By Brian Asman
With her latest collection of horror fiction, In That Endlessness, Our End, Canadian writer Gemma Files delivers a panphobic meditation on what it means to be alone and, even worse, aware in an inscrutable universe. Less paranoid than honest, these fifteen tales faithfully depict an all-too-recognizable world in which literally nothing can be trusted. Threats come swiftly, silently, from the strangest of places—a house on a neighboring street, a viral video, a therapy session, even a transcript of an interview with a retired dentist, of all things. Files has a knack for finding something to fear in nearly everything and explicating that hidden terror in the most unexpected of ways.
“Bulb” is a wonderful and pure example of weird fiction, a speculative sub-genre defined by Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock as utilizing “elements of horror, science fiction and fantasy to showcase the . . . insignificance of human beings within a much larger universe populated by often malign powers . . . that greatly exceed the human capacities to understand or control them.” No vampires or werewolves here; rather, missing track lighting and a cold spot on the wall presage an encounter with something that lacks definition, something that can only be known by what it does, not what it is. Files employs a modern epistolary format to recount the encounter, a blend of emails, and a podcast interview, lending the story a chilling sort of authenticity. Presenting the story as a series of documents is effectively the literary equivalent of found footage. Through its presentation, “Bulb” becomes less a story we’re reading and more a story we’ve discovered—not just another compelling entry in a collection but evidence of the unknown. With a device like this, it’s easy to imagine we’re not holding a book we’ve purchased but a dossier we’ve found at the back of an old, dusty closet, perhaps in a deceased relative’s home, some relic of a vocation or interest of which we’d no prior knowledge. It’s a callback to Mary Shelley who couched her story of a modern Prometheus in letters from Robert Walton to his sister, all the better for Regency-era readers to suspend their disbelief.
The logline of “The Puppet Motel” sounds like a cringey gimmick—one could snarkily, albeit accurately, describe the story as concerning a haunted Airbnb—but its execution is anything but. There’s a timeliness to it, sure, but also a timelessness, and not just for the poor souls lost to the titular condo. The concept of Airbnb is both very old and very new (humans have been letting out rooms to strangers since they’ve had rooms to let), and Files taps into that feeling of being in a space which is not yours, where your right to exist never quite feels like a settled matter. After all, in a hotel room, reassuring evidence of the space’s purpose surrounds you, from the individually-wrapped bars of soap to the binder of room service options on the desk. By dint of the fact that an Airbnb is often someone’s home, one cannot quite shake the feeling of intrusion, that the real owners might come through the door at any time. “The Puppet Motel” plays upon this sense by having the narrator move from one space that’s not hers to another to yet another until these intrusions reach critical mass.
From moving houses to moving houses, nothing else in the collection proves quite as chilling as “Come Closer.” There are few things as reliable in our world as geography. While we might find ourselves lost, the mountains, forests, rivers, and especially houses around us helpfully remain in their appointed places. But nothing is reliable in Files’s world. The story begins when the narrator notices a peculiar house on a neighboring block that seems to be slowly but inexorably moving in the direction of her own. What really makes the story sing is that the protagonist is able to document this strange phenomenon through video. A lesser writer might have leaned fully into the prospect of the protagonist having a mental breakdown, kept the reader guessing until the end as to whether anything supernatural was happening at all. But that old literary shell game is not being played here. Evidence is obtained, presented, and, because it’s so improbable, largely dismissed by the protagonist’s friends/lovers until they’ve a chance to experience it for themselves. Because no matter how close we are with someone, there’s always bits of our experiences they can’t quite understand or believe.
Later in the collection, Files returns to this theme of disconnection from our intimates in “Distant Dark Places,” another standout. UFO cults, speculative astronomy, and Greek mythology collide, but the story’s really about the gulf of understanding between two former lovers. Files powerfully blends pseudoscience, relationship drama, and a thrilling plot into one of the more frantic page-turners in the collection.
The closer, “Cuckoo,” is a particularly unsettling offering, a recounting of the well-worn changeling myth framed as a conversation between some eldritch-adjacent being and a pair of parents who’re exceptionally disappointed in their offspring which also serves to put a finer point on the emotional escalation begun in “Come Closer” and carried through subsequent stories. The theme of disconnection is dialed up to eleven here—Files raises the emotional stakes by substituting an actual child for the friends and lovers in previous stories. The entire piece is a dare to the reader to sympathize with anyone, and boldly asks what’s worse, the faerie who snatch children in the middle of the night or the parents who, with a wink and a nod, tell the hunters which room the crib’s in.
Like any collection, there’s a handful of stories which don’t work as well as the others. The blended first- and second-person POVs in “Look Up” never quite coalesce into a compelling narrative. “Worm Moon” is also written in 2nd person, and though the body horror is lushly described, there’s not enough plot or character work to make it feel like anything but filler.
Files occasionally has a tendency towards preamble, burying the lede under pretty, mood-setting prose that can’t quite justify its own existence. In the previously mentioned “Come Closer,” the author forsakes a rather brilliant opening line—“The first time you take its picture, the house is on another street entirely . . . by June, it’s on your street”—and instead prefaces the story with a metaphorical prologue about wandering through the woods. Merely a paragraph, certainly, it only serves to delay the story’s commencement rather than slowing the pace once the story has properly begun.
Despite a pair of missteps which are possibly only recognizable as such due to the strength of the other thirteen entries, In That Endlessness, Our End is an inventive deep dive into the horrific possibilities couched in the most mundane objects, places, and people, sure to give even the most jaded horror fan something new to fear.
Brian Asman is a writer, editor, producer and actor from San Diego, CA. He’s the author of I’m Not Even Supposed to Be Here Today from Eraserhead Press and Nunchuck City and Jailbroke from Mutated Media. He’s recently published short stories in the anthologies Breaking Bizarro, Welcome to the Splatter Club and Lost Films, and comics in Tales of Horrorgasm. An anthology he co-edited with Danger Slater, Boinking Bizarro, was recently released by Death’s Head Press. He holds an MFA from UCR-Palm Desert. He’s represented by Dunham Literary, Inc. Max Booth III is his hype man.