Today I’m happy to welcome Gemma Files, another of the authors in the Weird Western StoryBundle, here to introduce herself and her character Chess. First, let’s find out a little more about Gemma:
1. Tell us a little about yourself.
I was born in England, but have lived almost all of my life in Toronto, Canada (I say “almost” because, as should be obvious, I am currently still alive). My parents are both actors. I have a BAA in Magazine Journalism from Ryerson University, and a few years ago I was amused to note that almost everything technical I learned while getting it is now hopelessly obsolete. I spent roughly nine years working as a film critic, during which period I also taught screenwriting and film history at two different vocational schools. Other jobs I’ve held include security guard, essay-writer for hire and floor attendant at Lovecraft, Toronto’s most upscale sex shop.
2. When did you start writing, and why?
I’ve written throughout my life, but aside from placing a poem with Cricket Magazine when I was eleven, my professional writing career probably began when I was twenty-five—I was covering the publication of a new all-Canadian horror anthology called Northern Frights, let slip to the editor (Don Hutchison) that I also wrote scary stories, then sold him one for Northern Frights 2. That sale led to me writing “The Emperor’s Old Bones” for Northern Frights 4, the story for which I later won a 1999 International Horror Guild Best Short Fiction award, which in turn led to the publication of my first two short story collections (Kissing Carrion and The Worm in Every Heart). It’s been uphill ever since.
3. What drew you to writing weird westerns? What do you enjoy about it?
Okay, so: it’s 2009, and I’ve just spent a year being intensely depressed in the wake of my son’s Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis, which just so happened to coincide with me losing my primary teaching job. During this period, the only thing I’ve been able to write has been fanfiction, specifically for the James Mangold remake of 3:10 to Yuma, which means I’ve already done a lot of research on the post-Civil War era, making me fairly familiar with all the necessary western tropes and jargon. One day, I tally the word-count of everything I’ve written during the previous year and realize it comes to more than 100,000 words—enough for a novel! The next thing I know, I’m using my historical knowledge to hammer out the first seven chapters of what will become A Book of Tongues. As luck would have it, meanwhile, 2009 is also the same year that Sandra Kasturi and Brett Savory formed ChiZine Publications, and started asking all their friends—me included—if we were working on books. So before I’d even finished writing the book, I already had a publication contract. Three books later, the Hexslinger series was finished, and I’d moved on to a whole new phase of my writing career.
4. What particular flavor of weird western is your book that’s in the Weird Western bundle?
The Hexslinger series takes place in an alternate version of of the wild west where people occasionally randomly “express” as natural magicians—hexes—whose powers often seem to be dictated by their skills, cultural backgrounds and/or personalities. Reverend Rook, for example, can literally preach magic—he quotes applicable Bible verses, which appear in the air around him, then bring about whatever he has in mind. For men this tends to happen during moments of extreme stress or pain, and for women, around adolescence; the reason hexes haven’t taken over the world as yet, however, is that they literally can’t work together, because their constant desire for more power drives them to suck magic out of each other like vampires. During his own expression, which happened while he was being hung for murder, the Rev was touched by a malign entity, Ixchel, who later revealed herself as a hex-ghost/dead goddess from Mictlan-Xibalba, the Mayan-Mexica underworld. She wants to bring back her pantheon, re-instituting a Blood Engine system in which power is paid for by human sacrifice, and what she offers for the Rev’s help in bringing this plan to fruition is to make it possible for hexes to cooperate without being driven to prey on each other…which is something the Rev will do almost anything to bring about, because he knows his lover Chess is a hex just waiting to happen.
5. What do you like about your characters?
Well, frankly…they’re all kind of terrible people: villains, monsters, anti-heroes at best. And those have always been the sort of characters I’ve found myself drawn to, possibly because they lend themselves best to the sort of blood-soaked high drama black magic gay porno horse opera A Book of Tongues and its sequels turned out to be. I guess that ever since I first saw Star Wars, complicated evil with hints of redemption has always been my aesthetic—I’m definitely a Sith, not a Jedi. Which isn’t to say there are no slightly less soiled characters at work here, but part of this project was always trying to turn the most familiar Western tropes inside out, and I like to think I’ve mainly managed to do that.
And now, Chess:
1. What is your main character’s full name? Is there anything significant about it?
The main character of the Hexslinger series—which starts with A Book of Tongues—is probably Chess Pargeter, around whom most of the action centres. He certainly has the most interesting character arc. As for something significant about his name, well…it turns out he doesn’t actually know his entire name, mainly because his mother never told him it was short for something else. He eventually finds out, but not ’til Book Three.
2. How old is he?
When A Book of Tongues starts, Chess can’t possibly be more than twenty-five years old—I think I had twenty-two somewhere in the back of my mind when I wrote it, probably because of that line from the Bo Diddley song “Who Do You Love?” (I’ve got a tombstone hand and a graveyard mind, I’m just twenty-two and I don’t mind dyin’)—though again, he’s not really sure, because he doesn’t know his own birthday. He’s pretty young, either way.
3. Tell us about his family. What does he like and not like about them?
Chess grew up without any idea of who his father is, mainly because his mother—“English” Oona Pargeter—is a low-rent San Francisco prostitute who’s far more interested in alcohol and opium than she is in her own son, aside from the section of his life where, having figured out he was gay, she tried her best to pimp him out to whoever was interested. Chess stole a gun from a Pinkerton agent and left home to join the Confederate army soon after. Though he says he doesn’t feel anything for her but contempt, I think he’s lying.
4. Who was his first kiss, and what did [he] think of it?
Chess uses sex to get a lot of what he wants and thinks of it mainly as a mode of exchange, since that’s how he was first introduced to the concept; he’s frankly far more embarrassed by emotional intimacy than by anything physical. That being said, I think the first kiss that meant anything to him probably came from Reverend Asher Rook, who he first met when Rook was serving as an army chaplain during the Civil War.
5. What is his occupation?
Chess is a former soldier turned outlaw, enthusiastic and fiercely loyal right-hand man to the Rev, who expressed as a “hex”—a natural magician—at the tail-end of the War, right in the midst of being hung for desertion and the murder of a superior officer, the latter charge being a crime Chess actually committed. Chess was the one who later suggested the Rev start robbing trains and stage-coaches in the first place, so it only makes sense he became the Rev’s lieutenant as well as his lover. He’s blissfully unaware that part of the Rev’s attraction to him comes from Chess also being a potential hex, though as yet unexpressed.
6. What are his best and worst qualities?
Chess is described at various points during A Book of Tongues as a “pocket-sized Satan,” a “wild boy” and an “unrepentant sodomite and murderer,” all of which is absolutely true. His best quality is probably his commitment to the Rev, but his total refusal to feel guilt over his own nature or actions had lead him into a whole lot of trouble over the years, not to mention taking its toll on those around him. He also holds grudges.
7. What is his favourite thing to do?
Clear even split between sex and shooting something, mostly, though he slowly begins to see the value of defending the weak against impossible odds, if only for the pleasure of spitting in some hellaciously more powerful being’s eye. A lot of what Chess does is dictated by sheer contrariness, which can be petty or weirdly admirable, depending on context.
8. What is his greatest fear?
Imprisonment. Being left behind.
9. What is his most treasured possession?
At the time of A Book of Tongues, Chess’s most treasured possessions would probably be either his guns—he wears two at all time, holsters slung cavalry-style for easy cross-drawing—or an ear-bob the Rev bought him, silver inlaid with turquoise, shaped like a Hospitaler cross. He doesn’t care much about anything else he owns, though he favours fast horses and natty clothes, often dressing all in purple just to piss people prejudiced against the “frilly” off with his sheer vicious sense of style.