The Church in the Mountains, by Gemma Files

“Ever find yourself remembering stuff you know can’t possibly be true?…I mean—things you think you saw once somewhere, like on TV or whatever, when you were a kid; spooky shit, disturbing, real nightmare fuel. Only you can’t tell if you actually really did see it, looking back, or somebody just told you about it, and it got inside you that way…if you even just dreamed it, maybe. Like the whole thing actually came from you, only you can’t remember how, or why.”

—Gemma Files, “The Church in the Mountains”

“…and last year an alleged Frankenstein on the screen would have made me drowse had not a posthumous sympathy for poor Mrs. Shelley made me see red instead. Ugh! And the screen Dracula in 1931—I saw the beginning of that in Miami, Fla.—but couldn’t bear to watch it drag to its full term of dreariness, hence walked out into the fragrant tropic moonlight!”

—H.P. Lovecraft to Farnsworth Wright, February 16, 1933

Today is Ash Wednesday, a day on which many Christians the world over will consider their own mortality and smudge ash on their foreheads as a memento mori. It is also February, which is Women in Horror Month. Could there be a more auspicious day on which to consider a story from horror maestra Gemma Files’ newest collection, IN THAT ENDLESSNESS, OUR END, which from its title onward seeks a teleology of human finitude? IN THAT ENDLESSNESS, OUR END is her fifth collection, this one having just been released by Grimscribe Press (2021), to whom I am grateful for a free e-arc in exchange for this honest review. Knowing that Ms. Files’ is, more than just a cinephile, a real scholar of cinema (you have read her amazing novel EXPERIMENTAL FILM, right?) I decided to review this story which not only features some Lovecraftian themes, but centers on a film. Lovecraft himself, I was a bit surprised to learn, was not a particular fan of the cinema. My surprise stems not so much from the fact that he went to movies and didn’t care for them so much as it does that he went to the movies at all. For a man who subsisted on beans, I would have thought the cinema an extravagance. Digging a bit deeper, it seems he went most often as a guest of Frank Belknap Long, and that reluctantly, describing the experience in his letters as needing to be “dragged.”

One does not have to spend much time among fellow Lovecraftians, particularly on the internet, before one comes across the often tongue-in-cheek supposition that HPL wasn’t writing fiction, but merely fictionalizing a reality humanity was not yet ready to grasp. (Sadly, it seems that for a few this isn’t very tongue-in-cheek at all.) Lovecraft himself toyed with the notion in stories like “Pickman’s Model” and the theme has been picked up by his successors, perhaps most successfully in Caitlin R. Kiernan’s “Pickman’s Other Model (1929),” expertly explored here by Bobby Derie. In “The Church in the Mountains,” Files puts her cinephilia to work for her and plumbs the same depths through the lens of film.

The story’s opening calls to mind the beginning scene of the 1931 Dracula Lovecraft walked out on, with a lone traveler arriving at a gothic site in the mountains. In this case though, it’s a young woman returning home after receiving news of her mother’s death. Her aunt, an evil step-mother type figure, greets her coldly and you begin to get a feel for how this story will go. Or so you think you do. Before you know it, an off-stage director calls “scene!” and the camera pans out enough that you, the reader, can tell what you just read was a part of a movie and not the story at all. Rather it was the story Sharla, our protagonist, was recalling. Files expertly layers these levels of narrative throughout, developing a pattern that from the outset upends a reader’s expectations and only deposits them on unsteady ground. It turns out she’s recalling the film because she’s trying to remember where she saw it, whether it’s from her childhood or maybe something she saw on TV reruns at some point. Or maybe even something she dreamed. Reality blurs in the way that it does when you can’t remember something precisely, and the further the story progresses, the fuzzier things get. By the end you are unsettled as a reader, unsure of where you stand in relation to the story and in that confusion there lies a sense a dread you were unaware was even being evoked. It’s masterfully done, but I have come to expect mastery from Gemma Files.

There’s an expository feel to the scenes from the movie which feels natural, but the feeling is entirely different in the Sharla scenes. (This becomes a difficult distinction by the end, but it’s still present.) Files’ write the latter scenes in dialogue-heavy way that draws you in and pulls you along. You’re a part of this conversation, this exploration, which makes it all the more disorienting when the scene changes. These two parts of the story are told with different voices and in the hands of a lesser writer would not so naturally be distinguished. But Files is a practiced hand and so even without the marked section breaks, this structure would be recognizable to a careful reader.

She bends tropes to her will in a way that increases their fearfulness and cosmicism. “…a haunting doesn’t have to be a ghost or rattling chains, a spooky old house, whatever—it could be a memory, an idea. The very definition of a haunting is something that keeps on coming back to you again and again.” Great. Thanks. Now I’m worried about my memories. Did I read that story about the creepy dude who haunted a video file passed around the internet, or did I actually see it? Her blend of vintage and modern is equally as well done, giving us a spooky, traditional gothic setting but also taking us into the back room of a VHS collector’s house. Though the more directly Lovecraftian elements (like cults, sacrifices, and horrible discoveries about the family) appear on the gothic section of her stage, it’s the modern setting that produces the most fear, again, as reality distorts. In mind-bending flurries, she shows us that “Every image is a story, every story a door, most especially those tales you aren’t supposed to tell at all, outside the walls of your family home…and doors open both ways, always.”

Exceeding. Art Credit: Pierre-Alain D.

Humanity is finite. In the most direct sense, our individual bodies will become dust, and most of us never quite get a grip on that. In the more cosmic sense, humanity has no guarantees of being eternal, as the Old Gent was fond of pointing out in his fiction. We are finite and we have spent lifetimes both fighting that fact and searching for meaning within it. At the beginning I highlighted a religious holy day because both religion and horror have explored human finitude, if from different angles. It’s an interesection in which I’m particularly keen on spending time. This collection represents a new exploration of that theme of finitude, asking us what must die that something new may be born? Is our reason for being to pave the evolutionary road for something greater? Is transcendence communal rather than individual? In addition to the present one, in stories like “This Is How It Goes,” and “Worm Moon” Files delves deep into the human psyche in search of answers. I can’t say for sure if Files’ finds the answers she’s looking for, but what I can say is that she certainly seems to suggest that the cycle of death into life is a necessary one. As long as that continues, there will be an endlessness of being, though we ourselves will meet our end. If you’re interested in that search, I cannot recommend IN THAT ENDLESSNESS, OUR END highly enough.

Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nub and Yeg,
~The Bibliothecar


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