Jennifer Pelland is pretty spiff and if you’re a fan of slightly disturbing fiction, you should definitely be following her. This week’s Crucible story is one of my favorites of hers, Ghosts of New York. It scored a Nebula nomination, in case you need further indications of quality.
This story could just be the relentlessly gruesome thought experiment of what happens to people after a tragedy done to explore how the survivors cope with the after effects, but it’s not. Not to repeat the line you see in tons of reviews of Pelland’s work, but there’s a bit of humanity running through this story which transforms it into the touching, yet relentlessly gruesome thought experiment about what happens to people after a tragedy, done to explore how the survivors cope with the after effects. It’s all over the ending, but Pelland starts baking it in even as she’s demonstrating the horror of the scenario she’s concocted.
She remembered the crash and pop of the people who were landing mere seconds before her. She remembered a fleeting moment of shame when her dress blew up over her head, exposing her underwear to the crowds gathered below. She remembered the burst of shit and piss as she crashed through the awning just a split second before she hit—
Right there, buried between two sentences describing somewhat graphic details, there’s a touch of character for a protagonist who has no identity. She’s horrified, about to go splat, and she’s embarrassed. You don’t have to be somebody who’d worry about the same thing to immediately relate to that moment. Even if you wouldn’t care about flashing your unmentionables to the world at large, it’s human to get hung up on a silly, unimportant detail in the middle of massively bad crisis moments. This immediately turns the ghost into a human vehicle for the scenario. It answers the question of why we’re getting the story of this ghost as opposed to the scads of others we could be getting instead.
She quickly learned to keep away from the construction workers so they could do their jobs without having to step around her. The other ghosts did the same. They were uniformly polite in their silent suffering.
This is a moment that simultaneously reinforces that element of humanity already established and affirms that our protagonist, while special, is standing in for a much larger population. These ghosts are considerate enough to make it easy for the construction workers to do their jobs even though they get nothing from it and there is no conceivable way in which doing anything else could cause negative consequences. They’re reliving their deaths over and over again, but they’re staying out of the way of people who don’t even know they’re there. And they don’t know it, but we find out and it’s there for us to see upon re-read, those construction workers are building the monument that guarantees the ghosts are going to fall to their deaths forever. They’re being polite to the hands that are damning them. Woops. Also, neat.
There are several other moments in the story that illustrate this more – I’m particularly fond of the scene in the church – but the conclusion of the story demonstrates pretty clearly that the humanity wasn’t an accident.
She looked around the memorial, found a visitor scanning the list of names, and decided that she’d be that woman’s sister today.
She doesn’t get out of having to keep falling. She doesn’t escape her fate. But she does manage to change her situation from one of repetitive torture in hell to something else. She claims an identity and becomes a full person, and she finds a purpose to her existence.
There would be an inclination to hope that having come to the conclusion that she needs to help the mourners she’ll be freed from her cycle, and if Hollywood adapted this into a movie they would almost certainly end it with her fading away and out of existence. But if that were the ending here this would be an unrepentant, unforgivable gruesome horror story – the tale of an entity torture and then wiped out of existence the moment it finds a means to peace.
Instead, this is a story that proposes a cosmic mechanism for dealing with society-level tragedy. A piece of the victims remain in order to give comfort to the people touched by the tragedy. It’s necessary that those pieces remain for as long as there are people affected. Either this is just a naturally developed supernatural coping mechanism, or something created by a incredibly benign deity. It could be read either way. Both readings, though, make it really clear that ultimately, this story is very sweet.
Next week: The Veldt by Ray Bradbury.
Followed by: Where are you Going, Where Have you Been by Joyce Carol Oates.