OUTlaws and Tex Hex

A review of Gemma Files’ A Book of Tongues Book 1 in the Hexslinger Series (ChiZine Publications, 2010).

Cover Photo for A Book of Tongues courtesy of the publisher

Cover Photo for A Book of Tongues courtesy of the publisher

By Derek Newman-Stille

I have often shied away from the Western genre, seeing it as generally overly heterosexist and enforcing a restricting notion of masculinity, but I was intrigued when I saw that Gemma Files, who often writes pro-queer literature was writing a Weird Western series. Okay I thought to myself, Cowboys might be interesting if they use magic. A Book of Tongues was a beautiful subversion of a generally over-masculinist genre – infusing the Wild West with the weird and the queer.

Files creates two queer protagonists, and unlike a lot of authors who tend to de-masculinise queer characters, Gemma Files makes certain that they are both extremely masculine and also queer-oriented. Her complication of the queer character is made even more fantastic with the introduction of a preacher who is in a relationship with a man. His form of magic is to use bible quotes to empower his magic, which is a brilliant way of empowering queerness by turning bible quotes, which have often been used by intolerant and hateful people as a justification for them disempowering and oppressing queer people.

By situating her novel at a particularly homophobic period of history, Gemma Files makes her character’s challenges even more prevalent. They have to fight a widespread social and religious intolerance of their same-sex relationship as well as facing discrimination and fear for their ability to use magic or hex. The two forms of discrimination intersect in such a way that the only escape from widespread intolerance and the likelihood of death is to use hex craft in an aggressive way. Her characters have to enter a morally ambiguous area – willing to kill in order to preserve their rights to exist. In this way, Files further plays with the Western genre, which often has very easily distinguishable white-hats and black-hats – her characters are morally grey, and may prefer the colour purple.

Upon reading A Book of Tongues one wonders why more authors haven’t used queer characters in the Western genre. The social oppression and fear of homosexuality means that the cowboy characters need to be even more ‘outlaw’-like in nature and when society’s rules prevent your existence itself, the notion of a character who refuses to live by society’s rules makes even more sense. They have to defy social rules just to exist and survive, so it is understandable that these characters would develop a general disdain about social rules and a desire to be their own man.

Gemma Files uses a poetic, mythic language that conveys a beauty in darkness and a darkness in beauty. Like her descriptive style, her characters are painted as both beautiful and deadly. Her devilish desperados are complex characters that are forced into even more complexity for the love that they feel and the social restrictions that surround them.

In a world where hexes have the power to destroy a whole town in the blink of an eye, Chess and Reverend Rook are feared as much for their homosexuality as they are for their ability to wield the destructive power of magic.

To find out more about Gemma Files, visit her website at https://sites.google.com/site/thegemmafiles/ and her blog at http://musicatmidnight-gfiles.blogspot.ca/ .  To find A Book of Tongues and others like it, visit ChiZine’s website at http://chizinepub.com/ .

Upcoming Interview with Gemma Files Next Thursday December 13th

I have been reading short stories by Gemma Files in various Canadian SF volumes for a few years and was excited to pick up her novel A Book of Tongues a few weeks ago. After reading it and seeing the poetry of her language and engagement with the mythical, I knew that she would be fascinating to interview. I hope you enjoy our interview on Thursday December 13th and, if you haven’t had a chance to read her work yet, you can find out more about Gemma Files at her websites https://sites.google.com/site/thegemmafiles/ and http://musicatmidnight-gfiles.blogspot.ca/ .

Cover photo of A Rope Of Thorns courtesy of the ChiZine Publications

Cover photo of A Rope Of Thorns courtesy of the ChiZine Publications

In addition to writing, Gemma Files has an incredible amount of life experience from working in a diverse number of jobs including the Canadian film industry, working as a security guard, and as a film critic. This life experience is probably part of the fascinating alchemy that allows Gemma to create such fantastic works of SF. Anyone who describes horror as “comfort food” is definitely someone who I couldn’t help but be fascinated to talk to.

If you haven’t read A Book of Tongues yet, you can check out my review that will be appearing tomorrow.

Here are some highlights from my upcoming interview with Gemma Files:

Gemma Files: “My earliest memories are of telling myself stories about characters I particularly loved from the books I read”

Gemma Files: “While my content may indeed graze some pretty gross stuff, what I’m after overall is a sort of poetry and high drama, a creeping dread and emotional punch, a love of language rooted in the appreciation of the odd.”

Gemma Files: “The idea often seems to be that by consuming horror, you’re damaging yourself somehow, stamping out your softer feelings, making it impossible to get the same charge out of milder stuff. I don’t believe that, however, any more than I believe consuming romance either develops or retards a reader’s understanding of love—entertainment and experience are two completely different things.”

Gemma Files: “Horror makes us think about things we’d often prefer not to, like mortality, impermanence, responsibility, randomness, the darker emotions we all share—to look at these things head-on, consider them and then realize they’re neither the be-all nor the end-all of human existence.”

Gemma Files: “We all hope we’re not monsters, while simultaneously wishing we were.”

Gemma Files: “I’ve always liked Westerns, and I love the idea of adding magic to them, because it doesn’t seem so out of place. I think it has to do with the general feeling of infinite expansion and preordained diminution that comes along with the whole Western package—these stories take place in an indefinite space, where the outside is mammoth and the inside cramped, and nothing is (as yet) fully fixed. So why not posit that you’re just as likely to meet zombies around the next mesa, or werewolves, witches, vampires, mad scientists, anaye, Mayan-Mexica gods?”

Gemma Files: “I’m tired of a world of media which concentrates exclusively on the concerns and interactions of white heterosexual males.”

Gemma Files: “I was also somewhat inspired by proudly gay SFF author Hal Duncan’s remarks about Brokeback Mountain, in which he essentially said he just wanted to see a story about two bad-ass gay people being bad-ass together, having lots of sex and not dying for it.”

Gemma Files: “Even going by the classic “7% of everyone you encounter is probably gay” rule, that means that any one of the characters you may have loved and wanted to emulate might have been the sort of person mainstream media teaches us is weird, unnatural and unlikely.”

Gemma Files: “When you get down to it, our national self-image is entirely imposed from the outside, a generalization cobbled together from dreams and guilt, then historically distributed through a Film Board put together by a socialist Scots expatriate who hated Hollywood and a Broadcast Corporation run from Ottawa. No wonder we’re so unable to explain what sets us apart.”

Gemma Files: “Our fantasy tends to be rooted in the uncomfortable, the self-reflective, the place where power and freedom come with a price, one that must be paid knowingly, and in blood. We accept coincidence and synchronicity, but also understand hubris, and karma. We expect doom at best, failure at worst. It’s bleak, but it’s familiar, especially to somebody who likes horror.”

Stay tuned next Thursday for Gemma Files to reveal some of the literary alchemy that goes into producing good Weird fiction.