A Q&A with the author of the award-winning novel, Experimental Film.
In September, Gemma Files' novel Experimental Film was awarded the 2016 Sunburst Award for Excellence in Canadian Literature of the Fantastic, following on the novel winning the Shirley Jackson Award back in July. And now with Halloween on the horizon, there's never been a better time to pick up a copy of this creepy, gripping and multi-faceted novel—just be prepared to have your dreams disturbed.
Thanks, Gemma Files, for answering our questions about how books haunt, Canadian film, Shirley Jackson, and Weird CanLit.
49th Shelf: “In its purest form, done right,” you write in your novel, “watching an experimental film is the closest you can come to dreaming another person’s dreams. Which is why to watch one is, essentially, to invite another person into your head, hoping you emerge haunted.”
I thought about this the morning I woke up after a night of disturbing dreams thanks to your story haunting my own brain.
Can you tell me more about your ideas regarding books and hauntings? Is it different than with film?
Gemma Files: I've said before that I think the basic difference between film and prose, or possibly between film and almost any other narrative visual art-form, is that film has a certain type of ... reality to it that other things just don't seem to share. When you watch something on film, you have this weird feeling that whatever you're seeing is by nature a both utterly accurate and utterly fixed depiction of whatever the film “shows,” as though even films you already know are fiction somehow function like documentaries. This isn't true, obviously ... really, the only thing that's been captured onscreen is evidence of a whole team of people doing their jobs, both behind and in front of the camera. Yet every time you show or re-view a film, it appears to show exactly the same thing happening over and over, unchanging, unchangeable. It's a living contradiction, a static moving image.
Film has a certain type of ... reality to it that other things just don't seem to share.
I can still remember a time when if you saw something on TV there was no way to record it, so you could never be sure you were remembering it accurately, afterwards—it seemed to change every time you thought about it, the same way a particular performance of a stage production is never exactly the same way twice. Similarly, video is fluid; it can be analyzed after the fact, altered, expanded, edited. But as one character says in Joe Berlinger's sadly mangled Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows, if video is subject to interpretation, “film tells the truth.” Supposedly. Which is why the very idea of watching a movie that alters in front of your eyes is always so fundamentally horrifying.
So—thinking of it from a critic's perspective, which I find it hard not to—you could say that film does half the work for you, but you do the other half; you're the witness, the interpreter. You see what happens from the outside, always. With a book, on the other hand, you're almost always stuck inside someone's perspective even when the story's being told ostensibly in the third person, seeing things through their eyes; there's a narrator, one who often turns out to be unreliable, especially when the narrative is a horror story. I'm actually kind of sick of the whole “Yellow Wallpaper” twist, to tell you the truth, both in books and in films, but I can take it far better in books—it's almost realistic when you're buried in the minutiae of someone else's life, particularly when that person is probably doubting the input of their own eyes, ears, and instincts anyhow. Like I've often pointed out to people, the characters in a horror story almost never know they're in a horror story. Why would they?
It's interesting: people often talk about being physically unable to watch horror movies, because they feel like seeing these things spool out in front of them is somehow worse than being immersed inside them, thinking the characters' thoughts and feeling what they're feeling firsthand. (What they're actually talking about is more hearing the soundtrack and worrying about what's coming next, which is a slightly different thing; horror reduced to images is neutered, in a lot of ways. Try watching The Thing with the sound off, and you'll understand what I mean.) For me, though, the second thing is always “worse,” yet what I like about writing short stories and novels is that I have complete control of everything—I know enough about the way movies are made to know that they're a team effort, all aspects negotiable. In a novel, I can tell you the exact colour of the sky and when the rain will start, and no producer will ever tell me it costs too much to do anything.
49thShelf: What was the genesis for Experimental Film? The novel is striking to me for its inclusion of so much: this is a book about motherhood, about having a child with autism, about movies, about the politics of artistic communities, about ghosts and haunting. It’s about marriage and daughterhood, too. I loved it. How did you pull all these pieces together?
Gemma Files: In my acceptance speech at the Shirley Jackson Awards, I said that when someone asked me how long the book took to write, I answered: “Sort of three months, and sort of three years.” Which means it took three months after I was given a firm deadline to hammer out the first draft manuscript, but I'd actually been working on the book for at least two and a half years at that point, with relatively little success, and what finally broke me through that block was realizing that the main character would have to be me—sort of. Not completely. But it had to be rooted in that emotional reality for the story to work, to have the exact weight and impact I wanted it to.
The main difference between me and Lois Cairns is that when I lost my job after my son was diagnosed with autism, I'd already been selling short stories for about fifteen years, so I was able to transfer a lot of my energy into reframing myself as a fiction writer. But I still spent roughly a year feeling really depressed, as though everything I knew was obsolete and the job I'd made my living at for nine years basically no longer existed (paid film criticism has been replaced by comments culture, fight me), as though I'd only lucked into getting a teaching job because the person who offered it to me had also been a film critic, so no one would ever be likely to employ me in that capacity again. That part of it is “real.” Similarly, the relationship between Lois and her Mom is the most extreme version of the one I have with my Mom, Lois's physical issues are the most extreme version of my own, and Clark's autism is the most extreme version of my son's autism. He's 12 now, and things are so much better, but Lois's thoughts are definitely thoughts I've had—exactly that angry, that hopeless, that bitter. Lois, as I've told a lot of people, is a fairly accurate reflection of me at 3:00 AM on my worst possible day.
Lois, as I've told a lot of people, is a fairly accurate reflection of me at 3:00 AM on my worst possible day.
I wanted to set up a situation that would mimic to some degree the spine of one of my favourite horror movies, Bernard Rose's Candyman. The main character in that, Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen), looks ridiculously fearless from the outside because she's single-minded, driven by ambition and curiosity—she wants to find out the truth behind the Candyman legend so she can write her thesis and give a middle finger to all the professors who pooh-poohed her ideas. In service of this, she's perfectly willing to crawl through holes behind mirrors into abandoned apartments full of creepy graffiti, because she doesn't expect to find anything back there that's worse than gang-bangers or homeless people. She doesn't know she's in a horror movie, until she does.
Now we add in on top of that basic rubric the extra stress of being depressed and over-medicated, distracted, despairing and multi-tasking, all of which Lois has to deal with. Not ever thinking that what she's looking at is in itself supernatural, so much, as evidence of someone else's belief in the supernatural. I like the idea that the alternate explanations for everything that happens which Lois makes up in hindsight could just as well be true, especially considering everything Lois discovers about Mrs. Iris Whitcomb, her background and the obsessions which fuelled her creativity. The final brick in the pile was the idea of hysterical blindness, which remains one of the worst things I can think of happening to me, and a commitment to defining the haunting in terms of light and heat rather than cold and dark, and that's Experimental Film in a nutshell.
49th Shelf: Why a book about film? What does literature offer that film doesn’t (in addition to a relatively lower overhead in terms of production costs)?
Gemma Files: Because movies have been such a huge part of my life, I suppose I do tend to visualize things in cinematic terms—use terms like “dissolve” or “cut to,” for example. The phrase “and here a sort of jump-cut occurs” comes up in a bunch of my stuff, as I recall. But the other thing I absolutely wanted to do with Experimental Film was to root it very firmly in Canada (just like my previous book, We Will All Go Down Together: Stories of the Five-Family Coven) and fold in a bunch of the observations I'd made while putting together the Canadian film history course I used to teach. I also needed the story to be set against a backdrop of the Canadian film industry not only because of our long-term investment in the indie and experimental genres—anything as far away from the Hollywood norm as possible—but also because our standard of cultural curation often seems so shaky and full of holes that it makes a lot of sense someone like Mrs. Whitcomb might be all too easily overlooked or forgotten.
Just to qualify: I love Canadian films. Some of my favourite films are Canadian. But our system is so hobbled, I'm frankly amazed any of us keep going, outside of Quebec. Just look at the CRTC's recent destructive changes to CanCon standards, or the fact that we've never been able to persuade the government to institute the same sort of basic film quotas that energized the British, French, and South Korean film industries, for confirmation that no matter how we trumpet on about our cultural individuality, we essentially believe we're just an inadequate shadow of our neighbour to the south. Not even success in foreign markets seems to make a dent in our incredible country-wide lack of self-esteem. “I could tell it was a crappy Canadian movie because I saw it on TV,” my students used to tell me, completely ignoring the fact that in a country our size, TV is the single best distribution system for anything—or that if we only went by how little it made while utterly monopolizing the Canadian box office (which Americans consider part of their own, by the way) for three years running, even Peter Jackson's Lords of the Rings trilogy would be considered a flop.
So if nothing else, threading these opinions throughout Experimental Film allowed me to use it as a bit of a soapbox while simultaneously rooting it in that emotional reality I mentioned earlier. And it does amuse me to think about it prospectively getting the Paul Donovan's Paint Cans book-to-movie treatment, too. (In 1991, Donovan wrote a satire about how broken the Telefilm process was, then got Telefilm to give him money to make a movie about it. There's a good breakdown of the whole affair here.)
49th Shelf:Experimental Film won the Shirley Jackson Award (“established for outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic”). Like you do in the novel, Jackson’s work draws dark and sinister connections from the experiences of motherhood. Has she had an influence on your writing?
Gemma Files: Winning the Shirley Jackson Award was incredible, not least because I actually read for it some years back, so I know how high their standards are—the minute I heard I'd been nominated, I thought that if I had to pick one award I'd love to win, that'd be it. (As an aside, though, I'd like to note that Experimental Film recently won the 2015 Sunburst Award for Best Adult Novel as well, which both amazed and delighted me. Canadian award for a Canadian book!) And yes, I do look to Jackson for inspiration, although our styles aren't very similar—The Haunting of Hill House remains one of my all-time favourite books, along with We Have Always Lived in the Castle. What I like most about Shirley Jackson is her fluid use of the unstated and the way she allows her readers to draw their own conclusions about things. She also has a really keen, pitch-black sense of humour, especially about awkward social interactions and the inherent expectations of patriarchal heteronormativity; her pieces about her family are just as horrifying as her genre work, in a lot of ways. I can only aspire to eventually be as subtle as she is, though.
What I like most about Shirley Jackson is her fluid use of the unstated and the way she allows her readers to draw their own conclusions about things.
49th Shelf: You are much celebrated in the genre of “Weird Fiction,” whose boundaries I don’t entirely understand—most of my favourite fiction is a little bit weird. What is Weird Fiction all about? What (Canadian?) books should we read if we want to start to find out?
Gemma Files: Okay, well: I've always described myself as a horror author, but a lot of people seem to have problems with that term, mainly (I believe) because they don't see the genre as a spectrum that embraces everything from Richard Laymon to Robert Aickman. “The Weird” is a term coined by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer for their 2012 anthology of the same name, subtitled “A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories.” In the introduction, the VanderMeers describe Weird Fiction as that which evokes a sensation of terror and wonder, entertaining while also expressing readers' dissatisfaction with, and uncertainty about, reality. Their selections ranged from science fiction and fantasy to mainstream literature “with a slight twist of strange,” but I have to say, most fall into the category of what I'd personally call horror, even though they avoid most of the establish horror tropes (vampires, werewolves, zombies, etc.).
H.P. Lovecraft is probably the most recognizable historical progenitor of modern Weird Fiction, along with his Weird Tales magazine pals—Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Bloch, Ray Bradbury, etc. More recently, however, I've heard the term applied with equal acuity to Harlan Ellison, Thomas Ligotti, Dennis Etchison, James Tiptree Jnr., Caitlin R. Kiernan, Elizabeth Hand, Clive Barker, Octavia Butler, Kathe Koja, Tanith Lee, Tom Piccirili, Kelly Link...I'd personally add in people like John Connolly, who usually ends up in the mystery section of bookstores, David Mitchell, who's always in general fiction, and Peter Straub, who usually ends up in horror. In a lot of ways, therefore, Weird Fiction is the sort of genre that ignores categorization and concentrates on tone, which is invariably dark.
49th Shelf: Can you tell me about some more Canadian books that you’re excited about right now?
Gemma Files: I'm very excited to read Certain Dark Things, Silvia Moreno-Garcia's second novel, about a garbage-picker in Mexico City who gets involved with an Aztec vampire. I've already read Alyx Dellamonica's The Nature of a Pirate, third in her Stormwrack series, but it's so excellent that I really want to support her by buying a real live copy of it once it drops. I still don't have a copy of Richard Gavin's latest, either (Sylvan Dread), which really needs to be rectified. In February 2017, Brett Savory's new novel, A Perfect Machine, will be coming out, so I'll definitely get that. Other stuff I'm interested in includes Michael Helms' After James, Emma Donoghue's The Wonder, John Jantunen's A Desolate Splendor, Jen Sookfong Lee's The Conjoined, and Steven Price's By Gaslight.
There are some things which should never be looked at, because they look back.
Fired at almost the same time as her son Clark's Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis, former film critic turned teacher Lois Cairns is caught in a depressive downward spiral, convinced she's a failure who's spent half her adult life writing about other people's dreams without ever seeing any of her own come true. One night Lois attends a program of experimental film and emerges convinced she's seen something no one else has—a sampled piece of silver nitrate silent film footage whose existence might prove that an eccentric early 20th-century socialite who disappeared under mysterious circumstances was also one of Canada's first female movie-makers.
Though it raises her spirits and revitalizes her creatively, Lois's headlong quest to discover the truth about Mrs. A. Macalla Whitcomb almost immediately begins to send her much further than she ever wanted to go, revealing increasingly troubling links between her subject's life and her own. Slowly but surely, the malign influence of Mrs Whitcomb's muse begins to creep into every aspect of Lois's life, even placing her son in danger. But how can one increasingly ill and unstable woman possibly hope to defeat a threat that's half long-lost folklore, half cinematically framed hallucination—an existential nightmare made physical, projected off the screen and into real life?