Hellnotes: Congratulations on your upcoming collection! What kind of general information can you give us about this collection? For instance, how did you pick the title Spectral Evidence?
Gemma Files: Well, one of the featured stories in the TOC is actually called “Spectral Evidence,” so there’s that. It was originally published in The Chiaroscuro webzine after winning their then-yearly fiction contest; it’s gotten reprinted only once since then, as part of Ellen Datlow’s Hauntings (2013). It’s an odd little tale told in a very liminal way, with lots of annotations and essentially asking the reader to cobble its plot together through implication, between the lines—but I’m proud of it, and very happy to put it in the titular slot here.
Of course, the other meaning of the phrase refers to “evidence” used in witchcraft trials during the Burning Times, which is equally valid considering my interests. The idea was that if a person claimed to be bewitched, pretty much anything they told you could be cited in court without ever having to be proven. Like in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible with the girls pulling fits, falling to the floor and rolling around, screaming stuff out at random: “I saw Goody Proctor with the Devil! I saw Goody Cloyse with the Devil!” “Why do you torment this poor girl so?” the accused person’s inquisitors might then ask the person so named, a question to which there would naturally be no right answer.
As for how Spectral Evidence itself came to be…well, it occurred to me a while back that in the years since my first two collections of short fiction (Kissing Carrion and The Worm in Every Heart, currently available as ebooks from ChiZine Publications), I’d definitely written enough stories to fill a few new ones. So I started asking around, and now I actually have two more coming out after this one—Drawn Up From Deep Places, also from Trepidatio, plus Dark is Better from Cemetery Dance. Since I’ve fielded requests from fans for quite some time as to whether or not my later stuff would eventually be available in collections, I’m very glad they’ll now be able to catch up with these stories by just buying three books, instead of ten or twenty.
HN: What was the process like of choosing the stories for this collection? Was there an effort to draw broadly from across your work, or was it more focused on a particular group or style? Did you have a hand in working on the order, or was that part of the editorial process?
GF: Well, I was allowed to both pick the stories and order them, for which I’m extremely grateful; it’s been a really great working relationship thus far. And since I’d already filled up Dark Is Better, I was working directly from the list of stuff that hadn’t been collected yet but was also past its first printing. Thematically, both Trepidatio collections are a mix of stuff people might have heard of versus stuff they probably haven’t, and the TOC for Drawn Up From Dark Places has a lot of dark fantasy in it while the TOC of Spectral Evidence hopefully manages to juxtapose “straight” horror/weird fiction with a slightly more pulpy variety thereof.
For example, there are three stories in Spectral Evidence that could be taken as a rough sort of trilogy—“Crossing the River,” “Black Bush,” and “His Face, All Red.” All three star a trio of characters who you’d think would never work together, hereditary monster-hunters Samaire and Dionne Cornish, whose witchfinder ancestor was responsible for the extermination of an entire village of Mediaeval French sorceresses, and Allfair “A-Cat” Chatwin, the half-demon holler witch descended from that very same evil bloodline. I was trying for something that read like a cis-swapped Supernatural crossed with Prison Break through a Manley Wade Wellman Silver John stories filter, with a little Hammer Horror movies thrown in on top…more like my story-cycle We Will All Go Down Together or the Hexslinger series than Experimental Film. I hope the people who became aware of me through the latter’s success find them as fun to read as I found them fun to write.
Beyond those, almost everything here hasn’t been collected or reprinted more than once aside from “A Wish From a Bone,” which I wrote for Ellen Datlow’s Fearful Symmetries anthology; “Imaginary Beauties: A Lurid Melodrama” was originally printed as part of Kelp Queen Press’s Twoonie Dreadful series before being reprinted in Lethe Press’s Daughters of Frankenstein, but sadly I think it’s highly unlikely anybody outside of Toronto, Canada remembers that. So the great part is that there should be more than a few unfamiliar entries for readers to enjoy, no matter where they happen to open the book at random.
HN: While we’d never ask you to pick a favourite or name a “best,” is there perhaps a story (or stories) that you’re particularly pleased to be able make available in this collection? Maybe one that didn’t get wide release when first published or has been hard to find for a while?
GF: One thing I’m very pleased might get a wider audience at last would be “When I’m Armoring My Belly,” originally published as part of Nancy Kilpatrick’s first volume of eVolVe, an anthology series about the potential future of vampire fiction—it’s a Renfield story, which I really think there can never be enough of. Told from the POV of a person who enables vampires in exchange for a vague promise that they might make him one of them sometime in the future, it’s about a guy who’s slowly realizing he’s become a human dog who gets paid in scraps, but what is he going to do about it? What can he? That’s the big question. (It’s also got a fair amount of sex in it, of the bleak, bloody, nasty kind. I mean, if you like that sort of thing.)
HN: On the other hand, are there any stories in here that stick out as having been particularly hard to write? What about that story or stories did you find difficult, and how did you finally overcome the obstacles?
GF: Probably the one that was most difficult was the concluding story, “The Speed of Pain,” a fairly direct sequel to “The Emperor’s Old Bones,” which won the International Horror Guild’s 1999 award for Best Short Fiction—partly because it took some work to get past the idea that doing a sequel at all was sort of betraying the earlier story. I’d worked very hard to express everything in “Emperor’s” through implication and subtext, whereas any look at those characters later on was never going to be able to avoid being pretty much pure confirmation: yes, they did what they planned to, and here’s the result. In a lot of ways, “The Speed of Pain” is about the tragedy of getting exactly what you want, not only for (say) Tim Darbersmere and Ellis Iseland, but also for “The Speed of Pain”’s new main characters, super-fan Veruca Luz and her internet friend turned reluctant escort Nimue Ewalt.
The hope was that I could make this story stand on its own, which is why I’m interested to finally see how it registers with both people who’ve read the original source and people who haven’t, especially since a friend of mine once called it “fanfic on [my] own fiction.” But this is also why it was so hard not only to write but to release, to put out there, in the first place…I had to make myself not care about whether or not my friend’s assessment might actually be true, and just go ahead and do it anyhow. Basically, I truly believe that nothing I’ve ever written has been sacred, inviolable, untouchable. I’ve written more than enough fanfic about other people’s creations to make sure of that.
HN: Your first collection—the evocatively titled Kissing Carrion—was first released back in 2003. If possible, can you see the ways in which your writing has changed since then? Not just in terms of technique, but also possibly with regard to the themes or ideas that you find yourself exploring?
GF: Well, I’m turning fifty this year, which means I’ve been writing for a quarter-century at this point, so I’d be surprised indeed if things hadn’t changed somewhat since the early days. In a very flattering Locus review Laird Barron did around the time CZP re-packaged Kissing Carrion and The Worm…, he called me “a punk,” which I took to mean that I really didn’t have a lot of checks and balances in my operating system back then; if I got an idea and it seemed freaky enough, I’d just go ahead and do it. Of course, I was an amateur back then, not a professional—if I got stuck on something for ten years and only finished it when somebody finally waved a deadline in front of me (as happened with KC‘s title story), then fine.
Sometimes I re-read this early stuff and I’m amazed anybody ever published it, because all my mistakes jump out at me; sometimes I’m equally amazed it came out of me at all, because I barely recognize the person I was when I wrote it anymore. I’m an adult now, suffused with all sorts of life experiences I frankly never expected to have, and I find I can’t ever seem to completely get away from their influence, their shadow, no matter what character’s skin I shove myself inside. I’m a lot more inclined to forgive the people I make up their basic human frailties, for example, rather than send them plunging head-first into the E.C. Comics revenge-o-matic chute or hold the cage door open for the slightly more genteel Angel Heart special: Express elevator straight to hell, baby, goin’ down!
Just like there has to be light to delineate the shadows, there really does have to be love somewhere in the mix, however twisted. There have to be stakes worth losing, or I get bored. There has to be that spectrum, that hint of the numinous at the heart of even the blackest miracles. There has to be some sort of acknowledgement that in order for the supernatural, there has to be a natural for it to mimic, invert, betray—boring in the moment perhaps, but stable, beautiful, necessary in the long run. Some sort of understanding that at base, all fears boil down to one: the terrible knowledge of mortality in the face of eternity, ephemeral physicality juxtaposed with cosmic indifference. That’s what I strive for most now, no matter whether or not I ever achieve it.
HN: The past few years seem to have been something of a boom for excellent single author collections. Aside from your Spectral Evidence, what other recent or upcoming dark fiction collections have stood out to you? Are there any authors that you’re reading now who you look forward to reading more of?
GF: Oh my God, yes—the horror field looks incredibly bright in terms of new authors. Nadia Bulkin’s brilliant first collection, She Said Destroy, remains one of my favourites; Kristi de Meester is one to watch, if you’re not doing that already. I’m looking forward to Priya Sharma’s new collection too. On the male side of things, I loved Stephen Michell’s Only the Devil Is Here and David Demchuk’s The Bone Mother, and not just because they’re from CZP. Michael Griffin, Michael Wehunt, Jonathan L. Howard, A.C. Wise, Richard Gavin, Livia Llewellyn, Adam Nevill, Bracken MacLeod…new faces and names pop up almost every time I look around. I’m ecstatic to be part of such a fecund genre.
HN: Finally, what’s coming up on your horizon? Not just what projects are coming out soon, but also what ideas are you playing with that maybe haven’t been worked out yet—can you give us something concrete as well as something abstract to anticipate?
GF: Hmmm. I am in fact working on a new novel, Nightcrawling, but things I’d like to do after that include something about a cult, something about a haunted women’s prison, something about poisoning, something about a mummy, something set in a completely different culture or era. I’d like to propose a couple of themed anthologies that I could maybe co-edit; I’d like to finally make inroads into Dark Comforts, a book of horror culture analysis and response that I’ve been playing around with. In a perfect world, it’d be great to do a podcast talking about stuff I like or telling a really long-tail narrative in little chunks, or both. I’d also like to sell something to film and/or TV and actually see it come to fruition, maybe even from a script I wrote. Otherwise, I’m just going to keep on telling stories in long and short form, moving from request to request, and doing the other stuff that makes up normal life for me: getting my son through high school, making necklaces, singing. It’s all downhill from here, after all. 😉