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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

A Lot Of Preps Stared At Me: My Immortal and Parafiction

What do we want the author of My Immortal to be?

Jim Morrison is, of course, dead by now surely. He probably died among the lions he went to live with. You know, after he faked his own death.

Morrison, lead singer of The Doors, is one of the major Dead Rockstars, part of the elite group dead at 27 (my own current age, ominously enough). There's just enough weird circumstances surrounding his death to spawn a conspiracy theory: the Lizard King may have faked his own death and fled to Africa. Apparently at some point he joked about doing exactly that, and there's a bunch of sketchy things about the coroner's report and so on. Hence, speculation that the few witnesses were in cahoots with him, allowing him to abscond from the rockstar life to go hang with lions.

It's sort of the inverse of Paul McCartney's case. McCartney, of course, died in a car crash: he blew his mind out in a car, or, if you prefer, he was in a car crash and he lost his hair. The Walrus is mourned in the background of various tracks, sometimes forward sometimes backwards, as with the shouted "Paul is dead! Really really dead!" on the Sgt. Pepper's reprise. And, of course, if you play Revolution 9 backwards you can clearly hear an audiocollage rendering of the fatal crash and the funeral. Hell, maybe that's what the song is doing forwards, too. It's pretty equally harrowing either way, honestly.

Jim Morrison being "dead" of course means that he can't slip secrets onto Doors records about not being dead, the way the surviving Beatles and the Paul McCartney doppleganger could hide secrets throughout their discography. There's less of a game to the Jim Morrison conspiracy, I think--less opportunity to uncover new hints and clues. And yet, tantalizingly, the possibility remains that we might catch a glimpse of the truth. It's probably not true... but what if it was, and what if you stumbled upon some new clue?

Or, to pick another example... what if Tara Gilesbie, infamous author of My Immortal, started posting again?

A decade old now, My Immortal is a Harry Potter fanfiction posted originally on perhaps best remembered for the constant misspelling of the name of its protagonist Enoby Ebony Dark'ness Dementia Raven Way, and for the stunning, opening description of said protagonist:

Hi my name is Ebony Dark'ness Dementia Raven Way and I have long ebony black hair (that's how I got my name) with purple streaks and red tips that reaches my mid-back and icy blue eyes like limpid tears and a lot of people tell me I look like Amy Lee (AN: if u don't know who she is get da hell out of here!). I'm not related to Gerard Way but I wish I was because he's a major fucking hottie. I'm a vampire but my teeth are straight and white. I have pale white skin. I'm also a witch, and I go to a magic school called Hogwarts in England where I'm in the seventh year (I'm seventeen). I'm a goth (in case you couldn't tell) and I wear mostly black. I love Hot Topic and I buy all my clothes from there. For example today I was wearing a black corset with matching lace around it and a black leather miniskirt, pink fishnets and black combat boots. I was wearing black lipstick, white foundation, black eyeliner and red eye shadow. I was walking outside Hogwarts. It was snowing and raining so there was no sun, which I was very happy about. A lot of preps stared at me. I put up my middle finger at them.

It should be clear from this passage that the fic was the apex of a particular mall goth subset of fandom culture. The opening passage's lengthy description of Enoby's looks is notable for how easily it can be modified to mock other characters or stories. We'll come back to this. And, of course, there's the sheer poetry of the last two lines. Not just "some preps" or a more smoothly idiomatic phrase like "a bunch of preps" but "a lot of preps." Just slightly off. The two lines together have this great iambic patter that briefly reverses in "STARED at me," as though to convey the effrontery of these lots of preps daring to gaze upon Ebnoy's goffic beauty. And there's the shortness of the lines. Cause and effect. The preps stare. She puts up her middle finger at them. It's all weird and stilted to be sure and I swear to god I didn't set out to write ANY of this, but man, when you look at it closely there's something genuinely fascinating about the way the text is constructed.

Maybe this is part of the fascination. It makes sense that something with some... deep aesthetic appeal, some atonal brilliance, would become the memetic badfic, the myth, the legend, My Immortal. Things like loss.jpg have a similar weird clash of obvious, hilarious failure paired with weirdly elevated qualities. Loss.jpg in particular wouldn't be what it is without its silence, or without its iconic composition that can be abstracted so easily. What My Immortal offers the meme curator, though, is an author, Tara Gilesbie, who is ostentatiously present right up until she vanishes completely from the Internet, disappearing off to hang out with the lions. To flounce on stage, get all the preps to stare, then disappear without a trace... how could Tara fail to become a fascination?

Furthermore, how could the apparent reappearance of Tara fail to attract attention?

A post went live on Tumblr a week or so ago claiming to have discovered an old forgotten Wordpress account belonging to "XXXblodyblaktearz666XXX" aka Tara Gilesbie. Astoundingly, the wordpress had been recently updated:

I guess nobody remembered that I was on FictionPress, too.

So, hi. I’m the girl you all knew as Tara. My account really was hacked (twice!), once in 2006 and again in 2009. As of 2017, Support still doesn’t answer my requests to regain it, although I can’t say I blame them. They’re probably scared I’ll flood their site with poorly written sex scenes again.

Now, this information was posted by Tumblr user "marauders4evr" which is itself an incredible name, referring, of course to Wormtail, Mooney, Padfoot, and Prongs--James Potter and his friends from Harry Potter. Marauders4evr's post quickly prompted a response from someone going by the equally breathtaking name "thischarmingmothman":

You know, you almost had me here. This is good. There’s some audacity in what you’ve done, because it took me longer than it should have, and the help of talking to blackflirtlarping on Discord in panic mode, to discredit it, and usually when a “real Tara” pops up I’ve identified eight problems with their story in the span of like a minute. I was legitimately ready to send off a PM to this account asking if the story was fake or not, because I have a 14,000 word essay on why it’s fake that if disproven would destroy my life and reputation. But, mm, no, this. This isn’t right at all.

The core of thischarmingmothman's rebuttal (see the link above for the full comment chain) is that the account is utterly unknown to the Internet, or was until it showed up on the wiki. Mothman's theory is that in fact the fictionpress account originally had "a very different name until recently"--an existing account from so long ago was taken and repurposed in order to... what, exactly? Capitalize on Tara's celebrity, but how exactly is never really explained. Still, Mothman does point out perhaps the most interesting part of the blog's timing, accusing it of "coming about to cash in on the popularity of the Lani Sarem debacle in what is a too sweet, too perfect coincidence."

The Lani Sarem debacle involves... this actress. An actress who's allegedly slated to be the lead star of a movie, based on a book, that she supposedly wrote. It's a Young Adult novel, part of a planned franchise naturally, that apparently involves a love triangle naturally, and I guess urban fantasy? Maybe? It's actually kind of weirdly difficult to get a straight account of what the book is actually about, and I'm going to be real, my patience for looking up this information wore thin after about 60 seconds, because the book itself and its contents are practically immaterial to the case at hand.
See, it looks increasingly like the publishers of this book have scammed their way onto the NYT best seller list. They allegedly went to a bunch of bookstores across the country and requested copies of this book, in numbers low enough that they wouldn't be reported by the bookstores as corporate purchases, and in aggregate (because people don't buy books) that was enough to boost them to the top of the list. This is a strategy right wing fuckwits do on the regular, buying their own books and giving them away as promotions or whatever in order to give them something fake to boast about.

The books contents are relevant in one particular respect, however. A few people managed to track down copies and began sharing passages that sounded eerily familiar: 

I put up my middle finger at them.

It's this connection, which the Internet latched onto immediately, that spawned the posts by the entity I'll call Tara′ for the sake of distinction. In fact, Tara′ specifically dispels rumors that she is Lani Sarem:

- Updated: 8/27/17, 10:55 PM EST -

Because I've received several messages asking this, and predict I may receive more, I'll answer it here. No, I am not Lani Sarem. Really bad fiction simply tends to read the same.

She's not wrong, of course. That's part of why My Immortal is such a memetic success: it's so easy to use it to drag other things for having My Immortal-like writing.

But the timing is remarkable. Could this really have been the one event that prompted Tara to return? Not everyone was convinced, and in typical Tumblr fashion much of the commentary on the original post is a series of barbed back-and-forth arguments about whether or not marauders4evr is a scam artist.

And then... Tara′ posted again.

The substance of the post is an account of various hacks, some of the history of the posting of the fic, and another thank you to the fans of My Immortal. There's a few interesting moments within the narrative of this post. First, there's the lengthy complaint about, which Tara′ describes as a "body without a head", noting that the leadership of the site has ignored her attempts to retrieve her account for all these years. There is also some more detailed discussion of the Lani Sarem debacle, and finally, astonishingly, theatrically, Tara′ signs off with the following:

"P.S. - Undyne is my wife, HAHAHA, SUCK IT HATERS."

There's... a lot to unpack here.

Much of the discussion of the Lani Sarem thing revolves around another YA book, entitled The Hate U Give. This novel was the previous top seller before Sarem's book came along and deposed it. It's a story about a black girl who witnesses a cop shooting her (unarmed) friend. Tara′ describes this as an important book and while I can't speak to its writing quality, because I haven't read it, Tara′ seems to be obviously correct. It's so timely, and its rise to the top of the bestseller list seems so remarkable, that it seems worth defending against the underhanded manipulations that are important and significant only insofar as they demonstrate how utterly morally bankrupt our entertainment cycles are.


Therein lies the attraction of Tara′.

After the second post there's a bunch more back and forth and accusations. Hilariously at one point marauders4evr posts her own browser history to demonstrate that she couldn't have edited the fictionpress account into the My Immortal wiki, where she claims to have found it. Someone ELSE does some digging and discovers that whoever added the links is apparently a mod, who got the links from some other unknown party, possibly Tara′.

And then, in another stunning twist, mothman returns to the narrative to proclaim his great mistake. In a dramatic post he recounts delving to the heart of the fictionpress account, approaching the point of debunking the account once and for all, and...

...finding the real Tara.

Tara′, mothman declares, is who she claims to be. Marauders4evr was simply a hapless bearer of the news from the wiki, and there was no deep scam. It's all real. Tara is still out there, watching us.

Not only do I not know whether or not these posts are real, I'm actually somewhat indifferent to their realness. The end of this story can't possibly be as exciting as all the twists and turns it's taken along the way. What really stands out to me in all this is the description by multiple different people of Tara as a cryptid. (Including Mothman himself, no less.) Cryptids occupy this weird liminal space between realness and fakeness. This is particularly interesting, as I've discussed recently in another article, when we're talking about basal cryptids, evolutionary throwbacks, extinct animals, alternate mutations... creatures that are supposed to have died but could still be out there.

This hovering between realness and fakeness is also somewhat similar to "parafiction." Four years ago (god), I wrote about this term for a particular type of hoax-based artwork and media. Parafiction hovers between lies and truth and draws its power from the revelation of the possible fakeness of a thing. It deceives, right up until it doesn't, and communicates via that transition. It's illusionistic in that sense, but rather than being illusionistic in a painterly sense, attempting to generate a hyper-real eye-deceiving 3D rendering on a 2D surface, it attempts to deceive through artifacts and documentation and ancillary materials.

This is a bit different than a conspiracy theory so comparing it to Morrison and Paul isn't entirely correct. After all, those stories are spread by sincere believers. And yet, aren't songs like Glass Onion where Lennon offers, "here's another clue for you all--the walrus was Paul!" parafictional trolling of the highest order? Perhaps Jim Morrison didn't set out to make his own death into a narrative like this, but his charismatic performances, tendency to howl things like "YOU CANNOT PETITION THE LORD WITH PRAYER," and use of the "Lizard King" moniker retroactively read a lot like various White Album clues do, like artifacts from some deeper mystic revelation. But, they could also just be bullshit.

The possibility of bullshit is revelatory in itself. There's a lot about this set of posts that seem particularly convenient. Tara′ is undeniably a master of the mythos of My Immortal. This is probably most visible with the "Undyne is my wife" ending, a reference to the martial fish lady who's friends with Sans Undertale, the titular hero of the game Undertale. This is a wink and a nod, high theater undeniably, but what exactly the wink and nod mean is unclear. Is this Tara herself saying, "here's another clue for you all, the Walrus was Paul," giving us the key to the secret of My Immortal? Or is this Tara′ saying, "look at how well I know who you want Tara to be, I know what kind of person you imagine her becoming and I can toy with you by saying silly things like 'the Walrus was Paul.'" You cannot petition the lord with prayer!
If Paul is dead and Jim is alive and Tara married Undyne, then it's not trolling, it's simply the bizarre reality appearing before the audience, for those who dare to see it. But it says so much, I think, that the posts play so well to particular hopes, ideas, and fandom preoccupations. I mean, what a summary of the culture! Not just the posts themselves but the "marauders4evr" name, and the fact that the debunker's name is based on a Smiths song punning on freaking Mothman! That's incredible! It's all such a flotsam, such an accretion of fandom culture.

And then the posts themselves. Calling a body without a head? Isn't this what everyone kinda thinks anyway? Here's Tara herself, returned from the digital void to tell us that yeah, kinda sucks! And of course there's the "Oh I forgot I had this account"--it's believable precisely because it plays upon our experiences with being part of the Early Internet.

And then there's the Lani Sarem thing. The author of the ultimate badfic has returned to tell these 20something bloggers that yes, their YA lit fandom beef is right, and this is some bullshit. Which, hey, in fairness, gaming the system and disrupting an important work in order to boost some Hollywood dreck is clearly some bullshit. Tara′ is entirely correct. But to have a Tara return from exile to say that it's gross... well, it has a kind of theological flair to it that's really nice.

What's fascinating about all this to me is that as soon as it was "debunked," even if the debunking was incorrect, I feel that the whole chain of events took on a parafictional quality, because it began to do the work of hoax art even if it was not in fact a hoax. The great power of hoax art is that it can reveal something of our preconceptions and our desires through the revelation of its fakeness. This is particularly true of parafanfiction, the term I coined for fiction created in response to works that do not, themselves, exist. In parafanfiction especially we can see a declaration of need, a highlighting of the void where something cool, inspiring, or validating could be, but isn't. This dynamic can be found in individual pieces of parafiction as well, and I think that it is present here. By experiencing the posts as a hoax, we experience the revelation of what we want Tara to be: the kind of person who sticks up for The Hate U Give and married Undyne. (I leave it to you to decide what the Jim Morrison and Paul McCartney narratives tell us we want.)

Here's the best part of this revelation: nowhere in the posts does Tara′ say whether or not My Immortal is serious or a troll fic.
Not only is this set of posts, as a parafictional performance unto itself, unresolved--we don't know yet whether Tara′ is Tara--the actual final nature of My Immortal is yet unresolved as well. Tara′'s final brilliance is in keeping this information hidden. This is the central question of My Immortal scholarship, and it remains incomplete within these posts. I think that Tara′ recognizes that the least satisfying aspect of a return of Tara would be to have these things resolved.

So much of the post content, in fact, is designed to sustain the many questions surrounding Tara. There's nothing up till the point where Undyne appears as a character to suggest that there's gay Undertale shit coming, and part of why that moment plays so well is because it plays with our desire to keep the mystery going. This has simply reshuffled the board, readjusted the terrain of that mystery. It's managing to be a continuation of the plot after so much time, providing a veneer of closure while actually doing nothing of the sort and simply hinting at possibilities that are even more baffling and fascinating.

As parafiction what this reveals is the purpose of the possible hoax. We want Tara to be a cryptid. We want the author of My Immortal to exist in that weird liminal space between being there and being absent. We want her to be a ghost. Tara is our Internet history phantom limb. And in fact, one of the throughlines here is the suggestion that she is always watching us--that she has a tumblr, that she is one of us, that she appreciates the struggle of authors trying to express themselves, and so on.

Derrida talks about a "Visor Effect" in his book Specters of Marx. He's working with Hamlet here, and talking about Hamlet's father's ghost as a kind of metaphor. This ghost wears a helmet with a visor down. The ghost can observe Hamlet but cannot be observed in return, not definitively anyway. His identity is inherently occluded. For Tara there's a similar visor effect, and it's one I think we're generally happy with. We want her to be observing us but not necessarily in a definitive way. We want her to continue being present without coming fully into view.

In that sense both the original posts and their construction, and the "debunkings" that followed, are all necessary to our experience of this piece as a parafictional object, because they are constantly pushing this, or any, Tara Gilesbie back into the phantasmagoric, into the realm of spooky goffic darkness. She is our rockstar, she is our Jim Morrison gone to live with the lions... or maybe not. Gazing into that possibility is infinitely more interesting than simply being handed the answer to all our questions.

A lot of us stare at her.

She puts up her middle finger at us.

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