"Queering (My) Genre" is a primer for "Queering the Genre," a longer talk that Gemma will present on Saturday, 23 October 2010, at the Toronto SpecFic Colloquium.
In 1984, having heard the same “future of horror” quote from Stephen King as everybody else in the world, I bought the first of Clive Barker’s Books of Blood. The last story in the book is “In the Hills, the Cities”, and readers, that’s when I knew for sure that I was lost.
I mean, I’d suspected as much previously--as I’ve said before in plenty of other venues, like Yukio Mishima, my heart’s sad leaning has always been towards “Night, and Blood, and Death”, but it’s been a while, and I’m down with that. The things I'm interested in have sharp edges and sad outcomes; I believe that anger is an energy, that the worst things we do we do to ourselves, and that wounds can become sex-organs if we play with them too often. Cronenberg, Ballard, Brite, Kiernan, Koja, Scorsese, they're all my muses: I love opera, narratives that float in a dream-state of bad romance and conflicted motivations. I like a bit of bruise with my kiss.
All of which pretty irretrievably makes “my” genre now and forever maybe horror, maybe dark fantasy, maybe just "dark".
When I was younger, I’d tell people I wanted to write horror (movies, then...how things change, though I sure wouldn’t turn a chance to go back to that down), and they’d say: “Oh, like Friday the 13th?” Aside from the fact that today the referenced film would probably be either Saw or Hostel, things haven’t really changed. “Dark” is not assumed to be a spectrum--with its steadfast concentration on the things most people would rather not think about too deeply, “dark” is assumed to come in one color only, one blood-rot-gross flavour. Because “dark” is not, has never been, never will be, the mainstream.
This is an interesting realization, especially when you factor in the perception that horror (in particular) is a genre which thrives on Other-ation. Peel back modern horror culture, and you fairly quickly reach the concept that dread comes from threat and threat comes from the violation of the "norm", with the "norm" automatically coded as the perceived societal media default: Male, white-skinned, middle-class, cisgendered, straight, Christian of some variety. People from inside these boundaries deserve to survive (our hero, his wife/GF, his kids, his support-system), but sometimes don't, which is horrifying; people from outside these boundaries don't deserve to survive unless they change themselves to fit inside them, and may in fact be coded as allied with/part of “the evil”, just by virtue of being outside the protagonists’ accepted rubric.
I find it only fair to mention here that “the default”, for the most part, bores me by definition, and always has. Not completely--I like to think I’m fluid enough that if you can convince me of something, elevate it beyond the usual, I’ll embrace it whole-heartedly. (Witness my attachment to King’s ‘Salem’s Lot and The Stand, as well as my championship of less-defensible Unca Stevie works like The Tommyknockers and Desperation.) But the problem with coding is that it’s short-hand, and short-hand is lazy; it’s a very easy way to look at the world. Darkness shouldn't be easy.
“In the Hills, the Cities” is a story about that classic horror movie protagonist pair trope, The Couple Who Go On Vacation and Stumble Across Something Unexpected. The thing they come across is a pair of giants made from lashed-together human beings acting in hypnotized concert--the rival cities of Popolac and Podujevo, who’ve had a ritualistic yearly wrestling match for district supremacy. But today, a terrible accident has left Podujevo destroyed and Popolac wandering free, massive and insane.
The story is brutal, poetic and crazed, with a striking sensual immediacy which set my creative bar forever at exactly that level--out of reach, I’m sure, but well worth trying for nonetheless, like I’ve been doing ever since. It breaks all sorts of rules, but the first one it screws with it does pretty much in paragraph one, by making that central couple a pair of dudes.
So we can credit/blame Clive Barker for having convinced me that what makes far more sense than knee-jerk heterocentrism in horror is the idea that if “dark” is for outsiders, then perhaps it’s the perfect place to find the representation that we’re denied everywhere else. The place where the outsider perspective can be centralized and given protagonist agency, as we often see in even the most mainstream of “dark” narratives--ghost stories starring women, monster stories starring children and old people, narratives in which the post-apocalyptic world boils down to a representative sample of humanity, and the freaks and geeks take over.
Or even those classic slashers which gave rise to the image of the Final Girl; once upon a time, that was a crazy idea. Now it’s become the rule rather than the exception, so we routinely stretch it just as far as it will go, and further--the same way we once began with ridiculous fake-inclusionary things like Blacula, cooked up specifically to access a particular market, and somehow (by stretching the definition of what was genre-“allowable”) ended up with the inventive, brave, unabashedly Afrocentric work of Tannarive Due, Maurice Broaddus, John Ridley and Octavia Butler.
This is why it can’t be all blood and boobs, why “dark” is the absolute best place for the envelope to be pushed--because when the biggest things are on the line, the subtext reads, anyone can be both the victim and the hero, like Barker’s Mick and Judd, who end up shattered not because they’re gay and deserve to be punished but because they’re humans confronted by the gloriously unspeakable.
And for all the blood and thunder it usually comes wrapped in, perhaps the real reason I keep on returning to darkness’s well, again and again, is that I personally find that idea...very comforting.
Gemma Files is a Canadian horror writer, journalist, and film critic. Her short story, "The Emperor's Old Bones", won the International Horror Guild Award for Best Short Story of 1999. Five of her short stories were adapted for the television series The Hunger. Her first novel A Book of Tongues explores the range of homosocial and homosexual bonds that bind her exceptionally strong characters, drawing attention to the way in which an ultra-masculine network of relationships underpins the history and mythology of the American West.
A Book of Tongues: Volume 1 of the Hexslinger Series
by Gemma Files
Two years after the Civil War, Pinkerton agent Ed Morrow has gone undercover with one of the weird West's most dangerous outlaw gangs-the troop led by "Reverend" Asher Rook, ex-Confederate chaplain turned "hexslinger," and his notorious lieutenant (and lover) Chess Pargeter. Morrow's task: get close enough to map the extent of Rook's power, then bring that knowledge back to help Professor Joachim Asbury unlock the secrets of magic itself.
Magicians, cursed by their gift to a solitary and painful existence, have never been more than a footnote in history. But Rook, driven by desperation, has a plan to shatter the natural law that prevents hexes from cooperation, and change the face of the world-a plan sealed by an unholy marriage-oath with the goddess Ixchel, mother of all hanged men. To accomplish this, he must raise her bloodthirsty pantheon from its collective grave through sacrifice, destruction, and apotheosis.
Caught between a passel of dead gods and monsters, hexes galore, Rook's witchery, and the ruthless calculations of his own masters, Morrow's only real hope of survival lies with the man without whom Rook cannot succeed: Chess Pargeter himself. But Morrow and Chess will have to literally ride through Hell before the truth of Chess's fate comes clear-the doom written for him, and the entire world.