Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A Book of Tongues Review, from Locus Magazine (April 2010)

At some point, most religions seem to offer visions of widespread gore and pending annihilation—perhaps none more gorily than the linked faith of the ancient Aztecs and Mayans. For her first novel A Book of Tongues, Gemma Files injects elements from that religion into the already-brutal Wild West soon after the Civil War, amping up the horror of a very dark tale that introduces the Hexslinger Series. Even Clint Eastwood’s stoic gunslinger from those spaghetti westerns might blanch at some of the doings here, as Files describes them with a graphic, unflinching eloquence.

Her “hexslinger” Asher Rook is a former preacher, turned by extreme trauma into a magician who now wields his small black Bible like a weapon. In it he can always find appropriate words for a curse, which lifts “bodily from those gilt-edged pages in one flat curl of unstrung ink, a floating necklace of black gothic type” (shown here in such a text), with devastating results.

Rook’s gang includes his gay lover Chess Pargeter, a green-eyed madman with red-gold hair, tireless sexual appetites, a phenomenal ability with guns, and a complete lack of scruples. A newcomer to the gang, undercover Pinkerton agent Ed Morrow, is on assignment to investigate the criminal use of magic but has few defenses against its use on himself—including one episode that will leave him both horrified and ashamed.

While the members of this little outfit are no strangers to homicide, robbery, and Barbary Coast whorehouses, as bloodletters they’re complete amateurs next to the elder powers who’ve been haunting Rook’s dreams and eventually draw him into a kind of hell where two opposing female entities have different ideas of his (and our world’s) destiny.

Violent, sometimes foul-mouthed, explicit in many ways, A Book of Tongues may discomfort anyone except the most seasoned fan of horror or homicidal Westerns. More than one passage made me wish I could “read” with my eyes tight shut. But a kind of natural poetry runs through even the worst of it, combined with an imaginative view of magic. it’s there in the title taken from one of its epigraphs, a poem by Gwendolyn MacEwen. That quote opens with the title phrase and ends: “Beware! I [now] know a language so beautiful and lethal / My mouth bleeds when I speak it.” Such an image transcends mere gore, and so does this debut novel.

—Faren Miller, Locus Magazine, April 2010.

Monday, April 19, 2010

A Book of Tongues Interstitial: Music, Music, Music

Whenever it comes to music, like Laurence-as-Prince-Naveen in Disney’s The Princess and the Frog might say, “I’m for it.” It’s undeniably important to my process—setting a mood, giving me character insight, helping me explain things to myself. For years now, the second thing I always do when I start a new project (after my initial notes) is to cobble together a play-list of songs that remind me of my characters.

What was particularly pleasant with A Book of Tongues, however, is that because it’s ostensibly a historical piece, I was able to cross-breed my bone-deep love for folk, alt-country and stuff that simply hit the right chord. Plus, my beta readers—all great cataloguers of various tracks and artists themselves—were able to recommend and share the things that came into their heads as they followed along with me at every point in the curve, widening my spectrum of influences substantially.

As the year wore on, many original tracks were dropped and replaced, but the backbone remained firm: A soundtrack emerged that revolved specifically around themes of bad love, loss of faith, betrayal, pain and revenge. Some parts of it even began to suggest plot twists and/or character developments, which is (for me) the hallmark of truly great/useful music. Here’s the result:

The Essential Book of Tongues Playlist

1. “Two Sisters,” Roger Wilson

I’ll be true to my love/If my love will be true to me…

The only song to be quoted directly in the text, this is the single most despairing version of an already amazingly sad narrative—a version of the same story told in “The Bonny Swans” by Loreena McKennit and “The Cruel Sister” by Kerstin Blodig, except without the miraculous harp or the denouncement from beyond the grave, let alone any sort of reconciliation or regret. Instead, we’re left with a coda which “proves” humanity’s guiding emotions to be jealousy and greed; only makes sense that this is the one “English” Oona chooses to sing when she gets so low down even the opium isn’t enough to help her forget.

2. “I Go Like the Raven”, Dave Carter and Tracey Grammer

Sonya Taaffe first introduced me to these sadly unsung bluegrass folk artists through “Cat-Eye Willie Claims his Lover”, then supplied me with a flood of supplemental material. I glommed onto several tracks, many of which came to remind me specifically of Chess’s sprightly nastiness—“Crocodile Man”, for example, and “41 Thunderer” (a dreamier version of “The Devil’s Right Hand” which casts a man’s gun as his femme fatale). But then there’s “When I Go,” which would do just as well as a eulogy for “Grandma”, and spat up the image of a swirling column of bone-dust and sand which eventually became the pillar of blood Ixchel peeps out at Rook through. So it all fits.

3. “Black Soul Choir”, 16 Horsepower

Oh, every man is evil, Lord, every man's a liar/
Unashamed with a wicked tongue, singin' in the black soul choir...

As I’ve said, 16 HP quickly became both the inspiration for Sheriff Mesach Love in particular and the quintessential “Fear of God” material embodying Reverend Rook’s ambivalent fascination with the way his own growing power seems to eat away at his always-hypocritical, ever-diminishing faith. Also recommended: “Brimstone Rock”, “Splinters” (Yeah, you saw it comin’/And yet you did not flee…), “Horse-Head Fiddle” (for Rook’s not-exactly-alone-time in the desert) and, naturally, their awestruck, painful, churning live version of “Sinnerman” (And the rock cried out…).

4. “The Bachelor”, Patrick Wolf

Another Chess song, embodying his utter lack of ambivalence about his own contrary nature, particularly as regards his queerness. I love the fact that Wolf really does seem to be writing it like a slightly perverse Childe Ballad (Poor little turtledove, sitting up in pine/Dreaming of your own true love, so why not me for mine?). If I had to put a time and place on it, it’d probably fit best with Chess at War, flaunting himself around and enjoying the mess his new trade gives him license to create. But the Rook comes in view, and it all goes to shit.

5. “There is a Ghost”, Marianne Faithfull

This track, from her album Before the Poison, is very much about the connection Chess and Rook make with each other and the aftershocks which linger behind its severance: Memory, pain, literal nostalgia. (Oh my lover, oh my lover/Never was there another/Where has my lover-man gone?/Away…away…) Not to mention how it twins extremely well with the far more overt violent fatalism of—

6. “Furious Angels”, Rob Dougan

Yes, yes—based on a track from The Matrix: Reloaded, all that. Like “Apologize” by OneRepublic (with or without Timbaland’s participation), this would maybe fall under the “crack” portion of the mix, if I was genuinely ashamed to have it here. But I’m not, since in a lot of ways, this became the emblematic Chess/Rook OTP song of choice; the one that says that by loving this person—or anyone, maybe—it’s like you made a mistake, a whole big heapin’ pile of ‘em, and now you can run, but you can’t hide. Because you better be extremely sure that if you do, God (or the gods—a god, anyhow) is going to find you, no matter how far you go, and fuck your shit up.

Like a sentence of death,
I got no options left,
I've got nothing to show now.
I'm down on the ground,
I've got seconds to live,
and you can't go now.
'Cause love, like an invisible bullet shot me down
and I'm bleeding, yeah I'm bleeding
and if you go, furious angels will bring you back to me.
They will bring you back to me.

You're a dirty needle,
you're in my blood and there's no cure in me.
I wanna run, like the blood from a wound
to a place you can't see me.
'Cause love, like a blow to the head has left me stunned
and I'm reeling, yeah I'm reeling
and if you go, furious angels will bring you back to me.

You're a cold piece of steel between my ribs
and there's no saving me.
And I can't get up,
from this wet crimson bed that you made for me.
That you made for me!
'Cause love like a knife in the back has cut me down
and I'm bleeding, yeah I'm bleeding,
and if you go, angels will run to defend me, to defend me.

'Cause I can't get up, I'm as cold as a stone,
I can feel the life fade from me.
I'm down on the ground, I've got second to live,
and what's that waits for me, oh that waits for me!
'Cause love like a sentence of death, left me stunned,
and I'm reeling, yeah I'm reeling,
and if you go, furious angels will bring you back to me.

See also: Dougan’s own “Nothing at All” and Dave Matthews Band’s “When the World Ends” (also from TM: R’s soundtrack), plus Snow Patrol’s “Run” and “Set Fire to the Third Bar” (featuring Martha Wainwright). They’re mainstream pop apocalyptastic!

7. “Las Cruces Jail”, Two Gallants

Well I...spent last night in Las Cruces Jail, rainin' hail, born to fail/
Nobody comin' for to go my bail, sun, don't you rise tomorrow.../
I see the gallows' altar, a circle 'round the sun/
They gonna hang me if I stay and shoot me if I run...

Like “Sam Hall”—I prefer the Johnny Cash version, because that is how I roll—this is a song about being fast, bad and doomed in the Old Wild West, and illustrates the point that much as I like Chess (and the Rev), it can never be forgot that between ‘em, they’ve killed a whole lot of people who may not have really deserved it. Dicey! Similarly recommended, therefore, for similar reasons: “Train to Jackson”, by Jeffrey Foucault, and “Black River Killer”, by Blitzen Trapper, with its almost John Connolly-esque implications of serial killer as wandering, flesh-trapped fallen angel (I’ve been wanderin’ in the dark about as long as sin/But they say it’s never too late to start again…[but] I killed the first man that I came upon/’Cause the Devil works quick, you know it don’t take long).

8. “Water to Sky”, Thea Gilmore

Along with “Lucinda” by Tom Waits, this is a song I associate specifically with “English” Oona Pargeter, both in her Before and After phases. Indeed, the constant steampunk whoosh-THUNK of percussion behind “Lucinda” even reminds me of the sound the Enemy’s wood-slat ribcage makes when pumping open and closed, open and closed, as well as the Manifold’s nasty chatter. The trick here is that while “Lucinda” casts Oona and her like as infectious forces of negative predestination, “Water to Sky” is about a woman who could be seen as either a weirdly innocent victim or a force of nature untameable even in death—someone worthy of being remembered, either way. Thus moving us subtly towards where Chess needs to eventually end up, vis a vis the ladiez.

9. “Alphabet of Hurricanes” by Tom McRae

Caught in a whirlwind/
Of broken sticks and bones/
An alphabet of hurricanes/
Can’t blow this drifter home…

McRae’s transplanted British voice--hoarse, light, yearning--beautifully echoes the open spaces of my fake Arizona and parts Weird West, a haphazard mixture of scrub and desert and bare, broken rock, buttes and fossils, all ceaseless, mapless movement and activity with no particular aim in mind but chaos. Also good for that: “Me & Stetson”, “Mermaid Blues”, “You Will Rise”.

10. “America”, Tracy Chapman

And here we (finally) have a song representing things as seen from the slightly less white dude-centric portion of our narrative—the “secret” history of the not-exactly-New World, equally suitable for indigenous types like Rainbow Lady Ixchel and the Dine Hataalli known as “Grandma” as it might be for Songbird herself, the first-gen immigrant witch-queen of San Francisco’s Chinatown. One way or the other: You were lost and got lucky/Came upon a shore/Found you were conquering America…

Okay: Way too long, at this point. But here’s eleven more tracks well worth your while, if you want something to read along to--

“Blackest Crow”, Angi West
“Hole in the Middle”, Emily Jane White
“Bad Man’s World”, Jenny Lewis
“Black Hearted Love”, PJ Harvey and John Parrish
“One More Cup of Coffee”, Bob Dylan
“Black Acres”, Elysian Fields
“Up Jumped the Devil”, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
“From a Shell”, Lisa Germano
“Damned to Hell”, John Butler Trio
“Sunken Waltz”, Calexico
“Ten Million Slaves”, Otis Taylor

Exciting Developments

Not only did my story "The Jacaranda Smile" get nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award in the Best Short Story category, but the anthology it appeared in--Apparitions, edited by Michael Kelly--was nominated for Best Anthology, and "each thing I show you is a piece of my death" was nominated for Best Novelette. And yes, this means both Steve and I will be going to Readercon this year. One way or the other, an honor. Amazing.

Also: For those of you with (little) money and no ability to get to a bookstore CZP has a distribution deal with, ebooks of A Book of Tongues ( are now available! Just copy, paste and click on the URL to order from Horror Mall; you'll see the link on the bottom left-hand of the page you land on.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Ad Astra 2010

Perhaps you have been wondering where I will be, and what I will be doing, during next week's Ad Astra Convention, in Toronto, Canada. Well, wonder no more!


Saturday April 10, 11:00 AM: ChiZine Publications Panel, Ballroom Centre.
Attending: Brett Alexander Savory, Sandra Kasturi, Matt Moore Gemma Files, David Nickle, Claude Lalumiere, Douglas Smith, Helen Marshall, Laura Marshall, Erik Mohr, Bob Boyczuk
Beginning as the print off-shoot of Chiaroscuro, in less than two years, ChiZine Publications has grown into a small but influential player in independent genre publishing. CZP staff and authors discuss and answer questions about its growth in a bad time for publishing, the future of genre publishing, why a small press might be a better option for beginning writers, and how they have fun doing it.

1:00 PM: Reading with Suzanne Church, Crowne Room.

2:00 PM to 3:30 PM: EVolVe Launch, in Antons'.

7:00 PM to 9:00 PM: CZP Launch for A Book of Tongues and Douglas Smith's Chimerascope, also in Antons'.

Sunday April 11, 11:00 AM: Horror in Poetry, Salon 443.
Attending: Mirriam Harrison (m), Gemma Files, Sandra Kasturi, Marcy Italiano
A discussion of the use of horror in poetry. Panelists will examine past and present horror poets, and what it is about the form of poetry that allows writers to explore the darker aspects of life and humanity.

12:00 PM: Not Your Bitch! - Entitlement, Salon 243.
Attending: Leah Bobet, Gemma Files, Violette Malan (m), Marcy Italiano, J.M. Frey
What responsibilities, if any, do creators have to their fans? Are fans entitled to anything?

1:00 PM: Autographs - Gemma Files, in Dealers' Room.

So...yeah, that's about it. Hope to see some of you there.