Her name was Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way: vampire, witch, time traveler, sex bomb. When she first appeared online in 2006, she was wearing a black corset, a leather miniskirt, pink fishnets, black combat boots, red eye shadow, and had purple streaks in her hair. In time, she would come to represent the best and the worst of online fandom.
Five years after the turn of the 21st century, fan fiction had long since migrated online, and many writers had coalesced around the sweeping FanFiction.net archive, thought to have nearly 1.2 million accounts in 2006. While strict about banning overly graphic stories or fiction that used copyrighted songs, the archive’s sheer size and lack of curation meant thousands of terrible, cliché-ridden stories were stored along with their higher quality counterparts. Following these were inevitable parodies in the tradition of “A Trekkie’s Tale,” which created and skewered the wish-fulfilling “Mary Sue.” And then there was something more enigmatic: fiction so bad it was barely readable, created by authors who straddled the line between fictional characters and real-world trolls.
Enoby, Evony, Egogy, and Tara
Trollfic, as pop culture-annotation site "TV Tropes" would call it, spans many years and many genres: wherever there were fans, there was room for stories that spurned all laws of grammar, character building, and canon in order to rile those fans up. But 2006 would prove a turning point: it was the year of Harry Potter fan fiction "My Immortal," written by a teenager named Tara Gilesbie. Tara was a self-described "goff" who liked My Chemical Romance, Hot Topic, and Evanescence — the latter so much that she named her story after one of their songs. She also seemed to be in the midst of an extremely awkward adolescence.
The struggle between good and evil in the wizarding world became a pitched battle between "goffs" and "preps"
In Gilesbie’s less-than-capable hands, the struggle between good and evil in the wizarding world became a pitched battle between "goffs" and "preps," frequently interrupted by detailed physical descriptions of protagonist Ebony (variously called Enoby, Evony, Egogy, and Tara.) But the real star of "My Immortal" was its author. From the beginning, Tara was telling insufficiently gothic readers to "get da hell out," and she soon started using copious author’s notes to defend her spelling, dialogue, and bizarre reworkings of major characters.
On the night of the concert I put on my black lace-up boots with high heels. Underneath them were ripped red fishnets. Then I put on a black leather minidress with all this corset stuff on the back and front. I put on matching fishnet on my arms. I straightened my hair and made it look all spiky. I felt a little depressed then, so I slit one of my wrists. I read a depressing book while I waited for it to stop bleeding and I listened to some GC. I painted my nails black and put on TONS of black eyeliner. Then I put on some black lipstick. I didn’t put on foundation because I was pale anyway. I drank some human blood so I was ready to go to the concert.
I went outside. Draco was waiting there in front of his flying car. He was wearing a Simple Plan t-shirt (they would play at the show too), baggy black skater pants, black nail polish and a little eyeliner (AN: A lot fo kewl boiz wer it ok!).
"Hi Draco!" I said in a depressed voice.
"Hi Ebony." he said back. We walked into his flying black Mercedes-Benz (the license plate said 666) and flew to the place with the concert. On the way we listened excitedly to Good Charlotte and Marilyn Manson. We both smoked cigarettes and drugs. When we got there, we both hopped out of the car. We went to the mosh pit at the front of the stage and jumped up and down as we listened to Good Charlotte.
The story was "edited" by Tara’s friend Raven, who shared her dark world view and love of My Chemical Romance. Tara created an in-story alter-ego for Raven and thanked her effusively before every segment. Then, in Chapter 12, everything changed: author’s notes indicate that Raven flaked out on reading a chapter and stole Tara’s sweater, setting off a fight that would see Ebony’s middle name changed from "Raven" to "Tara," Raven’s in-story doppelganger killed, and the prose quality go from bad to worse — even after the two rekindled their friendship, it never recovered.
With the story now pulled from FanFiction.net, it’s hard to say exactly how many views it got. Anecdotally, its popularity skyrocked quickly, with around 8,000 angry reviewers flaming Gilesbie, and Gilesbie striking back with equal vitriol. As it did, readers started asking the obvious question: was Tara Gilesbie for real?
There were some indications "My Immortal" could have been genuine. Keeping track of Tara’s social media presence, writing the story, and writing even more terrible fiction on Raven’s own FanFiction.net account would show serious dedication for a troll, and it wasn’t as if Tara was the only bad writer on the site.
The story, though, just seemed too over the top to be real. "Tara" couldn’t keep her protagonist’s name straight for more than a few words, but she made oddly obscure references to Tom Bombadil and Socrates. Her author’s notes started repeating, while the prose and story got progressively surreal, culminating in Ebony and Marty McFly time-traveling to an anachronistic version of the 1980s where Tara implores her readers to ignore references to Marilyn Manson and 2002 horror film The Ring. Even the most dedicated mall goth probably wouldn’t have her protagonist gleefully pull out a Hot Topic loyalty card.
If you subscribe to the troll theory, "My Immortal" isn’t just an alternate take on Harry Potter or even a poorly written mess, it’s a satire on the teenage search for identity. Ebony is a staunch "nonconformist" in a school where half the students are just like her, claiming to be dark and misunderstood while watching whimsical Tim Burton films and enjoying the attentions of almost every male character. Her clothing descriptions are like a goth version of the ridiculous outfits in American Psycho. Tara herself moons over bisexual boys, but lashes out at critics with homophobic slurs. Instead of an unreliable narrator like Holden Caulfield, we’re getting an unreliable author, denouncing preps instead of phonies.
In fact, My Immortal resonates with me more than I’d like. I laugh at it now, but my teenage iteration spent years picking the perfect depressing button at Hot Topic, deriding more popular kids for their highlighted hair and Abercrombie and Fitch shirts, thinking myself a rebel for making Korn and Metallica logos in Rhino 3D. I wrote my own self-insert characters, who wore black vinyl and MC’d for rock bands in the dismal future. Sure, I spelled their names right every time, but it was the same fantasy, and just as silly.
Tara’s story would never be finished. After almost 40 chapters, a hacker broke into her account and posted a fake coda, killing off Ebony and sending her to a preppy hell. Once she’d reclaimed her account, Ebony posted a few more instalments, then announced she was "leeving dubya [possibly Dubai]", promising another chapter when she was settled. She would never return.
Was the hacker real, or just another character? It’s still not really clear. Either way, her, Raven’s, and Tara’s identities remain a mystery. On the off chance Tara exists, she’s likely in her late teens or early 20s today. Look for her online, and you’ll find Facebook profiles, DeviantArt accounts, MySpace pages, and a full sequel to "My Immortal." Nearly all have been confirmed fake.
It is not uncomplete
While Tara Gilesbie was running Ebony through her paces, the world of video games was going through its own renaissance. Game fiction had its own weird conventions: characters were often little more than placeholders, and writers had to work around the repetitive fighting and puzzle-solving that peppered the stories. If you just cut out all the gameplay, what were you left with? Apparently, enough for two anthologies.
Budding author Peter Chimaera published his first story in 2002. "DIGIMON SAVEZ THE WROLD 1111" weighed in at two chapters and 165 words; a master of brevity, Chimaera could resolve crises in the very fabric of reality with a few broken sentences. His work all but dared readers to say it wasn’t a real story: "HEY THERE IS AN SECOND CHAPTER," he wrote above the 10-line "Resident Deadly." "YOU HAVE TO PRES ON THE SECOND CHAPTER TO READ IT OKAY IT IS NOT UNCOMPLETE." Peter Chimaera didn’t simply transcribe video game (and movie) plots, he wrote tragedies — he just did it with all the enthusiasm and expressiveness of an instruction manual. An action movie or video game might end by implying some life-affirming sex between heroes. In Chimaera’s world, "they hatd sex but it didnt go so well. The end."
A doomed space marine, fights demons at the instruction of his superior — only to be finally told that "you are the demons."
Chimaera’s work remained largely ignored for years. But in 2006, a user on the site YTMND posted a dramatic reading of a piece called "Doom: Repercussions of Evil." The story was the zenith of Chimaera’s ouvre: John Stalvern, a doomed space marine, fights demons at the instruction of his superior — only to be finally told that "you are the demons."
"Repercussions of Evil" works as well as it does because under the hilariously terrible writing, it reads like the cliff notes to a surprisingly reasonable — if clichéd — story, right down to the absurdly portentous title. One fan created a rewritten, expanded version in which John learns that by seeking glory in space, he abandoned his father and Earth to a demonic invasion (the plot of Doom 2.) "He’d killed his father without even laying a hand on him," John realizes, "running away to the stars." He is, in short, the demons.
Whatever the story’s draw, people responded. They paid homage to "Repercussions of Evil" with comics, live-action films, even folk songs, turning "you are the demons" into an endlessly cloneable catchphrase — in the heat of the 2008 election, I wrote my own variation, starring John McCain and ending with "No, John. You are the Democrats." The story’s final line was given the honor of becoming a TV Tropes section. Chimaera used his notoriety to release two self-published story collections, beginning with the Peter Chimaera book of hsitorical faFfiction. It’s a fair bet that they’re more popular than the actual Doom novelizations.
One of the worst things ever written
As Peter Chimaera’s star was rising, a competitor appeared: an eight-year-old French Canadian boy who went by "Squirrelking." Squirrelking, like Chimaera, had a love of video games and a short attention span. His passion, apparently, was filling in the pesky gaps in characters’ genealogies; over the course of his career, he would write about Solid Snake’s son, Cloud Strife’s brother, and Gordon Freeman’s brother, nephew, and sister-in-law.
Squirrelking was the Cormac McCarthy of terrible fan fiction
But his real talent was surrealistic prose that could make the blandest event incredible. Squirrelking was the Cormac McCarthy of terrible fan fiction, stringing together characters’ often nonsensical actions in malapropism-laden run-on sentences. His first story, the 2006 "Half Life: Full Life Consequences," flies past repetition and into a kind of zen. "Its a good day to do what has to be done by me," begins a protagonist’s inspiring monologue. Important moments are invariably preceded by a backflip. In the horrific town of Ravenholm, even the pants — and presumably also the plants — are dead.
The "Full Life Consequences" saga would continue for three more installments, bolstered by an ecosystem of people who avidly waited to turn his fan fiction into something more. Machinima filmmakers and animators came out with competing Squirrelking adaptations, starting with several videos set to a dramatic reading of the first story. After the fourth and final segment was released, a dedicated fan used the Garrys Mod sandbox tool to create a 20-minute animated action short, roughly a third of which was a heavily choreographed fight scene starring protagonist John Freeman. Peter Chimaera would even write his own Half-Life story, though he denied it had anything to do with "Full Life Consequences."
Why can't I be normal?
By then, though, he wasn’t Peter Chimaera anymore. The moniker had been claimed by Tom "HeIsAnEvilGenius" White, known for a web series covering absurd video games and other facets of nerd culture. White posted links to the stories at his main site and started collaborating with other writers, joking about people who offered serious constructive criticism or insulted his poor grammar. Squirrelking stepped forward not much later: he was a member of Something Awful who had set out to prove he could make something "so mind-numbingly bad that it stands the test of time as one of the worst things ever written." Though Peter Chimaera asked him to co-write a story, "Squirrelking" declined. "That part of me is dead," he wrote.
The general consensus now is that Gilesbie, too, was a troll, but her identity remains enigmatic. If "My Immortal" is a parody, it’s one that shows real familiarity with Harry Potter fandom. Tara is a nearly classic Mary Sue, and the story frequently hews to tropes that are laughably common in the series’s fan base and bad fan fiction in general. "Im good at too many things!" Ebony wails at one point. "WHY CAN’T I JUST BE NORMAL? IT’S A FUCKING CURSE!" Peter Chimaera and Squirrelking, by contrast, tended to milk their sheer ignorance of plot and character development, along with the evocatively awful spelling, for laughs.
All three had a complicated relationship to the larger fan fiction community. Tara Gilesbie and Peter Chimaera were in a constant tug of war with FanFiction.net, which deletes stories with poor grammar, spelling, and capitalization ("using only capital letters in the story title, summary, or content is not only incorrect but also a disregard for the language itself"). In the larger world, "fan fiction" is a punchline: it’s what teenage girls write to moon over fictional characters or how uncreative nerds escape reality. Why make things worse by confirming people’s assumptions?
The parodies, of course, were often based on those same assumptions. "In 2006 I was first exposed to the sub-genre of intellectual garbage known as ‘fan fiction,’" began the man behind Squirrelking in his big reveal. Tom White described Peter Chimaera as "your typical fan-fiction nut who never read anything with more than 15 pages, has an attention span of about six minutes depending on what he's eaten in the past 12, and despite having English as a first language, just can't figure out those pesky rules of spelling and grammar." A bevy of Harry Potter fan stories besides "My Immortal" parody the self-inserted characters and hackneyed plots of the fandom’s worst offenders.
These same authors, though, confirm how fantastic fanfic can be. They’re derivations of derivations that inspire even more derivations: "My Immortal" alone has dozens of fan drawings and comics, a web series, and fiction that places Ebony into alternate universes. If you expand your definition, Tara Gilesbie’s many impersonators are writing their own takes on a character created by someone else. This isn’t just fiction spurred by wish-fulfillment or a lack of creativity. It’s about the desire to take an idea and reinterpret or expand on it, even if that’s just dragging it to its logical, terrible, hilarious conclusion. Even Tom White wrote his own "serious" fan fiction under another account.
The uncomfortable fourth wall
If fan fiction is about negotiating where a canonical story ends and your original fiction begins, trollfic moves outward: at what point can you safely place a line around something and say "that’s the author" or "that’s the text"? Narrators address the audience not to to break the fourth wall, but because they just aren’t capable of writing a scene without an external reference point. At one point, Ebony sees a "horrible man with red eyes" flying towards her. "He didn’t have a nose (basically like Voldemort in the movie)," she says. She then presents the dramatic reveal of his identity. Spoiler: it’s Voldemort.
More than anything, trollfic forces the artificiality of what we write to the forefront. In their little world, a character might be the coolest person ever, throwing out one-liners and saving friends from certain death, all while wearing amazing clothes. It’s a fantasy we’ve all had at one time or another, but the authors undercut it at every turn, making us see how silly it all looks when the rest of the world can’t join us in suspending disbelief.
There’s an unmistakable undercurrent of callousness in much troll fic. Sometimes it’s explicit: the creator of Squirrelking wrote his first story to demonstrate just how stupid fan-fiction writers really were. The larger genre, though, still dares its readers to laugh at someone’s creative attempts, while making it unclear whether they’re mocking a fictitious avatar or a real-life kid.
A character might be the coolest person ever, throwing out one-liners and saving friends from certain death, all while wearing amazing clothes
Decades before "My Immortal," the science fiction world was holding dramatic readings of "The Eye of Argon," an overwrought and egregiously written imitation of a "Conan the Barbarian" story. But its author, Jim Theis, was a real author who wrote the story at age 16 in 1970. Apocryphally, he appeared on the southern California science fiction radio show Hour 25 15 years later, expressing sadness that his honest efforts had become a joke. He would never, he said, write anything again.
That suggestion of cruelty might explain a little about why these pieces remain popular even after their real authors are unmasked. When "spambot" Horse_Ebooks came out as neither bot nor spam, it engendered frustration and disappointment: people had been promised an enigmatic Russian book aggregator whose promotional Twitter account occasionally produced sparks of brilliance, but they got a BuzzFeed author with an alternative reality game. It was as if you’d stumbled on a beautiful rock formation and found out it was just a statue. When "Squirrelking" revealed his identity, though, I didn’t feel betrayed. It was almost a relief: I was safe in the realm of pure fiction.
The tradition of trollfic has continued, and its crudely written surrealism is found in a fair number of Twitter accounts. The nearly incoherent "Crimer Show" and "Seinfeld Current Day," a parody account created to mock another parody account, are prime examples. But they haven’t captured the same ambiguity, the same metafictional possibilities. After all, somewhere out there, Tara Gilesbie might be waiting to pick up the pen once more.