Sunday, February 27, 2011

[Beyond the Wordcount] Gemma Files on Explicit Sexuality in "A Book of Tongues"

Do you wonder how a book is made? If you are an avid reader and the sight of a book makes you glow, then you probably have wondered about a novel’s journey from idea to hard/softcover delight on your local bookstore’s shelf. Did the author discover the story whole and intact? Did the story need countless revisions? How much is researched and how much is the product of the author’s imagination? What did the author have to go through to publish that novel you just love? Beyond the Wordcount is the feature that will give a behind-the-scene look to the story behind the story, the things that you will never guess as they stay off the pages.

BIO: Born in London, England and raised in Toronto, Canada, Gemma Files has been a film reviewer, teacher and screenwriter, and is currently a wife and mother. She is the author of two collections of short fiction (Kissing Carrion and The Worm in Every Heart, both from Prime Books) and two chapbooks of poetry. She also won the 1999 International Horror Guild Best Short Fiction award for her story “The Emperor’s Old Bones”.

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.


So: Harry kindly asked me to drop by and talk about my first novel, A Book of Tongues: Volume One of the Hexslinger Series. The short pitch is that it’s a Weird Western set in an alternate 1867 where it’s common knowledge that people sometimes randomly develop demigodlike magical powers--people like “Reverend” Asher E. Rook, for example, the infamous “hexslinger” who leads an outlaw gang co-captained by his volatile lover, Chess Pargeter, and once cursed an entire New Mexico town to salt. Add a conflicted undercover Pinkerton agent and a not-so-dead Mayan-Aztec goddess with a plan (Ixchel, the Rainbow Lady, Mother of Hanged Men) to the mix and it’s a party, for certain blood-soaked values of such.

Now, this being a Western, the book contains a fair deal of the usual gunfights, train-robbery, hanging out in houses of ill repute, sass-talking and riding at high speed from here to there, along with all the black magic shenanigans. Where it differs from other Westerns, however--excepting, perhaps, William S. Burroughs’ The Place of Dead Roads, whose title I shamelessly plundered for one particular plot-point--lies in its depiction of the central relationship between Reverend Rook and Chess, which I wanted from the get-go to be as passionate and explicit as possible: Just like any other big-R Romantic collision between two very-bad-for-each-other-everywhere-but-in-bed people usually is, except with two dudes. And going by reviews like these--

What a disappointment! Great premise, great writing, great characters. All completely overshadowed by a constant barrage of explicit sex scenes. I am baffled as to their purpose. I gave up about 40 pages from the end. I won't be reading the sequels. (“mystery lover”, at

I have had to struggle through the authors repetitive gay sex scenes as I'm more interested in how the plot progesses. The two main characters, though told in part from a 3rd character, are gay (and/or bi) and have a stormy, rough relationship. I get that, ok, no worries -- but every few pages it seems they are engaging in rough sex. Now, a little of that to establish the nature of the relationship is ok, but it is used overly much and becomes a page-skipper for me. After all, the rear cover text doesn't say "Bang your way through the Old Weird West with hot gay action." (John Cunningham, aka “Mil-history fanboy”, at

...the plot seemed exciting and had all the elements that I thought I might enjoy: magic, mystery, monsters and mayhem. Unfortunately there was one thing that held my enjoyment of the novel in check: sex. Lots and lots of sex... I found the sex in A Book of Tongues to be a major distraction from what amounts to a completely fascinating story full of horror and magic. (Mike, at King of the Nerds)

--I think I’ve succeeded in that aim.

Though it’d be easy to take the “I came out of Fandom, where it’s quasi-normal to write explicitly about sex!” stance, in my case, that’d be more than slightly disingenous; not only did my decade-long affair with writing fanfiction come very securely after I’d already become a published author, but it also came after I’d gained a weird little rep for writing stuff that was capable of literally icking the Powers That Be on Showtime’s The Hunger TV series out enough that they sometimes preferred to pay me for the use of my titles and make things up wholesale, rather than option the stuff that had actual sex in it and then (oh, I don’t know) use that actual sex in their supposedly sexy show. For them, I think, the main problem was that A) I kept putting horror in my Erotic Horror and B) often said eroticism was of not just the dude-on-chick/chick-on-chick variety, but also the dude-on-dude variety.

So why do this at all? Why alienate a prospective section of my audience--mainly, it seems, the core demographic to whom Westerns and horror/dark fantasy novels usually appeal, ie straight guys? Well, as the old saying goes, when I wrote this book, I was writing it for me; I was my audience, possibly the only one the book would ever have, which is why I filled it with things I enjoy. And one of the things I’ve always enjoyed is telling stories from a non-default perspective--making my main characters people who, in “regular” media, are rarely coded as protagonist material. Like Hal Duncan, I believe there should be queer characters of all types running through the mainstream narrative: Not just as adjuncts to the heterocentric “norm”, not de-sexed for our protection, but as full, functional, complex, conflicted human beings capable of full agency, from heroes to villains and everything in between.

After all, we’re already dealing with two guys of very questionable moral fibre indeed, from the get-go; Chess alone is, at base, a typical Billy the Kid/Jesse James bad-ass who kills because it’s easy and fun, a post-Civil War adrenaline junkie with an equally rotten attitude and temper, while the Rev is a smooth-talking hypocrite, a faithless preacher, a Bad Man with a Bible. So the fact that Chess is also a literal son-of-a-whore who hasn’t been above trading blowjobs for bullets, born small, pretty and outright queer in an ultra-macho world, should really just add a few more petals to the flower--I never wanted to be in the ridiculous position of saying he was bad because he was gay, or gay because he was bad. He’s simply one of those guys who doesn’t like to talk about his feelings, preferring to communicate far more directly, and the Rev responds in kind, like he’s the lit match to the Rev’s fuse; as with other toxic couples, their sexual interaction pulls them inexorably together, right up until it eventually tears them apart.

But it’s not all politics either, nice as that makes me sound, because I am also what the kids call a slasher--a woman (functionally straight, as it turns out) who is turned on, in a frankly fetishistic way, by the idea of gay male sex. Which isn’t to say that I’m not interested in anything else, as I think any cross-sampling of my shorter work would bear out--sex is one of the most primal motors around, an integral part of any writer’s paintbox, especially when you’re concentrating on a genre as literally visceral as horror. But after having spent the first twenty years of my life trying to explain this particular oddity of mine to other people and being stared at in fascinated revulsion, if you’d ever told my teenage self that one day there’d be so many women with the exact same kink writing porn on the Internet that it would become a bit of a cultural joke, I’d’ve laughed right in your face.

Now, I could talk all day, pretty much, about the innate heterocentrism of mainstream horror—point out that “mainstream” usual means “threat from outside disrupts normalcy, normalcy is restored”, and that heterosexuality is still assumed to be the default, for example. But then I’d probably get sidetracked into talking about how hilarious the very concept of “mainstream” horror really is, when horror’s already a ghetto inside a ghetto inside a ghetto. Or the dicey concept of Monster as Other, in which the inclusion of a non-default character in a narrative can be easily seen as Othering that character in order to evoke cheap thrills or squirms. These are all valid issues that make for equally valid sidebars, but I’m not going down any of them just right now.

Instead, let’s go back to the general idea of How Much is Too Much? How Far is Too Far? Which often, but not always, tends to blend into the sub-category of Why You Gotta Make Me Think of That? Ew, Ew, Ewwww!

I do believe that there are some narratives which call out for explicitness in sexual matters—narratives in which the sexual interaction of the characters is as least as plot- and character-important as any other sort. Catherynne M. Valente’s Palimpsest woud be a fine example of one of these, a story in which sex is a given, required, in order to get what the characters “really” want, which is entrance to the titular trans-dimensional city itself. The interesting slant this places on those sex-scenes is that they become entirely functional very quickly, and then shift once more when the characters form relationships with genuine emotional currents amongst themselves. In Piers Anthony’s Chaining the Lady, meanwhile, which has gender-issues aplenty (like all Anthony books, it’s somewhat obsessed by boobs and the prospect of “impregnation”), each of its many sex scenes forms an absolutely necessary point in the story as a whole; for these mainly alien creatures, sex is a way of communication, of exerting dominance, of facilitating transition. Or the Phaedre no Delaunay books, by Jacqueline Carey—they’re very securely about sex, because the main character is a sex worker whose gifts lie within the realm of diplomacy through S & M. Remove the sex, and though there would still be a plot, that plot becomes far less understandable.

Perhaps all of this comes back to what I used to call “and then the lamp went out” syndrome, something fairly rampant in historical fiction. In books like Mary Teresa Reynolds' Myself My Sepulchre, a re-telling of Nero’s reign from his own POV which casts him as a hapless victim, there’s a fair deal of sex of every conceivable type going on, but we’re not allowed to play through it blow by blow (so’s to speak)…at a certain point, sometimes fairly early on in the action, the lamp goes out, and we’re left to imagine the details for ourselves. This as opposed to Gore Vidal’s Caligula, which I read at a sadly early age, in which we do get the full monty, with choregraphy. Interestingly, this quickly becomes less titilating than oversatiated, boring and tragic, even without the lashings of murder piled on top. Yet it truly does seem necessary to take this particular funhouse tour, in order to understand the crazy world of privilege and power Caligula inhabits; as with the film it was based on, pornography is a poor categorization—a trick of the MPAA ratings system, like saying Behind the Green Door is literally “the same” as Henry and June.

In A Book of Tongues, I start out with a relationship between two equally screwed up people, one of whom literally defines himself via his sexuality. It’s become part of Chess Pargeter’s general bad-assery that he will indulge himself any way he wants with whomever he wants, and damn the consequences; in a way, it’s like Rook’s magic is for him—automatic, reflexive, increasingly easy. And as we learn more about the hexes themselves, my magician-characters, we discover that they’re drawn to parasite on each other, to suck each other’s power out in a vampiric manner than mimics and accellerates sexuality, re-framing Rook and Chess’s mutual obsession as something even more integral (and sinister).

In terms of the mechanics of the sex itself, my rubric was always character-based. Chess, perverse bastard that he is, likes to tweak other people’s expectations, and his liking to be on the bottom has become yet one more way to do that--but because he’s Chess, he’s also the toppiest bottom on the face of the earth. As he tells one character, it gives him a thrill to overpower larger guys with his willingness to submit; he’s basically shameless, so it’s not like he’s losing anything to be on the receiving end, and watching the conflict they go through in realizing that is part of his general orgasmic charge.

The Rev, on the other hand, is far more cerebral, and weirdly more equitable in his bedroom habits. What turns him on most is emotional intimacy--the idea that for Chess, who’s done everything you can think of with guys he could’ve cheerfully shot afterwards and not turned a hair, the Rev is the first and only person he’s ever really cared for. So how far can Rook go with that? The good part is that he genuinely enjoys causing Chess pleasure, but the bad part--the secret, increasingly gleeful part--is that he sometimes enjoys causing Chess pain, too. That he enjoys steering Chess around by the dick, the way Chess does so many other guys.

So yes, there’s a lot of sex in the book. From my POV, however, it was all necessary, and it could have been far “worse”. But I definitely enjoyed writing those scenes, and I suppose that comes across in a way that might well read as creepy depending on your mileage, or standards. Is the difference basically a matter of whether or not you feel like the author was enjoying his or herself a little “too much” while writing the scenes in question? If so, I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place; I can’t—won’t, I guess, more likely—deny that’s a strong component to my motivations, always.

Funnily enough, however, it’s been occurring to me lately that I may take some flack for there being substantially less sex in the next Hexslinger Series installment (A Rope of Thorns, out in May), but--a lot’s going on in that book, and they’re busy, you know? Things to do, places to go, wounds to recover from, apocalypses to avert. Plus far more world-building than I ever thought I’d signed up for, if you like that sort of thing...

I guess we’ll see.


bookluvrmindy said...

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sandy said...

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