Gemma Files, Words Written Backwards (Burning Effigy Press, 2007)
(note: review originally published 28Feb2008)
The Gemma Files is not yet recognized as one of Canada’s premier storytellers can only be explained, as I see it, by the fact that she’s just not prolific enough yet; certainly most who have read her two collections of short stories have sung her praises pretty much uniformly. So where’s the love from the New York Times and the Guardian and Booklist and Publisher’s Weekly and Bookslut? No idea. But “Words Written Backwards” should be dangled in front of them to show them how wrong they are in continuing to ignore such a talent.
This is a one-story chapbook published by Burning Effigy, a very small press whose editors seem to have very good taste, judging by the stable of names one can find on their webpage. The story itself is more, how shall I say, “mainstream” than the stuff you can find in Files’ two wonderful books of short stories (Kissing Carrion and The Worm in Every Heart, which every one of you should read if you haven’t already), though that’s not what I mean, and you know it. It’s less icky. When you read a Gemma Files story, all the character depth and emotional resonance is there, it’s usually just got some interesting (and disgusting) viscous fluids it’s coated in. Not so much here, to the point where one might call this “dark fantasy” in the Tanith Lee vein, but without Lee’s oh-my-goth patina; it’s substituted with the hard, cold realism of a Brad Smith (why this story reminded me continually of All Hat I will probably never understand) or a Giles Blunt (on the other hand, the parallels to the neverending snowstorm of Forty Words for Sorrow are pretty obvious).
The story: an Indian mystic has been sent to attempt to cleanse an abandoned, and seemingly haunted, mine of evil spirits. The night before he’s about to get started, however, a young woman from Toronto stumbles into his camp, only slightly frostbitten despite being dressed for the mall instead of a snowstorm. Once they start talking, the mystic starts suspecting her presence here may be more than coincidence.
It’s tough to pin down what it is about Gemma Files’ stories that makes them so good, and maybe that’s part of the attraction; all the authorial trickery washes into the background, leaving you satisfied without knowing exactly why. There’s no place where the author pops up and says “look here! Characterization!” or the like. The great Billy Wilder once said that the best director is the one you don’t see; it holds true for writers, as well.
What can I do to convince you to read Gemma Files? Tell me. I’ll do it. ****