Monday, July 1, 2013

The Cronenberg Method - Gemma Files - Biggest 'Ah-Ha!' Moments in Writing

     It's probably not inaccurate to say I literally grew up on the work of Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg, or at least around its edges. So by the time Cronenberg's final flirtation with the genre he'd pioneered—1999's eXistenZ—happened to coincide with the height of my film criticism career, I can honestly say that he'd been an icon of mine for years. He was doing exactly what I'd always wanted to do, making full-on horror that embraced both cerebral philosophical themes and transportatively disgusting fleshly-surrealist imagery within a specifically Canadian framework come hell, high water, lack of funds or even being once literally denounced in Parliament (because his “semi-pornographic” 1975 “veneral horror” film Shivers was made with government funding), and I loved him for it.

     I'd been publishing for roughly ten years at that point, but I'd never quite made the requisite transition from simply writing to writing things that people could point at and identify as “mine” in the way anybody and his cinematically well-educated dog could tell a Cronenberg movie from, say, any other then-contemporary work from the same genre. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that perhaps I should have been taking Cronenberg's advice all along, as frequently voiced throughout his first nine films (from Shivers to 1991's Naked Lunch), either directly or slightly paraphrased, but most distinctly in 1983's Videodrome: “You'll have to go through it, all the way through it, wherever it takes you...all the way through it, right to the end.”

     Through both studying his films and voraciously reading everything I could get my hands on about him, I became aware that the chief tenet of Cronenberg's method was to never censor anything, if he could help it—that part of his process was to simpy allow himself license to have, and voice, the weirdest thoughts imaginable, to map the limits of his own conscious cognition and then dip right down into the primordial soup, the Jungian stew of the subconscious, without ever asking “why?” or even “what the fuck is wrong with me?” All I know is that the moment I started letting myself not worry about what other people might think if I went in the directions I felt myself pulled most strongly towards, if I let my creepiest images and ideas come to full fruition and didn't worry about things like “is it too gross?” “Is it too sexual?” “Is it too dark?” “Will people really want to read about gay outlaws and black magic and flay-happy Aztec gods in the same book?”...then that was when I finally became “me,” ie when Gemma Files first started to mean something almost as specific as David Cronenberg still does, as a brand.

Though the actual first time I did this was probably with “Keepsake”, a modern vampire tale whose evolution began with me literally sitting up in bed and saying out loud: “Oh, that's awful. I have to do it!”, the real turning point was another story entirely: “The Emperor's Old Bones,” picked up by Northern Frights 5, which later went on to win a 1999 International Horror Guild award for Best Short Fiction (beating out both Kim Newman and Neil Gaiman, which I still can't quite believe) and be reprinted in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror #13. I remember getting the idea one Friday, after having seen Empire of the Sun on TV the night before, and sitting in a classroom where I was teaching screenwriting, jotting down the basic plot-points as they came to me; by the end of the weekemnd the story was finished, and was accepted with only very minimal edits.

     Now, it would have been all too easy to dismiss the concept as basically J.G. Ballard fanfiction, to convince myself that writing about a black magic ritual which involves treating a child like a carp doomed to be filleted and cooked alive—its flesh eaten while its heart can still be glimpsed beating through its ribs, so that sympathetic magic will supposedly effect a transfer of life from eaten to eater—was far too dreadful an image to birth into this world, or that there was no point to doing so except prurience and shock value. But I didn't believe that then, and fifteen more years later, I still don't. I truly believe that the story has valuable things to say about human loneliness and love, albeit a very distorted version of the latter, as well as making statements about war, predation, the cyclical nature of abuse, the ruthless things we'll all do to survive, as well as the things some very special people will do in order to not spend the rest of lives alone. Which is why I'll never regret giving myself permission to write it, not least because I know that so long as I live (and probably after), whenever people ask: “What's Gemma Files like?”, somebody somewhere will answer: “Um...just read this.”

     This, then, is the Cronenberg Method: to let yourself do what your instincts tell you you “have” to. To listen to the voice of your disease without prejudice or fear, accepting that no matter what comes out and in what way, it'll be you, all raw and bloody and poisonous. And to always be unafraid to pass the result on to others, infectious though it might be.

Former film critic and teacher turned award-winning horror author, Gemma Files is probably best-known for her Hexslinger Series (A Book of Tongues, A Rope of Thorns and A Tree of Bones, ChiZine Publications). She has also published two collections of short work and two chapbooks of poetry. She is currently hard at work on her fourth novel. You can read more about her here or here.

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