Book of the Month: A Book of Tongues by Gemma Files
By Chris Alexander
Fango readers residing in Toronto may recall the days when noted, International Horror Guild award-winning Gemma Files used to scribble film reviews for lefty arts and culture newspaper Eye Weekly. As a film-school-slogging youth, I fell in love with her, the way she championed the less fortunate and less popular pictures and how her critical barometer was dictated by her eccentricities and personal life experience. She was also a kick-ass wrangler of words (and I told her as much in an open letter to Eye—the very first time my voice was put in print).
Since those early days, Files’ skills have clearly sharpened, her dark, deeply deranged and unapologetically sexual works careening wildly into the messier realms of the Freudian id while serving as works of unfettered imagination. Her short stories have been adapted for the short-lived The Hunger TV series and collected in two brilliant collections, Kissing Carrion and [The] Worm in Every Heart. But it is in her first novel, A Book of Tongues: Volume One of the Hexslinger Series, that her outrageous but creatively honest chops get free reign to freak out.
The story’s set-up is classic, American Western, with a twist: In a blown-out, post-Civil War West, a Pinkerton[']s agent named Ed Morrow attempts to infiltrate the world of “hexslinger” wizard/outlaw Asher Rook and drag his supernatural secrets back to his employers. But the deeper he gets wormed into Rook’s universe, the more ensnared in homosexually fuelled hocus-pocus he becomes, with Rook’s lover Chess Pargeter figuring heavily into his very survival. Somehow, Aztec goddesses and the fate of the planet also make their way into Files’ completely outlandish head-spin of a story, and the easily offended or those put off by a challenging narrative need not apply.
Files has always worn her influences on her sleeve, and Tongues reads like the culmination of myriad diverse stimuli. The operatic drama of Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York rubs against the cross-genre cheek of True Blood, mashed with a healthy dollop pf J.R.R. Tolkien by way of a dusty, mud- and semen-caked Deadwood; and of course, Files’ own hot ‘n’ heavy gay-erotica leanings also get a full XXX-rated workout here. That seems to be the source of her power—blending pulp fiction with profound, often poetic prose that does what all good horror fiction should do, which is mirror our collective humanity while jettisoning us into the black, blood-drenched ether.
A Book of Tongues is truly one-of-a-kind, violent, carnal and creepy, and also serves as the setup for a subsequent installment. With foreplay this good, the follow-up should be the kind of phantasmagorical climax Files’ fans have been waiting for.
N.B.: To think that A) It's been almost fifteen years since I first met Chris Alexander over badly-burnt videotapes of Lucio Fulci films at the St. Lawrence market and B) now he's the editor-in-chief of Fangoria, thus allowing him to pump C) my damn first novel, which I started writing almost as a joke, and is currently in the process of breaking me wide open...
Man. Life is weird, isn't it? And amazing.