When it comes to writers that are pushing the envelope of what horror and weird fiction can accomplish, Gemma Files is one name that people mention on a regular basis. Writer, screenwriter, film critic, Files has her fingers in nearly every aspect of the writing life. Two of her scripts were produced for episodes of Ridley and Tony Scott’s The Hunger series, and she is the author of numerous short-stories and the novels A Book of Tongues, A Rope of Thorns, A Tree of Bones (combined as the Hexslinger Series), We Will All Go Down Together, and most recently, Experimental Film.
Combining history and a devilishly thorough knowledge of the arcane and occult, Files’ stories are tediously detailed yet extremely personal, with three-dimensional characters that you probably shouldn’t care about, yet you relate to them so well it’s hard not to give a damn about them. Our focus here, Experimental Film, features a main character who is a film critic, a character only movie buffs and other film critics should find interesting. Lois Cairns doesn’t believe in herself anymore. The strained relationship with her overbearing mother only adds to her problems. Her son, Clark, is autistic, and Lois feels her connection with him is growing even more tenuous. A strange project falls in her lap and at once she is consumed with it, driven to follow it through to the end.
Iris Whitcomb could very well be Canada’s first female filmmaker, and Lois is determined to make sure the world knows about it. Her task is herculean in scope, as there aren’t many of Whitcomb’s films to view, except for scenes used in an experimental film by another filmmaker. Once Lois begins to research her subject, she discovers the lost film deals with a forgotten Canadian folklore, and that Mrs. Whitcomb disappeared under mysterious circumstances. As the images Lois sees invades her nightmares, we witness her dangerous spiral into obsession. She suffers what could be called a seizure, but soon recovers only to find her son suffering from an equally strange illness. Accepting her unstable new reality, Lois seeks out an elderly man in a nursing home who may hold the answers she seeks, answers that could prove fatal, especially if she’s wrong.
At first glance, Experimental Film seems like a story that would only interest the most dedicated film buffs, specifically those interested in both film history and preservation. The story certainly begins that way, though we quickly find ourselves caught up in the day-to-day aspects of Cairn’s life, handling the challenges her son presents while juggling her career and marriage. Lois is a character that’s easy to relate to, as we’ve all felt that nagging, creeping fear of doubt in our lives, and the overwhelming chaos that sometimes digs in, unwanted, yet we are unable to wash our hands of the tension. And once we begin to care about Lois, we see how important her work is to her, especially if her suspicions are correct. What a find…Canada’s first woman filmmaker. Such a discovery, if handled properly, could make or break a career.
Obstacles real and imagined hinder her progress, including the meddling of the experimental film’s maker, who tries to derail Lois every chance he gets. With each turn of the page, we cannot help but to feel the atmosphere slip into dreadful territory. Combining the gothic and the strange is nothing new in weird fiction, but rarely have we seen it treated so personally, and so modernly. Even the dead tech used in the story, silver nitrate film stock, has a slick and modern feel to it, probably because no one else has ever dived into it so deeply, and found meaning in its chemical properties that relate directly to the story in ways we never see coming. A ritualistic exposure, the product of a lunar poison designed to conjure an opposite effect, an opening for an angel or demon—or a god—to walk through into our existence. We find science and the arcane naturally combined, and the results are devastating. Files has produced a story only she could tell, personal and gut-wrenching, steeped in folklore brought to life by the one thing that connects us all—memory and remembrance.
Experimental Film shows us what contemporary weird fiction can achieve. The arena is vast and the players have leveled up. Books such as these challenge us, force us to examine our lives. Fortunately, it’s only fiction, but it is fiction that makes us take a moment to enjoy ourselves a little after we’ve finished the book, and hug our loved ones a little tighter. Gemma Files is one of those writers we should all look out for, for she’s keen to the vibrations of the cosmos, and more than willing to expose its secrets.
Exploring the Cold, Desolate Cosmos is committed to discovering the most diverse voices in weird and cosmic horror fiction. Please join us next month as we profile one of the newest voices in the field, Daniel José Older, and dive into some weird Urban Fantasy with Half-Resurrection Blues.