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 queer-positive Weird Western novel series featuring random black magic and bloodthirsty Aztec gods (the Hexslinger series, from ChiZine Publications). Critics have called her work both poetic and pornographic, which she’s fine with. Her most recent book, the stand-alone horror tale Experimental Film, won both the 2015 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel and the 2015 Sunburst Award for Best Adult Novel. She has three new collections of short fiction coming out in 2018, two (Spectral Evidence and Drawn Up From Deep Places) from Trepidatio Publishing, the other (Dark Is Better) from Cemetery Dance. She is currently hard at work on her next novel.
You can read the reprint of her story “Gabbeh” that accompanies this interview here.
On the subject of Shirley Jackson, can you talk about the importance of her work to your own writing?
I don’t know any female horror writer who doesn’t acknowledge they owe a pretty huge debt to Shirley Jackson, even if they’ve only encountered her work as that section of The Haunting of Hill House quoted by Stephen King in Salem’s Lot. (This is, oddly enough, exactly where I first encountered her. I then went on to read Richard Matheson’s Hell House before I actually read Hill House, which is a little like watching the porno version of a movie before you watch the movie it’s parodying.) I think I reacted a bit badly to her shorter work when I was younger, because so much of it appeared to be about social anxiety and I was like: “Fuck that crap! I don’t care what anybody thinks about me!”
Then I got older and realized that, heigh-ho, the expectations of others could indeed be indeed kind of horrifying, especially if what you were socially anxious about was the possibility that your friends, neighbours and family might stone you to death if you drew the black spot in your town’s annual Lottery. But the true lesson Shirley Jackson is her absolute mastery of the unreliable narrative voice and her ability to render the domestic/familiar uncanny—she was both witch and homemaker, in that respect. Those are definitely two things I’ve tried to incorporate into my own work.
Can you talk about some of your favourite Jackson fictions and why they continue to fascinate?
We Have Always Lived in the Castle remains a startlingly accurate portrait of a female sociopath, which is always appealing for me—Merricat Blackwood is a person whose patterns of thinking are literally magical, who lives her life by a set of OCD superstitions that remind me of the work of Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine—derail her rituals, puncture or threaten her world-view, and she’ll slip you a poison mushroom without thinking twice. Her sister Constance, on the other hand, has convinced herself that the best thing she can do for Merricat is to take responsibility for her actions, which is a beautiful example of toxic femininity at work. Hill House remains my favourite of her novels, though, which is why when I accepted my award for Experimental Film, I told the audience that I, like the little girl Eleanor observes on her way to the titular haunted mansion, had finally gotten “[my] cup of stars.”
Any thoughts on the greater recognition and visibility Jackson’s work has been getting in the last few years? The previous or forthcoming film/TV adaptations of her work? The homage paid to it by the Canadian Netflix-original film, I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives in the House?
I was inclined to like Oz Perkins’s work from the get-go, considering my youthful obsession with his father Anthony and my love of his brother Elvis’s music, so it’s no surprise I find I Am The Pretty Thing fascinating on a bunch of levels—I like its formalism, its slow burn, its oddity, not to mention Ruth Wilson’s and Paula Prentiss’s central performances. I also very much look forward to Mike Flanagan’s version of Hill House, since I love his stuff generally; I have no doubt that no matter what he does or doesn’t do with it, it’ll be a great adaptation.
That said, I think that in a way, Shirley Jackson is finally having her Sylvia Plath moment—the recent biography A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin reveals the way she was consistently undercut by her mother, how she battled depression, anxiety, alcohol and drug addiction, raising her kids virtually alone in the boring, annoying wilds of small town Vermont while juggling her Bennington professor husband’s academic pomposity and constant infidelity. In a lot of ways, she’s a cautionary tale from the very beginning of Betty Friedan-style feminism, so this is a perfect post-Weinstein moment for current horror fans and writers to rediscover her, whether female or not. But she remains a classic, either way.
Like much of your work, Experimental Film plays powerfully with myth and folklore in creating a world of wonder and terror. In this case, the folklore of Lady Midday plays an especially predominant role. How did this folkloric figure come to your attention, and how did she come to play such a central role in the novel?
I’ve always loved creepy fairytales, which would be a lot of them, at least in their earliest and purest forms. I particularly love a sub-set of fairytales involving authoritarian female mentor/witchy godmother figures like Mother Holle, Mrs Gertrude and (of course) Baba Yaga—they set our protagonists impossible tasks, demand complete obedience and politeness no matter how badly they treat them, then reward or punish them according to their own spiteful, inhuman standards. So when I accidentally tripped across Lady Midday while Googling obscure demons, I immediately became obsessed with making her the monster in the middle of Mrs A. Macalla Whitcomb’s mental maze.
What I liked about her immediately is that she seemed like the inverse of King Frost, another wonderful figure I first discovered in Andrew Lang’s Yellow Fairy Book, a Victorian collection of fairytales from around the world; King Frost is a Russian winter-spirit who demands polite lies from the people he’s essentially freezing to death, mockingly asking them over and over: Are you warm, maiden? Are you warm?, to which the maiden in question must always answer: I am very comfortable, King Frost, or suffer the consequences.
So the first part of Experimental Film I ever wrote was the fairytale starring Lady Midday, which I got to make exactly as creepy as I wanted; instead of cold, she’s all about heat, a stark and terrible light, the smell of burning blood. I still love the idea of her appearing only “between the minute and the hour,” at the very crack of noon, having such an incredibly tiny window of opportunity but ruling it so completely…and naturally, I was also very energized by the idea of her carrying these sharp blades, a pair of scissors or a brazen angel’s sword, with which she snips off the heads of all those who dare to disrespect her. It’s everything I like best, ie exactly what scares me most.
While I knew on first reading Experimental Film that the novel’s narrator Lois, shares a great deal of biographical material in common with you, her author, it wasn’t until I listened to this epic audio interview for the This is Horror podcast that I realized how extensive some of the parallels were. Is it safe to say this is the most autobiographical piece of fiction you’ve ever written?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I don’t think I’ll ever write any other character who’s as close to me as Lois Cairns is. I mean, even though the book I’m working on right now—Nightcrawling—also comes directly out of personal experience, I’m trying my best to distinguish my protagonist/narrator from both her and myself as much as I can: instead of it being a story told from the POV of someone who’s a version of me, it’s a story told from the POV of someone my current age who’s obsessed with the disappearance of a person she knew in university who’s a younger version of me, who in turn was once toxic best friends back in elementary school with another person who’s an even younger version of me, who also disappeared. Which I guess sounds kind of Gillian Flynn, but don’t worry, there’s a fair amount of supernatural shit in it too…ghosts, evil Narnia portal dimensions, etc. It’s complicated and kicking my ass right now, but I have high hopes it’ll turn out well.
In the same interview, you describe Lois Cairns as being “yourself at your worst.” Are you worried about your readers’ perception of you being distorted by reading the novel?
Well, I must admit that I never exactly assumed my readers thought I was a nice person, so.;) On the other hand, I’ve heard a lot about Lois being boring, whiny, self-obsessed, unkind, etc., as well as a lot of: “Holy shit, exactly how much talk about Canadian and experimental film does she expect us to sit still for?” (Half a chapter/roughly ten pages out of roughly 300, in case you’re wondering.) One reviewer said he didn’t believe anybody could live with the sort of insomnia and chronic pain problems she has and still be functional, which made me laugh because those are very much my own insomnia and chronic pain problems, and I kind of played them down. Another reviewer complained that he actually wanted more obscure experimental film references, and also accused me of writing about film “like a film reviewer,” to which I can only say: hey, guess what? There’s a reason for that. Dislikers gonna dislike, in other words.
What were some of the (dis)advantages you encountered writing a character who is in many ways so close to yourself? What were some of the most emotionally difficult scenes or moments in the novel for you to write?
I said things about Lois’s Mom that I knew were going to piss my Mom off, and did. But universally, the hardest stuff to write was the stuff about Lois’s son Clark, who is at best a very pointed sketch of my son Cal at a much earlier stage in his development. He’s thirteen now (wow!), and while he still twiddles things in front of his eyes, sings almost constantly and likes to watch YouTube while jumping around in his underwear, you can have a genuine conversation with him, and I don’t doubt that he loves me. The stuff about Clark is from the part of my life where that wasn’t quite as clear, and it was hard to write, because it was stuff I felt ashamed of ever having thought or felt. That story I tell about sitting in a coffee shop writing the first pass through Chapter One and crying while I did it is absolutely true. And even now, I mean…I love Cal desperately, he’s quite literally the love of my life, but man, he’s a lot of work. And on good days I like that, but on bad days, it’s still kind of hard to take.
Have you gotten any notable responses (praise, criticism, or otherwise) from readers regarding Experimental Film’s portrayal of Lois’s autistic son, or her relationship with him?
I got a very interesting review from Ada Hoffman’s site Autistic Book Party, here ( that refers to Lois as “an unlikeable autistic protagonist, done right.” (They talk a lot about her internalized ableism being at the root of her difficulties with Clark, which is a bit painful, but pretty much a fair cop.) What was particularly interesting about it was that I’d been increasingly flirting with the idea of identifying myself as someone with Asperger’s Syndrome, because I truly believe that if the adults around me had been looking for that in A) kids and B) girls when I was between nine and eleven years old—the hands-down worst part of my life—then I would have gotten a diagnosis, because back then I fit the established range of symptoms for Asperger’s so closely that just looking at a list of those symptoms was startling to me.
Of course, that was before I was socialized to behave as much as I could like the people around me, or at least to stop myself from behaving the way I actually wanted to, as happens to most women who fit that profile. It also doesn’t help that Asperger’s only became a standard diagnosis in 1992, when I was already out of university, and was folded back into the Autism spectrum by 2013. These days I test about two points out from a diagnosis, though it’s well-known that 20% of people with Asperger’s may not meet the diagnostic criteria by adulthood, even when some social and communication difficulties may persist. So to be recognized like that by a bunch of (other) autistic people as “oh well, yes, of course she reads as autistic”…that meant a lot. I’ve also gotten a lot of very moving responses from other parents of autistic children, who often say they recognize some version of themselves or their own situation in Lois and Clark, which makes me happy.
Again in the This is Horror interview, you speak critically about the kinds of tropes that popular fiction often imposes on autistic characters. Were you worried about doing this yourself in Experimental Film given the ways the novel weaves Lois’s and her son’s respective neurodivergences into the supernatural framework of the story?
There were three big things I didn’t want to do in Experimental Film, and the first was that I didn’t want Clark’s autism to destroy his parents’ relationship with each other—I wanted Simon, Lois’s husband, to both stick around and be extremely supportive, because the opposite happens all too often in horror (and in real life, sadly). Secondly, I didn’t want to treat Clark as some sort of “magical autistic kid”…I didn’t want him to be a savant on the one hand, because most of us just aren’t, but I also didn’t want to treat him like a ghost-whispering human ouija board, either.
The third thing I didn’t want to do, meanwhile, was treat Clark being potentially “cured” as a happy ending, because I don’t think of neurodivergence as any more of a disease than, say, having brown eyes or being tall. My own son’s neurodivergence, like mine, is a foundational element of his entire being; make him suddenly neurotypical, and he wouldn’t be him anymore. So if that opportunity came up, I wanted Lois to utterly reject it, no matter how much “easier” it might supposedly make life for either of them—and (spoiler alert) she does. One reviewer apparently thought that wasn’t enough of a climax, but seriously, screw that dude.
You’ve often spoken about the importance of fanfiction, and the role it played in your development as a writer. What is it about fanfic that makes it so important?
Fanfiction taught me to write a chaptered narrative, which was very useful when I finally decided to make the jump from short fiction to novels—how to chunk a long-form story into roughly 5,000-word sections and let each lead into the next, creating an overall pattern of constant forward motion. This may seem pretty rudimentary, but when you’re faced with producing a 100,000-word document, it’s really important to realize that you can break it into bite-sized pieces without scuttling it.
But better yet, I think that writing fanfic teaches you that even your most specific obsessions are valid rather than weird and unpalatable—that whatever happens to come out of your id is entirely fine to concentrate on for as long as you need to in order to groom it into a story other people could respond to with equal enthusiasm, without censoring it or disguising it. I mean, when I was a kid I would literally tell myself stories in which I reduced the love interest’s pronoun to “e” so that people wouldn’t be able to tell I was thinking about two dudes together—and thanks to fanfic, those days are long gone.
I also like the fact that you can use fanfic logic to jump-start an idea: cast the premise with characters or actors you like, rough out the central relationships, mix and match in terms of plot, style, etcetera. Remix culture is wonderful for that sort of creative short-handing, and it works just as well for fiction as for fic (so long as you always remember to file off those pesky serial numbers, that is).
Can you talk about any of your fanfic pieces that evolved directly into pro work you later published?
All the 3:10 to Yuma (the James Mangold remake, not the original) fanfic I wrote over the year Cal was diagnosed led directly into the dynamics of the Hexslinger series, so if you want to think of Chess Pargeter as a version of Charlie Prince who actually knows he’s gay, then feel free. A lot of the research I did for writing Gangs of New York fic was also very useful, because it was set in roughly the same era. And back in the day I wrote a lot of fic for HBO’s Oz (the prison show), which informed stuff like my neo-Nazi shapeshifter Queer Fear story “Bear-Shirt.” But there’s also a lot of stuff I wrote instead of writing fic, and I guess you might be able to trace those patterns if you tried—my story “When I’m Armoring My Belly” is about Renfields in general and that harbinger guy from 30 Days of Night in specific; my Hammer Pirates story-cycle (“Trap-Weed,” “Two Captains,” “The Salt Wedding” and “Drawn Up From Deep Places”) is literally called that because it grew in part out of my desire to see Peter Cushing, Sir Christopher Lee and Tia Dalma from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies interact. I like to think they stand on their own, though.
Any pieces of your own fanfic that you are particularly fond of?
I’ve written two incredibly long pieces of fic that apparently managed to convince people who’d never thought too much about it of the viability of Beecher/Schillinger (from Oz) and The Governor/Rick Grimes (from The Walking Dead) as actual ships, so that makes me happy. The titles in question are “My Wife and My Dead Wife” and “This Old Death,” and they’re both up at Archive of Our Own under the name handful_ofdust.
Your extensive knowledge of horror film and your insightfully broad taste in genre pictures make you a regular go-to for me in terms of film recommendations. Do you have any thoughts on how horror films in Canada have evolved since the “Tax Haven nasties” of the 70s and 80s?
Well…the cycle that’s developed that used to sustain production companies like New Line and now sustains ones like Blumhouse is one that Canadian directors would seem particularly qualified to take advantage of—horror movies tend to work best when made on really low budgets, mostly because that allows them to reap big box office for not a lot of outlay, like flipping a house. Unfortunately, however, they still tend to be assessed by their ability to perform within our own comparatively tiny box office, which essentially consigns them to making films to prove they can make TV. (Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers totally monopolized the Canadian box office the year it was released, making just over $30 million; if that had been the way the world reckoned his professional worth, he’d never have been able to make Return of the King.)
So if you sometimes wonder where all those great Canadian horror directors go, it’s often to working on runaway TV productions—people like Vincenzo (Splice, Cube, Haunter) Natali, for example, who did most of the second season of Hannibal, or John (Ginger Snaps) Fawcett, who co-created Orphan Black. Back in the 1980s, people like David Cronenberg were making the very conscious decision not to go to Hollywood—he shot The Dead Zone and The Fly with American stars and money, then made Videodrome and watched those deals collapse, fairly happily; he’s never really wanted to make movies with much bigger budgets than Eastern Promises or A History of Violence, and it’s easier for him to get that money from the U.K. and/or France, just like David Lynch. Bruce (Pontypool) MacDonald seems to operate in much the same way, and while Quebec is the one place in Canada that has a truly self-sufficient film industry, they don’t seem all too interested in making horror films.
What we need overall is a better delivery system—multi-platform releases would work really well, just like they do in tiny markets like Japan, with an emphasis on streaming. Of course, we also either need film quota legislation like the kind that revived the South Korean film industry and keeps the French and U.K. film industries alive, or we need to accept that if the government won’t fund genre films on bullshit moral grounds then the best way to get what we want done is to make co-production deals with corporations like Netflix, who already fund and host horror films from South America, Japan and India, apparently without requiring them to pretend they were shot in the U.S.
Any films from this period that have continued resonance for you, decades later?
I’ve become really fond of Black Christmas, not least because an argument could be made for it being the first slasher film to use maniac’s-eye-view steadicam shots—it pre-dates Halloween, after all. And I love all of Cronenberg’s tax shelter films, especially The Brood and Scanners. They remind me of my childhood, particularly the night that Michael Ironside came over and changed my fuses after the power went out in my house (he’d been attending a class with my Mom, also a Canadian actor).
Are there any recent horror films you’d especially recommend to our readers?
Stuff I’ve seen and loved this year includes Julia Decourneau’s Raw, It: Chapter One (obviously), and Jordan Peele’s Get Out. I loved Del Toro’s The Shape of Water, but it’s basically a fable rather than a horror film per se—kind of an anti-Lovecraftian vision of self-definition through literally loving the alien. I also really liked The Void, which apparently puts me in opposition to a lot of people I respect, and I finally saw Marcin Wrona’s brilliant last film Demon, in which the true horror is about otherwise “good” people’s willingness to forgive and forget little things like genocide. It’s really neat to see politics seeping back into horror, especially when it comes to intersectional issues; given the way things are going, social commentary is rapidly becoming a necessity, if horror is to remain relevant.
(How) Did your own experiences as a writer of screenplays/teleplays affect your approach in Experimental Film? How did it shape your fiction in more general terms?
Film hangs over a lot of my stories, either overtly or covertly. I’m fond of tricks like wipes, dissolves, cuts to, switches in perspective; I like to start things in media res, to come in late and leave early. But then again, I also just like to talk about how film shapes our own perspective on things, how it can give us the impression we’ve already had experiences we’ve really only seen cinematic versions of. I think it’s all part and parcel of the fact that contemporary horror writers don’t live in a vacuum; we’re just as much a part of the larger spread of horror culture as anyone else, as much fans as we are creators—it helps us to not stay static, to continue to grow, to cobble together a lingua franca of references we (hopefully) share with our readers.
Of your numerous stories, are there any that you’d especially like to see adapted for film or TV? Any directors, screenwriters or actors you’d especially love to work with (even if in the realms of pure wish-fulfillment fantasy!)?
My experiences on The Hunger were A) nearly twenty years ago and B) interesting but not entirely satisfying, so yeah, I’d love to see other stuff of mine adapted to the screen, be it big or small. Filmmakers I’d love to work with include Floria Sigismondi, Kathryn Bigelow, Mike Flanagan, Guillermo del Toro, Mary Harron, Sarah Polley and Karyn Kusama.
As part of our author feature, we’re reprinting your short story “Gabbeh” on the site. Can you tell us a little about the story’s origins, inspiration and publication history?
When I was a film critic I reviewed a 1997 Mohsen Makmalbaf film called Gabbeh that’s a fable about the story told by the pattern on an extremely non-representational kind of rug; it’s meditative and romantic and odd, full of primal colour, driven by the struggle between faith and desire. One thing I took away from it was an enduring interest in iconoclasm, the idea of making up a sort of geometric visual code that would allow you to make pictures of things without offending God. So when I was asked to contribute a story to the 2012 World Fantasy Convention Programme Book by Barbara Roden, I spun the theme of Toronto Urban Fantasy into a tale I thought might somewhat represent the level of inherent diversity and multiculturalism that I’ve always loved about my home city. Haunted objects are also very much my jam, and I’d never seen a story featuring a haunted rug before. So there you go: one from column A, one from column B—it really does work, at least for 2,000 words.