Horror & Dark Fantasy

COSMIC POWERS

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Author Spotlight: Gemma Files

Horror stories often build tension by way of a slow reveal, but in “This is Not for You,” the horror begins right up front. What made you choose this structure?

When I showed it to my writing group, the second section was the lead-in and we didn’t get to the “meat” of the story until much later, i.e. when it would have occurred in linear time. They all agreed that because there was a lot of exposition involved with Gorgo and the cult’s intro, it made sense to flip things so that the visceral thrills of the hunt were first. I took their advice, and now I really can’t see it working any other way—it’s like it overwhelms you with a sensual rush, hopefully hooking you deep enough to render you more open to and cooperative with the slightly “head”ier second section, because you already know there’s bad/fun stuff a-comin’. In retrospect, it also reminds me of the bracketing flash-forward at the start of Hannibal Season Two, which shows us that no matter where the rest of the season goes, there’s eventually going to be a knock-down drag-out between Dr. Lecter and Jack Crawford which will hurt just as badly for both of them.

Rather than worshipping Dionysus, as the maenads do in The Bachaae, the women in your story worship Persephone. What was the impetus for this change? Do you enjoy incorporating mythology into your work?

Mythology is something that’s fascinated me since childhood, especially the ways in which societal power-shifts can cause myths to mutate. The worship of Persephone, for example, was a mystery religion long before Dionysus came on the scene, one reserved specifically for women, and if you trace the Persephonean myth back far enough, you’ll find that she transmutes into a sort of “death queen” goddess who actually pre-dates both her supposed husband, Hades, and the sacrificial son-lover figure of Dionysus or Attis, whose priest-avatars tore off their own testicles to fertilize the earth for their mother-goddess Cybele. In other words, her earlier phase was more reminiscent of goddesses like Ereshkigal, Tiamat, and Cerridwen, an overpowering mother-goddess figure who embraces both death and life, the generative and destructive powers. (We see a similar pattern with the evolution—or possibly de-evolution—of Hera, now mainly known as “Zeus’s jealous wife,” but who once encompassed all the apparently conflicting traits later parcelled out to subsidiary sister-wife and daughter goddesses like Artemis, Demeter, and Athena.) It made sense to me that under someone like Aglaia, who I think may be a well-respected academic in her non-cult life, the cult would try to revive this earlier version of Persephone and reclaim her full spectrum of powers, the true branching, antlered “crown of terror” that fuels their hunting ecstasy.

Does the intervention of the goddess relieve the women of responsibility for their acts? What about the fact that their victims are morally blameworthy to some degree?

Well, obviously not. I mean, even if you personally believed in the goddess and you genuinely thought that by turning up uninvited these guys had broken a sacred code, the guys in question palpably do not believe in the goddess—why would they?—so any question of their guilt is rendered specious. They don’t know the rules. This is not part of their world. This is an artificially-created situation, a party they have been literally enticed to. Should they maybe be wary? Yes, and if they were female, society would have trained them to be . . . to not rush blind into unknown situations just because they hear it might be fun, and also to not encroach on other people’s privacy because it elates them to do so. But society has trained them differently, and in this situation, following their own predatory instincts makes them into prey. Which is sort of mordantly amusing, but come on: even Gorgo would admit that murder’s murder, no matter the context.

You touch on a number of important issues including feminism, intersectionality, cults, religion, and gender identity, to name but a few. Do you often seek to include or tackle important issues? Do you think courage (i.e. the willingness to “go there”) is an important quality for a writer to possess?

My friend Claire Humphrey points out that writing any story is inherently political, especially when you’re a woman writing horror, which is a position I admire, though I rarely think of myself assuming it. When I heard about this opportunity, however—the Women Destroy Science Fiction/Horror call for submissions—I made a very conscious decision to reach for/pursue the most extreme thing that immediately occurred to me. Maybe I’ll regret that decision once reactions start coming back, but I really hope not because once I started writing this story, I kind of fell in love with it; I’m proud to have written it, and that part’s not going to change, no matter what. Fingers crossed.

In “This is Not for You,” you flip the well worn horror trope of male-aggressor-on-female-victim on its head, showcasing not just one but a group of violent and predatory women attacking men. Why?

Because I think predation is a human quality, not a sex-linked one, and because I wanted to explore the use of religion as one way in which people—women here, people in general—give themselves permission to other and destroy, ostensibly in the service of something larger than themselves, but possibly in the service of their own impulses. Telling yourself a fairy story about the Goddess demanding sacrifice is very much like telling yourself a fairy story about God wanting a crusade, after all, just as there’s often a visceral sort of metaphorical link between sexual attraction and the impulse to rend, to deconstruct, to consume: I’ll eat you up, I love you so! Even if you take that away, however, living under patriarchy guarantees that there’s always going to be a lot of toxic resentment built up between men and women, and while you hear about one facet of that dynamic all the time—the Youtube Manifesto shooting spree, Not All Men, etc.—you rarely hear about the others. These are the currents Aglaia taps into with her cult: blind yearning for faith in an increasingly secular world, Gorgo’s personal murder fetishism, this constant struggle to define what “feminine” qualities are/mean in terms of shaping our identities.

On some level, I also think I might have been hearkening back to Robert R. McCammon’s Bethany’s Sin, a highly influential (to me) 1980s novel in which the intrusive monsters poisoning a small community from within turn out to be the ghosts of Amazons possessing otherwise “normal” women and throwing off the established gender balance, which McCammon’s narrative structure—whether or not he was aware of what he was doing at the time—treats as the true horror of the situation: cats and dogs living together, mass hysteria. The book’s “hero” has issues with misogyny that eventually become the superpower he uses to save his wife and daughter, so I guess I thought it would be funny to play with that idea from a different angle, though that’s really only occurred to me in hindsight.

What does your year ahead look like, writing-wise?

I’ve spent the last seven months writing a hell of a lot of short fiction, “This is Not For You” included, which has been great, but now I really have to knuckle down and get the pedal to the metal in terms of my next novel, Experimental Film, which is due for early 2015. It’s my first real stand-alone, a contemporary-set ghost story about female creativity, a lost goddess, and the secret history of Canadian film. I also have a new book coming out as of August nineteenth, We Will All Go Down Together: Stories of the Five-Family Coven, a linked story-cycle that’s half previously-published material finally put in context and half brand-new stuff, involving a 400-year blood vendetta between supernaturally-powerful Toronto-based clans, witchcraft, psychic investigation, the Fae, evil angels, and monster-killing nuns.

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Erika Holt

Erika Holt

Nightmare assistant editor Erika Holt lives in Calgary, Alberta, where she writes and edits speculative fiction. Her stories appear in several anthologies including Not Our Kind, What Fates Impose, and Evolve Two: Vampire Stories of the Future Undead. She is also co-editor of two anthologies from EDGE and Absolute XPress: Rigor Amortis, about sexy, amorous zombies, and Broken Time Blues, featuring such oddities as 1920s burlesque dancers and bootlegging chickens. Find her at erikaholt.com or on Twitter as @erikaholt.