Toronto author Gemma Files, recognized for creating stunning horror fiction featuring gay protagonists, replied characteristically in 2009 when asked if she had a book in progress.
”I said, ‘You know, gay cowboys, black magic, Aztec gods,’” Files recalls. “Sandra Kasturi, co-publisher of ChiZine Publications, was like, ‘Send it over!’”
In May, Files delivered A Tree of Bones, the final chapter of the resulting Hexslinger trilogy featuring lovers Chess Pargeter and Reverend Rook, ex-Confederate soldiers and unrepentant outlaws.
Files wanted to create a front-and-centre, triumphant gay love story.
“Rook and Chess’s relationship is tragic but not because they’re gay,” she explains. “It’s tragic because Rook is a liar and a hypocrite and Chess is the kind of person who has said to [Rook] on many occasions, ‘If you screw me over, then I’m going to come at you with everything I have.’”
“[Chess is] the toppiest bottom on the face of the Earth, a pretty aggressive dude,” Files says. “If you tried to make Chess somebody’s sassy gay friend, he’d kick you in the nuts — or the ovaries.”
The weird Western is writ large with voices that Files thinks are often otherwise shunted aside, including crossdressing Yancey Colder, who passes as a man, native lesbian warrior Yiska, and bisexual ex-Pinkerton agent Ed Morrow.
Files’ slasher awakening began when her mother bought a VCR. Although 11 years old, Files had reached her full height and could pass for 17. “I was able to rent movies that I probably shouldn’t have been able to,” Files recalls. “People would rent me things like Cruising and To Live and Die in L.A.”
Reading Julius Caesar in high school, she enthusiastically observed that Brutus and Cassius were overly effusive in declaring their mutual love. Files started exploring her own sexuality in her 20s and although she tried gay sex, she now identifies as heterosexual.
Files’ predilection for seeing two men together is evident in the Hexslinger epic, which she began after writing fan fiction throughout 2008, incorporating established fictional characters into her stories. She discovered people discussing her writing online. “Did you know Gemma Files turned pro?” someone posted. “I’ve got to read her pro stuff!”
The news that she had “turned pro” astounded Files; she had written professionally since publishing her first horror story in 1993. Her work appeared in Northern Frights and Michael’s Rowe’s Queer Fear series. She also did adaptations for The Hunger, a horror TV series and reviewed films for Eye weekly for nine years.
She realized her total fan fiction output of 2008, written in 5,000-to-8,000-word bursts, could have added up to a novel.
“I said to myself ‘To hell with it, I’m going to start writing a book. It assembled itself around a queer character and queer relationship because I wasn’t thinking about the market at all. I was thinking this was going to be something I was going to write for me. ‘If I end up sticking it into a trunk, then it goes in the trunk.’”
Inspired by the film 3:10 to Yuma, Files used the western film template, transforming the ambiguously gay Ben Foster outlaw character into someone unambiguously gay.
“That’s the cornerstone of his personality,” Files says of Chess, “to say ‘Here I am, a tough western guy, but I’m queer-made. I’m frilly. If you’ve got a problem with it, then I will shoot you if you stand over there, and I’ll cut you if you run.’”
The first Hexslinger installment, A Book of Tongues, set two years after the Civil War, features male-male action worthy of Queer As Folk, although that cools somewhat in the sequel. Chess endures love and develops as a character. Chess does, though, befriend and sleep with Ed Morrow instead of Chess’ original bi lover, Reverend Rook. If prospective readers hesitate, there are further enticing surprises.
“There’s also epic magical combat, gun-slinging, extreme Bible quotes, goddesses, all sorts of bloodlettin’ and bad stuff, and a fair amount of sex,” Files says.