It’s been a wild week.
For those of you who have not been keeping up with the never-ending saga of Handbook For Mortals, a book that scammed its way to the top of the New York Times YA Bestseller List, I implore you to catch up. A mere summary of its events cannot do the madness justice. As Stefon from SNL would say, it’s got everything: Bulk-buying companies, Glory from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, geek conventions, the kid from Rookie of the Year, Blues Traveler, Twilight, and even a little art plagiarism. There were moments throughout our investigation when we thought things had sufficiently calmed down enough to close the case and call it a day, but it seems this curiosity is doomed to become ever stranger with each passing day.
On Wednesday, we were alerted to a FictionPress post on an account under the name ‘XXXblodyblaktearz666XXX’, long believed to be the work of the infamous Tara Gilesbie, author of My Immortal, oft-considered to be the worst fan-fiction of all time. The profile stated that the creator joined the site in March 2006, and My Immortal was written between 2006 and 2007. We’ll get into the madness of this fic later, but it’s notable that Tara, as they are known, updated this page to let everyone know they were still going, and then a few weeks later, they provided an extra detail:
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. No, I’m not on Facebook. Or Deviantart. Or MySpace. Or Youtube. (Etc.) I am on Tumblr. But I use my real name there, and it’s not Tara.
Imagine writing something so heinous and destined for infamy that even the writer of My Immortal wants to be excluded from your narrative. Tara is savage!
I told you, it’s been a long week.
One of the many things that surprised me about this update was the number of people on Twitter who ended up asking me what My Immortal was. I had assumed it was as much a part of the internet vernacular as memes and blocking Nazis. Everyone who’s ever read or written fan-fic does so under the ebony shadow of this beast, one that’s baffled, enraged and entertained in equal measure, and one that remains a rare unsolved mystery of the online age. It’s inspired web series, academic analyses, and even its own fan-fic. To this day, you can start a riot in the right fandom circles by asking whether the fic was in on the joke or not. Handbook For Mortals may be the great literary scam of the year, but it doesn’t have a patch on the glories of My Immortal.
My Immortal was published over a decade ago, which is eons in internet time, and almost immediately it inspired conversation in the Harry Potter fandom, one of the great online fandoms and one that’s familiar with drama. The dreaded tale opens with the introduction of its hero, Ebony “Enoby” Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way, a 17-year-old witch, who is also a vampire and student at Hogwarts in England (not Scotland). She likes Hot Topic, My Chemical Romance, and telling preps where to stick it. Over the next 22,700 or so words, the story delves into the battle between the goths and preps, a bisexual vampire love triangle, rock concerts, self-harm, time travel, bad sex, and not much to do with the actual world of Harry Potter. Characters’ names change spellings frequently, young Voldemort is in a rock band, and Dumbledore at one point bursts into a room where Ebony and Draco are fucking by screaming, ‘WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING YOU MOTHERFUKERS!’
This doesn’t even scratch the surface of the drama that surrounded the fic itself: Doxxing efforts, hacks, the ever delightful Encyclopaedia Dramatica, and a whole host of nastiness weighed heavily over what was really just one of countless FF.net accounts spinning out the same yarn. If you want a full rundown of that, I highly recommend Vulture’s more comprehensive piece on the fic’s history.
If you’re a lover of fan fiction, you’re probably used to having to justify your love of it to people who dismiss it as derivative schlock or masturbatory hack work. It’s taken a long time for fan-works and the creative side of fandom to gain some kind of legitimacy as a form of storytelling, an issue made all the harder by things like 50 Shades of Grey opening the floodgates to further questions over dilution of copyright and fair use. Fan fiction, particularly in the Potter fandom, could be an incredible means of creativity for fans to explore new ideas in their favourite stories, or offer different points of view the work didn’t offer. Some fics became so adored that fans adopted them as an unofficial part of the canon. Fans are very protective of their favourite fics and the limitless possibilities it can offer.
Perhaps that’s why My Immortal was so hard to ignore: It took every element fandom hates and gloried in it. Every marker of bad fic is here - obvious self-insert original characters, stilted prose, indecipherable grammatical errors, cloying contemporary pop culture references, bastardising of the canon and its ensemble, and some of the more interesting sex scenes in modern fiction. You hate those darn Mary Sues? Well, wait until you meet Ebony! My Immortal contained it all, to the point where many wondered if that was the point of it all, and theorised that this was all just a social experiment designed to mock the worst indulgences of fan fiction. For some, the story was too well engineered to be anything but a big joke, but many dispute that claim, arguing that the story is too long, too dedicated, and too realistically like the uncontrolled screed of a teenage girl to be anything other than what it’s presenting itself to be.
As a former teenage girl who did write fan fiction (and still occasionally does, no I will not link you to it), I know that thrill of the first fic. I remember the joy of unlocking what seemed like a treasure chest of possibilities to my adolescent self upon discovering sites like FF.net and realising I too could make new stories in my favourite worlds. At that age, you have the right balance of feverish intensity, blind self-belief and an utter lack of self-awareness to just get all those words out of your head and onto the page without a second thought for spell-check, plot holes, or how the world will perceive it. There were times as a teenager where I could sit down and just write for hours, never stopping until my parents told me to stop bashing the keyboard so loudly. I never feared an edit, mostly because I never edited, and my only worry was that my fingers wouldn’t move fast enough to keep up with the highway of thoughts zooming around my brain. I totally buy that My Immortal is a real fic because I’m sure there’s a possibility 16-year-old me would have given it a go. I liked Harry Potter, I liked vampires, I liked My Chemical Romance (so did my dad, it was a family thing): Why wouldn’t I write that?
Nowadays, people have warmed more to My Immortal. It is the grand high priestess of bad fan fiction, the warning sign to us all, but also the strange icon that we feel oddly defensive of. Generally, mainstream media sees fan fiction as something to gawk at in mockery, usually aimed at teenage girls and older women in the same way our love of soap operas, romance novels, and true crime are derided. Fan fiction sucks because one journalist read a bit of My Immortal and now he feels he has the experience to make that call, just like all the dudes who skimmed bits of Twilight and declared all teenage girls to be stupid for liking it.
I hope Tara, whoever they are, has a good life, one full of happiness and creativity and a little sense of humour. She seems proud of her work, perhaps softened by the passage of time or the inevitability of growing up, and I hope she remains anonymous. The work is much better and easier to consume when we let the mystery be.
But hey, it’s still hilarious that she wants everyone to know that she didn’t write Handbook For Mortals.