Empathy for Monsters: Gemma Files’ Spectral Evidence

Spectral Evidence-FilesI treasure the authors who can draw giggles from me with their humor, describe new visions of the fantastic, evoke a new shade of the macabre, or deliver a shock profound enough to make me want to drag my feet up onto the couch or chair where I am reading so they are nowhere near that gap under the furniture. You know that space where something unspeakable can reach through to tickle your ankle or sever your Achilles tendon? Gemma Files is such an author, and the contents of her 2018 collection Spectral Evidence manage to accomplish all of the above.

The book collects nine previously published stories. Spectral Evidence is one of two Trepedatio Publishing releases of Files’ short fiction (the other released around the same time was Drawn Up From Deep Places). The stories in this book have original publication dates ranging from 2006 to 2014. Both books have been sitting on my TBR stack for a couple of years at this point. Random whim convinced me to try this one over the other. Now, alas, I am hooked on the author’s morphing, evocative style and the macabre tales she tells.

Sad confession time: Prior to cracking open Spectral Evidence, I have not delved into Files’ fiction in any real depth. I know I have encountered her work via the occasional Best Of annual anthology. I know she is an award-winning author, and she has been on my TBR list for some time. It was a bit of a lark to add her collection to this month’s horror and suspense reads, an excuse to delve into an extended look at her work.

Somewhere near the middle of the first story, when one of the characters is stuck on the receiving end of the red angel treatment from Silence of the Lambs but does not die, instead proceeding to flap around on those macabre wings, high above a remote temple while throwing curses both up toward heaven and down to the doomed characters below, I realized I was in strange country indeed. Inviting country, perhaps, but wonderfully peculiar nevertheless. When the second story revamped (pun intended) the relationship between a blood doll and the sanguine-starved society he serves (dude gets passed around like a pet keg), I knew I was in the hands of a writer well versed in writing perversely funny and emotionally rich tales. By the third story, the first of three stories featuring half-demon Allfair “Alleycat” Chatwin and the monster hunting Cornish sisters (Dionne and Samaire), which finds them stuck inside a women’s penitentiary and trying to magic their way out, I realized Spectral Evidence might well be one of those precious books you clutch to your chest and declare your undying love for. When the fourth story in the book, the titular “Spectral Evidence” then proceeded to scare the hell out of me, making me at once glad the toddler was asleep and therefore not calling for me to come walk her because it would mean having to take a trip to the dark, dark upstairs, well . . . The aforementioned “might be” turned to “is.” This is one of those few books worth reading, revisiting and revering.

Delving into the titular tale was a revelation. Somewhere in the middle of that piece is when I became a diehard fan of Miss Files’ work. It is a trick story, a descriptive piece about a collection of photographs containing images of locations as well as the inquisitive researcher who explores paranormal activity in those regions. Each has notes as well as messages written on the back, some of the latter appear forward and others backward (all translated into readable forward wording, luckily). All this data taken together lends the different images a sort of narrative that portrays the world we live in as well as an unseen world the sometimes intersects, sometimes lays atop, sometimes penetrates, and sometimes withdraws from. The piece is almost scientific in its presentation of the evidence, including numerous footnotes (in far, far, far too small a font in my humble opinion). However, it is rich in implication, trusting in my own ability to parse information to horrible ends. This is a story that trusts its readers will do some work. The author’s trust in her readers to take a symbolic tale like this and run with it as well as her the intuition in selecting these images, these note, these messages, this information as well as the author’s talent for presenting it is extraordinary. I marvel at how easy she makes it all look. The story is the shortest in the book by far. However, there is nothing easy about pulling off this effect. It’s damned difficult to pull a piece like this off.

The remaining stories in the book kept me in that sweet spot of admiration for the high quality prose and engagement with the narratives, making me an eager audience member. I haven’t been this drawn into a work since I discovered Joyce Carol Oates’ Beasts or Andrew Vachss’s Shella—in the case of the latter, it so drew me in I stood rooted in place at a Border Bookstore, reading the opening forty pages in a blur of time. Both of those works continue to top some of my favorite books lists, resonating in fascinating way and sometimes even changing an outlook on the world we live in.

How can a lover of dark fiction not appreciate a story like “Impossible Beauties,” which reads like Breaking Bad meets Re-Animator with a touch of Go? The story is a hoot, with humorous touches and turns of phrase that made me guffaw and some heavy-duty twists that tied my stomach in knots. How can a reader not enjoy a sui generis story like “The Speed of Pain,” which posits the follow-up to a story I don’t believe I have ever read (International Horror Society Award winning, “The Emperor’s Bones”) that manages to offers a many-faceted exploration of bad relationships. Here we find a pair of characters who can meet as equals in the theater of the mind (aka the Internet) but who sadly realize that real life is one hell of a lot more complicated. Add suspicions about an author whose fabled but unreleased masterwork might well discuss the meeting point between cannibalistic rituals and real immortality, an author whose son is coming to town and might know a little about his father’s odd disappearance . . . Sometimes online lovers should never meet; sometimes the adoring should never try to meet their heroes. It is a horror story, but it is also a metafictional literary piece and a grounded tale of emotional turmoil.

Other readers might be able to resist such gems, but not this one.

One of the big concepts drawing all the stories together (whether or not they continue adventures of an already established character) is the sense of monstrosity and empathy. Files does not forgive her characters for their sometimes gruesome excesses, and she does not expect us to forgive them their more horrible decisions and deeds, but she does draw these characters in such a way to make us understand them, feel for them. Like tigers who eventually turn on their stage magicians, these creatures behave the way they do because they are distinctly not like us. However, there are enough elements there to appreciate, to understand, that a reader can see the world through alien, monstrous eyes and impulses. Victims, victimizers, feeders on children and those yearning for some kind of meaningful connection with ancestral beings they never knew they were spawned from . . . The monsters here are us but not merely us. They are more, they are in some ways greater as in awesome in its original intention, and they are in some ways less.

In one tale, the narrator tells us:

One way or the other, what you maybe need to know most about me is this: I don’t think of myself as a monster. Never have. Never will.

But then again, I guess most monsters don’t. (51)

In another piece, after a character journeys into a dark real, there learns about her inhuman ancestry and returns, she proclaims:

I know myself, you see. I am no monster […] I want to take off my false face and see the one beneath, maybe the same on I used to draw over and over: wrinkled like a nut, peeled like a birch. And one day soon . . .

. . . very soon, most likely, given it’s October again, and Hallowe’en draws near . . .

. . . I will. (102)

These two aspects are the key to understand some of the dark magic Files weaves through her fiction. Stories can be seductions and that is the clear case in this collection. Often, we find ourselves faced with difficult to like characters, which we grow to understand and empathize with, even as we may never understand them. However, though their deeds and ideas might strike us as monstrous, they do not view themselves as anything but what they are. Likewise, they invite us to do the same. Everyone can be a monster to someone or something else, right?

A theme pervades the text, going well with these tales of monsters, monstrosity and empathy: These are tales of bondage and release. In many of the stories, characters are caught, trapped in locations or mindsets. Sometimes they are physically imprisoned. Sometimes they are psychologically pinned, and sometimes they trap their own undesirable natures with scrawled spells tattooed in the flesh. Spectral Evidence shows us plenty of monsters shackled and monsters restrained, struggling to break against their bonds.

Getting into Hell, that’s the easy part, always; people do it every damn day, though far more often by accident than by intent. It’s getting out that’s harder, ‘specially on demand—though it’s not like that can’t be done either, exactly.

Not so long’s you can only make yourself patient enough to wait for just the right sort of . . . leverage. (51)

However, these prisons are temporary things. Leverage is available, and these characters will apply it though some might escape one hell only to arrive in another. Even incarceration ends when it no longer serves a function. This theme serves the book quite well, and the author applies it in several subtle and unexpected ways.

One key I appreciate in Gemma Files’ work is her affinity for adopting different voices. Her descriptions use choice details and turns of phrase, of course, and the dialogue is generally excellent, but separate stories have voices of their own, as well. The narratives themselves, whether told first or third person are distinct from one another. There is splatterpunk cool to a story like “A Wish Upon A Bone,” which follows some wartime archaeologists into the holy land to ruins that might have been built for more sinister purpose. This narrative tone is wildly different from the richly evocative, southern gothic holler narrator talking about prison and the breaking out of in “Crossing the River.” Both of these are utterly individual to the scientific recitations of the details on a series of photographs in the titular “Spectral Evidence.” Files not only thinks about perspective (first person or third) or individual character voices when setting down her prose, she considers a “character” or voice for the narrative itself. This makes each story an individual. Each story gets its own voice (though “Black Bush” and “Crossing the River” are similar, both coming from a single character’s perspectives), and yet they all show enough of the author in the occasional turn of phrase to be of a kind.

If there is a drawback to the stories in this book (apart from those micro print footnotes in “Spectral Evidence”), it is metaphors that invoke cultural touchstones with short shelf lives. For every moment such as this, “‘Sam Raimi got it wrong. You guys don’t like wearing nothin’ dead,'” (31) there is a comparison to a personality or actor for a work that does not quite stand the test of time the way Raimi’s Evil Dead series might. When a character is described as being “Veruca wraps herself up like Arnold Vosloo every time they set foot outdoors, complaining endlessly about how the cold could affect her septal piercing, how if it goes below a certain temperature it could set off one of her migraines.” (188), I get the idea that this is a reference to his role in 1999’s The Mummy and not, say, his role in one of the Resident Evil movies or Hard Target, the G.I. Joe movies, Blood Diamond, or even Odd Thomas. However, I expect that Arnold Vosloo metaphor is a little less meaningful to readers who are not as versed in action-adventure-horror flicks from the late ’90s (aka old like me). Especially since some of Arnold Vosloo’s more memorable scenes from that film involve him not wearing all too much anyway, showing off his sculpted physique to quite nice effect. He only donned the black robes and mask while half-dead and skulking around Cairo.

Of course, I am the sort who sees all creative endeavors as time capsules, products of the time when the author composed them. Others declare such things as “dating” the story, as though there were a story that had no date/timestamp and that such a declaration is anything remotely like a valid criticism.

It is a quibble, really, but it’s the only issue I have with these pieces. While the gory, emotionally messy, sometimes cerebral and untapped macabre material itself might not be to everyone’s taste, if your view tends toward an appreciation of the horrible and the fascinating, the sorts of fantastique that Clive Barker collected for his Books of Blood, the gruesome tales David J. Schow assembled in Seeing Red, or the fevered visions Salvador Dali and Hieronymus Bosch committed to canvas, then Spectral Evidence might well be your cup of tea.

It most certainly is mine, and now I feel the delightful duty to delve deeper into Files works. Shucks. It is tough being dedicated to seeking out quality prose.

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Spectral Evidence is available in paperback and eBook editions.

Next up in our February reads, we turn the clock back to the 1980s for a fresh look at one of the first and finest punk vampire series penned. Before Anita Blake, before the urban fantasy explosion, but after Fred Saberhagen’s The Dracula Tapes, John Shirley’s Dracula In Love, Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire and countless other vampire novels released during the 80s boom, Nancy A. Collins made her mark on the horror fiction landscape with her Sonja Blue novels. We check out the first work, Sunglasses After Dark. Grab a copy in paperback or eBook.

WORKS CITED

Files, Gemma. Spectral Evidence. Trepidatio Press: 2018.

“Empathy for Monsters: Gemma Files’ Spectral Evidence” is copyright © 2020 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Cover image and quotes taken from the paperback first edition.

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