Award winning Canadian author Gemma Files talks about growing up, dealing with puberty and becoming a horror writer.
Women in Horror Month: Woman/Horror Writer
It took me a long time to think of myself as a woman, and getting my period at age ten and a half was part of that. As I blew straight through puberty over the next six months, it didn’t help my already awful social cred even a little: I was still angry, still “too smart” and still didn’t understand what made a person popular, except now I also had glasses, braces, pimples, cramps, my full height and breasts before anyone else, at a time when it was guaranteed to seem creepy rather than cool. Boys didn’t try to look down my shirt so much as they picked fights with me, while the girls I invited to my birthday party found a box of my maxi-pads and used them as impromptu decorations.
Which perhaps goes a way towards explaining why I soon decided that my gender had nothing much to recommend it overall, and nothing to do with me. I spent the next twelve years thinking of myself as a brain on top of a spine before blundering into a group of friends just as Aspergian as myself, one of whom I eventually married. And all of them liked fantasy and science fiction and comics, movies and music and role-playing games, fandom and collecting and various branches of academic study—which was great, because so did I. But out of all these people, I was pretty much the only one whose thoughts almost always tended (as Yukio Mishima so beautifully put it) to Night, and Death, and Blood. Out of all of them, I was the person who called myself a horror writer.
I was a woman as well, though, and (since I’m cis) will always remain one. I was a woman when I fixated on vampires and studied black magic, a woman when I read my way through Tanith Lee’s back catalogue at Toronto’s Judith Merrill Collection or collected Fangoria magazine to educate myself about directors I idolized (like David Cronenberg, weird and Canadian!), a woman when I applied for my first film critic gig by writing unsolicited reviews of Silence of the Lambs and Pumpkinhead. So when I first started to send out the horror stories I wrote, part of the dreadfulness of embodiment I concentrated on very much had to do with the specific ins and outs of my own female flesh—and just describing things like menstruation, cunnilingus or childbirth in detail was enough to disgust and terrify, I soon found, especially when playing to what most people still assume is a mainly-male audience.
Back in the early 1990s, the genre was full of extremity, Splatterpunk, “erotic horror”…people were always trying to push the envelope, to deliberately shock and offend, and where that automatically seemed to take a lot of authors’ minds was back to the female body, but always from the outside: as a prop, an artefact, a plot twist. Skimming through my local bookstore’s horror section, I mainly saw stuff that focused on the destruction and befoulment of people who looked like me, our inevitable and luxurious transmutation from sugar, spice and everything nice to a rotting corpse with a vagina full of teeth. When I sold five stories to The Hunger (an erotic horror anthology show produced by Tony and Ridley Scott for Showtime, which ran from 1997 to 2000 and shot out of Montreal), I got to visit the production office, where the writers’ room had a list of rules pinned up on the wall. I can’t remember all of them, but “If a woman gets naked, she’s evil” was definitely number one.
Though I’d cut my literary teeth on Stephen King and Peter Straub, like almost everyone else in my generation, the people I increasingly drew direct inspiration from were exceptions rather than rules: non-default in terms of gender, sexuality and outlook. They were body-horror poets like Clive Barker, Caitlín R. Kiernan, Melanie Tem, Kathe Koja and Poppy Z. Brite; they were decadents from the underside of the 1980s horror boom like Michael McDowell and Douglas Clegg (both gay, I later found out), or forgotten mistresses from earlier ages like Marjorie Bowen and Vernon Lee, along with all the other ladies published in Virago Press’s two collections of ghost stories. And slowly but surely, I realized I was attracted to these people because the things which fascinated me also fascinated them. I’d never been mainstream, not in my life—but was that because I personally was singular, perverse, different from the norm? Or was it possible that all people who identified as different from the norm were just more likely to have interests which crossed over with mine, women very much included?
And at every point on this journey, I got asked the exact same series of questions: Why horror, and why horror for me, a woman? Why not write something else, something less upsetting and declassé, something less firmly located at the intersection of Gore and Porno Streets? What could I possibly get out of it, or assume anyone else would get out of it?
Here’s a sad fact: when you love a thing that supposedly only men love but you’re not “a man”…by which I mean the same limiting, parodic mainstream image of what a straight cis white male should be that makes even straight cis white males sometimes doubt their ability to live up (or down) to it…it makes it hard to love yourself. When the only image of someone like you you’re likely to trip across inside that thing you love is a joke, a sidekick, a monster or a dead body, it makes it hard for you as a person who loves horror and wants everything any other person who loves horror wants—transformation and apotheosis, power in darkness, revelry and revenge, (fictional) death to your enemies—to want to have anything to do with those characters, that gender, yourself. It makes you want to be sexless, a brain on a spine, a ghost. It makes you want to be a man.
But here’s how things have changed since I started writing horror, thankfully: much though I enjoy writing from their POV (particularly while watching them have sex with each other), I don’t actually want to be a man anymore. I want to be me. Because, as has always been the case, horror really is for women too, and queer people, and diverse people of all kinds—the whole intersectional non-default brigade. It doesn’t mean we hate ourselves by loving it, and it doesn’t have make us hate ourselves to love it, either. Because it shows us we can love ourselves all the better by not only embracing our own inherently monstrous-coded differences from “the norm,” but by understanding that the greatest trick mainstream culture ever played was convincing us there really was a norm to deviate from, in the first place.
Horror is for everyone, it turns out, because everyone’s equally afraid of their body, the universe, each other and themselves—because we all love things, and know we’re going to lose them; because we all know we’re going to die, and we all hate it. Because we all know this is going nowhere good, much as we may hope like hell otherwise. Horror is for everyone, male, female or otherwise, because it’s the genre that teaches us not to trust blindly, that behind every pretty lie is an uncomfortable yet freeing truth. That all of us could be monsters, and as long we let ourselves be aware of that fact, we also know we don’t have to be. That just as the grave has room enough for all of us, the grave’s rim has more than enough space for everybody who wants to take their turn donning masks and telling stories in the dark.
So many people just like me, all getting the same thing out of what I love that I do. It took me a long time to think of myself as a woman, far longer than it did for me to think of myself as a horror writer. Yet here I am.
In fact…I’m here all year. 😉
Formerly a film critic, journalist, screenwriter and teacher, Gemma Files has been an award-winning horror author since 1999. She has published two collections of short work (Kissing Carrion and The Worm in Every Heart), two chapbooks of speculative poetry (Bent Under Night and Dust Radio), a Weird Western trilogy (the Hexslinger series—A Book of Tongues, A Rope of Thorns and A Tree of Bones), a story-cycle (We Will All Go Down Together: Stories of the Five-Family Coven) and a stand-alone novel (Experimental Film, which won the 2016 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel and the 2016 Sunburst award for Best Adult Novel). Most are available from ChiZine Publications. She has two new story collections from Trepidatio (Spectral Evidence and Drawn Up From Deep Places), one upcoming from Cemetery Dance (Dark Is Better), and a new poetry collection from Aqueduct Press (Invocabulary). She can be found on Twitter as @gemmafiles and Facebook as Gemma Files.