May 3, 2011

Monkey droppings - A Book of Tongues, by Gemma Files

The monkey likes magic. And westerns. And horror.

But all three? At once?

Fair warning: this review will be one of the geekiest the monkey has ever done.

A Book of Tongues (ChiZine, 2010)
by Gemma Files
Once, the Rainbow Lady had told Asher Rook, in dreams, a human ball-player was enticed by owls to pit his skills against the lords of death, and made a descent into what was then called Xibalba. He swam the river of blood, yet did not become drunk with it. He reached the crossroads, the Place of All Winds, where he took not the red road, nor the white, but the black. He entered the bone canoe, piloted by spiders and bats. He sank downwards, through cold water, to the whole world's bottom.

Xibalba, as it was called then. Mictlan, as it became. Mictlan-Xibalba, as it is
now, and will be, forever more.

When he arrived, however, he was met only with mockery and betrayal. The Sunken Ball-Court's kings set him impossible tasks, then cheated the rules to make sure he would fail, and sent him to be executed, decreeing that his severed head should be set in a tree by the wayside, as a warning to other travellers.

Promptly, the tree flowered all over, producing a hundred succulent calabash melons that attracted the attention of Blood Maiden, the Blood Gatherer's beautiful daughter. She reached up to pick one, only to discover she held the ball-player's skull instead. The skull spat in her hand, and told her: Though my face is gone, it will soon return, in the face of my son. And she found herself pregnant.
Confession time: I'm a geek.

No, no, please, let me finish. I'm a geek, and as such, there are certain literary qualifications I feel I have to admit to. I worship at the altar of all things Vonnegutian (if that's not an accepted term, consider it copyrighted to me and me alone, and you owe me a nickel if you use it in conversation). I play video games; perhaps not with the same "three day weekend of video goodness" mentality of my youth, but I recently completed Arkham Asylum, and am slowly working on the original Dead Space (I haven't jumped this much at a game since Resident Evil). In my early thirties I dressed as Bruce Campbell for Halloween, complete with chainsaw hand and sawed-off boomstick. I read zombie novels (hell, I'm writing one), I'm now heavily into the fantastical imaginations of Jeff Vandermeer and China Mieville, I'm deeply drawn to steampunk, I've even contributed to a fantastical bestiary (still coming, click here for proof of my bookish geekiness). I can quote Monty Python sketches verbatim.

So yeah, I have geek credentials, a membership in the geek-of-the-month club. My not attending sci-fi, fantasy, and other genre conventions has far more to do with geographic placement than it does desire.

But if there is something that I geek out over more than anything else, it's Clive Barker.

Me and Clive BarkerWhen I first started reading horror (probably too young, but hey, psychological scars don't show), it was Stephen King I flocked to, devouring everything of his I could, shaping my sensibilities for decades to come. From him, being a gateway author, I experimented with others; I dabbled in Koontz (too silly, no lasting side-effects), Simmons (whoo, a rush and a half), McCammon (ups and downs, usually a good ride), Rice (strong start, lately almost unreadable), Lansdale (now that's more like it), Wilson (Repairman Jack, what a guy), and Lumley (ridiculous, but those covers haunted my nightmares as a teen).

But even beyond all those, the writings of Barker were a gutpunch to my psyche. Something about his style, gothic and gory and gorgeous, sank its talons into my medulla and began an eminently enjoyable parasitic relationship. Some labeled him as a 'splatterpunk' author, but Barker has never been a gore-for-gore's-sake sort, although he splashes the mausoleum red with the best of them. Reading The Hellbound Heart, with its miasma of kitchen sink marital drama and religious sadomasochism, was to suddenly comprehend the vast depth of perversions that exist outside my tiny middle-class life. The Damnation Game and The Books of Blood gave me epic horrors I never knew could be put to paper. Cabal gave me monsters as heroes, and to date is likely the only classic of modern horror to be set in Edmonton, Alberta. His efforts Weaveworld and Imajica and The Great and Secret Show proved to me that there existed the possibility of truly adult fantasies that created monsters and otherworldly terrains yet were not the usual hack-and-slash D&D epics that taint the fantasy shelves of my favourite bookstores (yeah, despite my geek certification, I've never fully embraced the genre subset of trolls and elves and middle-earth Tolkien wannabees). Barker filled his tales with mytho-religious symbolism, depraved desires, and the glories of all assortments of sexuality on a level I had never before experienced. And I fell head over hooks for him.

But Barker's output is now sparse and erratic, with many promised jewels still awaiting completion (where are you, Scarlet Gospels? If I don't get my Harry D'Amour/Pinhead crossover soon . . . ). So I've been forced to look elsewhere for similar entertainments, and while I have not regretted the search, I can emphatically state that I have never found an author who raised in me the same level of excitement.

Until, of course, the true subject of today's meandering post, Gemma Files, a Canadian author with some short story collections and poetry chapbooks to her credit, but nothing that has ever appeared on my radar. But her publisher ChiZine has, several times. I've said it before in these posts, and I'll say it again, there is no publisher out there that comes close to touching the heights of genre fiction that ChiZine is putting out. Tim Lebbon, Robert J. Wiersema, Lavie Tidhar, Craig Davidson, Douglas Smith, David Nickle, Tony Burgess - if you haven't yet discovered ChiZine, I envy you the journey I am now ordering you to undertake.

So when I saw Gemma Files' A Book of Tongues sitting on the shelf of my favourite bookstore (with another amazing cover - seriously, ChiZine covers are works of bloody art), I knew that I'd be getting a good bang for my buck. But I never saw this coming; it's too soon to call Gemma Files the next incarnation of Clive Barker, but if it happens the way I hope, I said it here first. Files has the same fanatical attention to research and detail, the same intermingling of eternal horrors with unexpected settings, the same fearlessness of the body and all its yearnings. If this manuscript had been given to me and attributed to Barker, I would have believed it.

Setting her yarn in one of the only genres I do not recall Barker ever trying, the western, Files puts together an apocalyptic, baroque melange of cowboys, magicians, long-dead Mayan and Aztec gods, detectives, and biblical fury. Outwardly a story of rebel soldiers from the Civil War making their way across the American landscape as thieves and pursued by the Pinkerton Detective Agency, Files subverts all expectations and arrives at a stunningly original result; think Hellraiser crossing paths with The Wild Bunch. My experience with western novels starts with Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove quartet (a masterpiece), and ends with Chuck Norris's ode to all that is awful in life The Justice Riders. I think it safe to assume that McMurtry might admire Files' subversive take on the genre, but Charles McHighKicks will choke on his own rage/beard as the heroes and villains of the western epic narrative tradition he has long modelled his career after are exposed to the unflinching sexual storytelling prowess of Files.

"On this whole wide earth, there's nothin' worse than a bad man who knows the Bible." So says "Reverend" Asher Rook, who knows whereof he speaks. Rook is a hexslinger, an outlaw born with supernatural tendencies, a bible-quoting mystic who uses phrases of the Bible to access his unique abilities.
As it bore down on [Rook] - the uppermost Pinkerton already back on his feet, grasping for the Gatling's crank - he opened his mouth and preached, from Corinthians:


It was one of the sweetest verses known to man, quoting at every wedding he'd officiated. But when his lips shaped the words, something else came out through his mouth along with them - a lashing ghost-tongue spear of silver-gilt which rammed full-speed through the boiler without jumping the train off its tracks, just pinning it there like a massive iron bug, releasing its entire compliment of steam in a hissing cloud.

And that was the problem, in the end. It was a bit too dense for Rook to completely calculate what he was doing. So though he'd meant for whatever effect he produced to stop short, or just slap the Pink silly, it split the man's skull and neck alike, spraying everything around it with gouting red.
Together with his lieutenant/lover Chess Pargeter, a terrifyingly remorseless killer, Rook leads his men across the wilds of the west, robbing trains and banks, killing all in their path. Also in their midst is Ed Morrow, a detective gone undercover to discover the extent of Rook's power and perhaps unlock the secrets of magic.

In this world, magicians are not quite plentiful, but they are historically documented, and the Pinkerton Detective Agency hopes to gather enough information to put a halt to all magical activities, and perhaps use magicians against each other to clean up the Earth. "Break her to the bridle and use her, like any other animal. Turn a wolf into a dog." What works in their favour is the fact that "Mages don't meddle;" magicians in this world cannot work together for long until one inevitably turns on the other. This simmering hostility has kept hexslingers from combining their powers and becoming as gods. If Rook has his way, however, there may be a way around this.

Files is an intensely visceral writer, delivering fantasy/horror with the glee of a razor-wielding psychopath; just the thing for my Barker kick. But enough about Barker, Files is her own author, and while the similarities are there (Rook reminds me completely of Barker's Nix, another magician with delusions of godhood), Barker has only laid the groundwork for the next generation, a generation Files could prove herself a leader. She is equally fearless in gore, grotesqueries, and sex (boy, is she fearless in sex, in all its glories and fluids), but her style is brilliant and complex, a gorgeous mixture of goth and grit that completely transforms the material into something magical. Not many people, I suspect, could mash together lovecraftian-style horror with Old West patois with such panache.

Does it go too far? Arguable. The story does careen wildly at points, and doubtless some will be turned off by Files' frank and earthy depictions of homosexual congress, others by vivid descriptions a la "carving out loops of guts, as the man tried hopelessly to stuff them back in."

But sometimes, that's what I want in horror. I appreciate all forms of horror for their differing strengths (I'm currently enthralled with the quiet atmosphere and dread of John Ajvide Lindqvist's Harbor), but sometimes I want to be pushed past the boundaries of my own taste, I want to be abused. Clive Barker was my go-to guy for this, and still is; I predict a re-read of The Damnation Game is in my near future. And now, I've got Gemma Files to warm/horrify the cockles of my whatever it is that cockles reside in. She is a true talent, and I look forward to whatever fresh horrors she may unleash upon my imagination.

The second book in the series, A Rope of Thorns, is available at the end of May.

I've already pre-ordered a copy.




Anonymous said...

Wow, Corey. Now THAT'S a review. So many pull-quotes, I don't know where to start! BTW, my fave writer is Clive Barker, so I totally know where you're coming from.

Thanks so much for these wonderful words—both for Gemma and for CZP!



Chris Benjamin said...

I have geek roots (was also an S.King fan at too young an age) but I drifted. This sounds like a good portal back.

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