Gemma Files is a London-born, Canadian-raised bestselling and award-winning author of dark fiction. She has won the International Horror Guild Award, Shirley Jackson Award, Sunburst Award, and the Bram Stoker Award®. Her short fiction is regularly included in Ellen Datlow’s Best of Horror anthologies, and five of her short stories were adapted as episodes of The Hunger (1997-2000). Here, she shares what drives her fascination with monsters and the nightmares that have turned her into a bestselling horror writer.
WLW Press: How do you scare yourself?
Gemma Files: If you love someone, anyone–even yourself–then scaring yourself is easy. Think about what you don’t want to happen, and how it might. Think about what/who you don’t want to lose, and how you might lose them/it. Add detail. Figure out how to move through the threat, fast or slow. Decide on whether or not you’ll deliver on said threat. Repeat.
WLW: What is the first nightmare you remember having as a child?
GF: There used to be a display in the Royal Ontario Museum which posed fully-assembled ichthyosaur skeletons on wires above what was supposed to be a deep seascape, as if they were swimming in air. You entered it and left it through the same door; it was like a cave at the end of what is now half of the current dinosaur exhibit. The walls of the cave were embossed with marine fossils and painted to look like rocks. The ceiling and the walls of the display itself, inset further into the cave, were also painted black. A watery light fluttered downwards along the back wall, illuminating dust in the air, and the floor of the display was covered with grey-white sand on which the ichthyosaur skeletons’ shadows moved as though they were swimming. One whole cast of an ichthyosaur, crushed between layers of rock, lay on the floor beneath them as if it was dead–like they’d killed it, or maybe like whalefall. There was a sense of larger space looming beyond the corners of the display, a sense that if you climbed over the see-through partition then you’d find yourself stuck at the bottom of a ghost-sea inhabited by ghost predators that hung above you, grinning down. And there was also a soundtrack of hissing, muffled waves, the sound you’d hear through a seashell. I remember dreaming about that when I was less than seven, maybe.
WLW: What genre/topic couldn’t they pay you enough to write?
GF: Not fond of male-on-female sexual violence or anyone-on-child sexual violence, for obvious reasons. I’m also not a big fan of straight survival horror or mocking masterminds who trap people and laugh at their pain like it’s a reality show, though I guess I probably could write either of those if someone backed a dump-truck of money up to my condo.
WLW: People who follow you know that you are a human horror movie library. What do you think is the most terrifying non-horror movie that you’ve ever seen? Why?
GF: I usually go to The Rapture (dir. Michael Tolkin) when I’m asked that–it’s Tolkin treating the subject with absolute gravity, ushering polyamorous atheist Mimi Rogers through disaffection with her decadent lifestyle, an existential crisis, the development of faith, a vision which sends her and her daughter out into the wilderness to wait for God’s return, then the death of her daughter just before said Rapture actually starts to happen. At the end, she’s asked to choose between forgiving God for letting her daughter die and going to heaven, or staying outside in the cold darkness forever because she can’t forgive Him. She chooses the latter. It’s a brilliant film, not really horror, and I own it, but I’ve never watched it again. It just hurts too much, and I’m not even religious.
WLW: If you could choose one fictional character to be your BFF who would it be?
GF: Eeee, I don’t know–most of the people I like are serious assholes, of one stripe or another. Not to mention that their friends don’t end up doing all too well.
WLW: If you could not be a writer or a filmmaker, what is the profession that you think you would have the most fun doing? Why?
GF: Most of the things I enjoy doing won’t make you enough money to count as “jobs,” per se. I liked teaching film history and film criticism, though, and I think I wasn’t too bad at it. I’d sort of like to do more of that, if people were willing to pay me for it. Or maybe teach people to draw scary stuff.
WLW: What is your writing kryptonite?
GF: Um…I can usually figure out a way to write what I need to write by the time I need to write it. It’s often a matter of matching the delivery system to the idea, or finding the right voice to tell this particular story in. I try not to fuck around with stuff like waiting for inspiration. So yeah, maybe the idea of “oh, I have to wait for my MUSE to come and tell me what to write” is my kryptonite–I can’t see why you’d ever do that to yourself. Actually, the whole concept sounds like a horror story waiting to happen…”Oh yeah, I’m dependent on the still, small voice in my mind!” Who are you waiting for, man? The Bell Witch? A fucking tulpa?
WLW: You are known as one of the kindest people in the horror industry, which seems to be a trend amongst very talented horror writers. Do you feel that being kind and loving to create disturbing art are connected somehow? Why or why not?
GF: That’s really nice of you to say! Look, I’ll tell you the truth–much like being angry all the time (which I used to be), being hateful and/or hurtful just seems like way too much work for me, at this point in my life. It’s an energy expenditure I’m no longer prepared to double down on. We all have our reasons for writing horror, and mine (primarily) has to do with the fact that I’ve always been drawn to the dark, the extreme, the operatic, a world of stark shadows covered in fire, blood and gold. On my arm I have tattooed Gustave Flaubert’s injunction to “Be neat and orderly in your life, like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”, and I basically believe in that–I try to keep my drama for the page. It works out better that way.
WLW: What is your all-time favorite horror fiction, both movie and written?
GF: An impossible question, but I’ll tell you two things I’ve enjoyed recently: Johnny Compton’s The Spite House, a wonderfully vivid and unpredictable variant on the haunted house narrative, chock-full of fascinating character voices and genuine terror, and In The Earth (dir. Ben Wheatley), shot during the pandemic, a Nigel Kneale-on-acid sort of folk eco-horror that’s invasive, ecstatic and weirdly funny. I enjoy it more every time I see it.
WLW: What are you creating next?
GF: Working on a deadlined short story I owe right fuckin’ now (as ever), and I’ve finally set a hardish deadline for submission packages on what hopefully will become my next two novels. I also need to look over the manuscript for my next collection, Blood From the Air (Grimscribe), which will hopefully be out in October 2023.
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