’d find it hard to cross bridges or stand in fields, because I felt like I was going to be sucked up into the sky. My mom asked me what that was about, and I said: “Oh, I don’t know…that fact that one day I’m going to die?” I fear loss. I fear pain. I fear loss and pain and death not only on my own part, but on the behalf of those I love. I have a kid, a family, a husband. I fear for them. My kid has issues. I fear for him. I have issues. I fear myself—what I might do, what I might not be able to do. It all comes down to the same sort of things for everybody, I guess, which is why I really don’t understand how we don’t manage to cut each other a bit more slack, generally.
JKM: Has anything fearful happened to you directly that has influenced how you write, how you see the world, or made you pause?
GF: I can’t think of anything particularly Grand Guignol that’s happened in my life—my problems and traumas are fairly normal ones. I’ve had my share of dreams, though, some of which have made their way into my work. Sorry if that’s boring, but like it says on my arm: “Be neat and orderly in your life, like a bourgeois, so that you may be creative and violent in your work.” That’s Flaubert. But yeah, I would totally love to see a horror movie in which the encroached-on relationship was a queer one, as per Caitlin R. Kiernan’s brilliant The Drowning Girl and The Red Tree. It makes no sense that people don’t go there, especially when mainstream television is increasingly front-loading gay characters into their narratives. Again, I think it’s that observed-wisdom idea of genre conservatism, which needs to be chipped away at, particularly in films that don’t aspire to theatrical release (which, when you think about it, comprise MOST horror projects.)
JKM: Do you have any tips for prospective authors?
GF: Write, and keep writing. There’s a lot to be said for the ten thousand hours theory: it takes a long time to get “good” at anything, so you’re better off just jumping in and struggling through the section of your life where what you write is going to be inept, cliché-ridden and untrue due to simple lack of experience, emotional and professional. That said, you will get through said stage if you keep trying, and the fun thing is that even during this incredibly awful time in your development, you may very well find yourself sketching out the parameters of what truly inspires you. You can even go back later on, boil the detritus down for parts and start over, making it into something salvageable/marketable. Also, if you keep on showing your stuff to people and people keep saying “I don’t get it,” the problem really may be yours rather than theirs. You may need to reassess, restructure and re-present, with an eye towards your readers’ comfort rather than your own. There’s nothing wrong with making art accessible, unless you just want to stick it in a drawer and leave it there forever.
JKM: Who are some writers who have really knocked you back?
GF: Oh, man. Well, my personal formative influences come from the 1980s and 1990s: King and Straub, Michael McDowell, Tanith Lee, Kathe Koja, Poppy Z. Brite. More recently, I’ve fallen in love with people like Caitlin R. Kiernan, John Connolly, Jonathan L. Howard, Adam Nevill, F.G. Cottam, John Langan, Laird Barron, plus friends of mine like David Nickle, Caitlin Sweet, Peter Watts, Madeline Ashby. . .
JKM: In closing, what do you hope a reader takes away from reading something by Gemma Files?
GF: That darkness can be beautiful, hopefully; that blood and thunder are simply another form of opera. That you can write about what moves and literally arouses you without self-censorship, and so long as you’re honest about your own motives and fully committed to your own story’s logic, ready and willing to be as ruthless as it takes to get where you need to go, you will eventually find people who want to buy what you’re selling.
James K. Moran’s stories and poetry have appeared in various Canadian and U.S. publications, including Icarus and Postscripts to Darkness 3. Moran’s debut horror novel, Town & Train, is forthcoming this fall from Lethe Press.