Spells and curses crackle across the arid landscapes of the Old West once again, with the release of Gemma Files’ A Rope of Thorns, the sequel to last year’s Black Quill Award–winning novel and Stoker nominee A Book of Tongues. But it hasn’t been an especially easy journey for the author of the acclaimed Hexslinger series.
“I was telling one of my friends the other day that in a lot of ways, I feel like I’ve been working on the same novel for three years, in three different instalments,” says Files. One of the issues that she ran into with the first book was that she was rapidly approaching her publisher’s cut-off point in terms of word limit, with no end in sight. Fortunately, the folk at ChiZine press, decided to publish Files’ occult western tale as two books. Files was hard at work on the second book when she discovered history repeating itself. “Exactly the same thing happened that happened last time,” admits Files. “I got to 80,000 words, realized there was no way it’d be finished by 100,000, and began to rethink my plans. This isn’t going to happen again if I can help it, which is why I’m working extra-hard on plotting things out in advance, this time ’round.”
Working on a series, rather than a standalone novel, presents particular challenges to an author. “Just like the primary challenge of a third book is how to wrap things up effectively and entertainingly, the challenge of a second book is how to make it past the general saggy middle problem,” says Files. “I concentrated a lot on keeping it fast-paced, with a fair deal of crap-talking/hex-slinging action, but also a sub-set of character development under fire and laying in details which will (hopefully) pay off in Book Three. What’s been consistently exciting and frustrating throughout the journey thus far is that whenever I lay in something that just seems like an alchemically-generated New Fun Thing, I realize it usually brings along a bunch of attendant game-changing elements that I now have to develop and integrate further into the narrative’s inherent logic along with it.” She cites in particular the established rule in the first book that “hexes”—beings with immense magical powers—cannot work together, at risk of their very existence, a rule which, in the second book, shifts with devastating results. “That sounded neat and utterly organic when I first did it—and I really do think it is, in an epic/operatic way,” says Files, “but I’m still dealing with the consequences.”
Another shift in the second novel is that the power of magic is very much more connected to the earth, as opposed to the first book, where it is very much connected to the power of language. Files attributes the change to a shift in focus from the cerebral Reverend Asher Rook, protagonist of the first book, to the visceral, emotional, and highly sexual Chess Pargeter, the main hex in the second. “The Rev likes words because he’s educated and erudite yet almost completely hypocritical, which means he can use them to lie and seduce and confuse equally,” says Files. “Chess is an uneducated whore-get turned outlaw, a man of reflexive, perverse action who’s always relied on his gut to show him which way to jump, powering his way through life on his guns, his fists and his dick.”
One thing that remains the same, however, if the focus on the characters’ sexuality—which, in all its terrifying glory, has been significant in the horror genre since the early gothic novels and Dracula. The sexual relationship between Chess and the Reverend was central to the first novel, and continues to inform—heavily—the second. “It’s always sort of amused me that some people seem to be just as afraid of having their sexuality realigned as they are of, say, far more palpable and universal fears like bodily harm, death and the loss of those you love,” says Files. “Again, this is one of the inherent problems with terms like Gay Horror, which I’m proud yet still slightly discomfited—as a straight-identified person—to have applied to my work. Ultimately, it’s just a simple human truth that we fear the Other, the creature who resembles us in some way but differs greatly in others, as much as we rightly fear to be Othered, to be told that because we differ in some way from “the norm”, we’re no longer going to be accorded the same rights and privileges… Horror needs monsters, and it’s hard to accept that we truly are all we know and need of both Heaven and Hell.”
“One way I’ve tried to get around this is obviously by creating sexually transgressive characters whom far more readers than I would have ever expected seem to have grown to identify with and care about. But another way is that when you boil all my ‘monsters’ in the Hexslinger universe down—even the incredibly powerful and alien ones—they all contain a distant seed of humanity, which is both their strength and their weakness.”
One of those ‘monsters’ of course, is Chess himself, a phenomenally compelling character: flamboyant, passionate, and destructive. How would Files describe her own relationship with Chess Pargeter? “Well, I certainly can’t say he’s not a bit of a wish-fulfillment character for me, in a couple of different ways,” admits Files. “I’ve mentioned before that I’m a slasher [writer of slash fiction], so I’ll completely cop to the fact that I’m getting a personal charge out of his sexual escapades: It’s my kink, and I don’t see any shame in it. But at the same time, I’m also an angry person, a perverse person, a person who’s loved unwisely and paid the price; Chess gets to take his revenge on the world, do stuff I never could, and I get to come along on the ride. He gets to be the villain, the anti-hero, maybe even the hero, but definitely the fate-chosen protagonist of his own story. After which, best of all, I get to give him and the people around him the sort of satisfying character arcs that real life so seldom provides!”
And we get to know Chess much better in the second novel: he’s still violent and impetuous, but as his powers as a hex—and an avatar—continue to grow, he’s forced into some tough realizations about who he is and the responsibilities that his identity brings. “Chess as an avatar of Xipe Totec, the Red Tezcatlipoca—the primal Year-King sacrifice, whose blood makes all things grow—is connected to the earth in a way he can barely comprehend,” explains Files. “And he doesn’t want to control these things, because in order to do so, he’d have to become more Xipe Totec than he is Chess, a prospect which pisses him off to the extreme…but the thing is, he’s changing too, even though he doesn’t want to. A year ago, he wouldn’t’ve cared how many “innocent” people became collateral damage, as long as he got what he wanted. But the thing about being a god is, you sort of have to care, because other people—normal, common people—and their devotion is what keeps you alive.”
Chess is also forced to reimagine his relationship with women in the second book, which contains significantly more female characters than the first—a development that Files describes as “absolutely deliberate.” She also notes that the increased presence of women in the second novel compels Chess to grow up and develop as a character. “We’ve already heard him say that he thinks most women are tougher than most men, but the very fact of his own sexuality means he tends to think of them as aliens—they “ain’t his meat,” and he ain’t theirs. And thus far, he’s been able to avoid women by confining himself to a male-slanted world of soldiering, outlawry, criminality, on the fringes of society… but part of the Western narrative is that that state of affairs can’t last forever. Things change, and much as he hates the very thought of it, Chess has to change with them.”
“When I was writing A Book of Tongues, part of what I set out to do was to intentionally put a gay male relationship front and centre, and I’m proud that came off as well as it did,” she continues. “But by privileging that point of view, I unintentionally cut women almost entirely out of the picture—I mean, there are female characters, but they’re pretty much an assortment of whores and/or monsters, which needed to change. Because this is where you run into the difficult distinction between representation and representativeness: I don’t want to be seen as making statements about how ‘all women are like…’ any more than I want to be seen making statements about how all gay guys are like Chess, all bi guys are like the Rev, or all straight guys are like Morrow. It’s inaccurate, dicey—and worst of all, it’s boring.”
The universe will continue to expand in the third book, A Tree of Bones, on which Files is already working hard, and she promises that we’ll see more of her complex and intriguing characters. What else can we look forward to?
“Bloodshed! Monsters! Experimental arcanistry! Hexation aplenty!” says Files. “Plus, maybe a giant spider.”