The Priceless Value of That Story You Hate


written by David Steffen

Every fan of literature has read stories that they love and stories that they hate. It’s not hard to understand the value of the stories you love. Entertainment, inspiration, passing of the time, and so on.

But what about the stories that you hate? Was the time you spent reading or listening to those stories just a complete waste? I’ve been thinking about this lately, and about one story in particular. I’ve decide that, maybe, if you approach it with the right state of mind, you can learn something from the experience. Even if what you learn isn’t what the author was aiming for. Even if what you learn is about yourself.

So, I had a particular story in mind, one which I hate. This story made me very angry. In my anger I decided to not read other works by this author, and I even avoided that publication for several months thereafter. I pondered for a very long time whether I wanted to write this article at all. And I pondered whether I should call out the story specifically. I decided that I would be okay with posting this article as long as I made it clear that I don’t think the author is untalented or wrong, and I don’t think the story is objectively bad. Or even subjectively bad, if I make a concerted effort to consider it rationally. This isn’t meant to tear that author down, but I found the process of self-examining my reaction to this story very enlightening, and I don’t think I can share that in any other way.

Okay, so here goes. The story is “The Ghosts of New York” by Jennifer Pelland, originally published in the Dark Faith anthology, and reprinted in Podcastle. I understand that by the time you read this sentence, many of you will have followed the link to read it. Others will have bookmarked it for later. That’s what I would do, were I reading this. And that’s great–like I said, I’m not trying to tear Pelland down here. Since I’ve come to the conclusion that my opinion of the story isn’t coming from an entirely rational place, I think it’s only fair to encourage more people to read the story and draw their own conclusions.

If you have read the story, your first thought might be that I object to the use of the September 11th terrorist attacks on New York. That was my first guess, too. I wouldn’t be surprised if other people disliked the story for that, and I’d say that reaction is reasonable. It is a touchy subject at best, especially considering the widows, orphans, family, and friends of those killed are still around to possibly come across the story. I’m sure Pelland knew she was taking a risk in writing this.

One of the most common questions asked of writers is where they get their ideas. Even though the question is asked way too often, it’s still interesting at it’s core. I find it amazing that all the science fiction out there was pulled out of thin air by the writers who created it. An explanation for this that I’ve found appealing on a philosophical level is that writers don’t actually make it up out of their own heads. Rather, they somehow chronicle events from alternate worlds that already exist somewhere out there. Though I find this appealing, I don’t actually think that’s what happens. The human brain is an extraordinary object, and I don’t think an outside explanation is necessary for its oddities and wonders. And even if I did believe this is what happens, I don’t find this is an ethical problem–even if you do affect existing worlds, there’s nothing to say that they wouldn’t already be affected that way by other forces.

One of my favorite topics for my short stories, and for general philosophy, is the contemplation of a higher power and the existence and details of an afterlife. So, the central focus of this story is right up that alley. As the story unfolds, it appears that the main character is the ghost of one of the victims of the September 11th attacks, who is enduring the apparently endless torture of constantly repeating the last painful and terror-filled moments of her existence. Over and over and over. I found this endless torture, described in detail, decidedly unpleasant, but that still wasn’t exactly what I hated, though it was getting closer to the heart of it.

I think that I’ve more or less sorted it now. What I hate about this story is not a single thing, but a combination of things. The story was written in such a way that this torturous afterlife existence fits very closely in with historical events, without any deviation from actual events. In other ways, it isn’t provable that the story isn’t an accurate depiction. Because the protagonist is one of the victims of the attack, she is a member of a very real subset of very real people. We don’t know exactly which person it is, since she’s not named, but it’s still a much more specific mapping than most stories. If it is true that fiction-writing connects to other worlds, and if stories can affect the worlds they connect to, then this story in particular is bothersome. As I said, I don’t really believe that, or at least not in a way at the upper levels of my conscious brain, but somewhere deep down in my gut, it appears that I do. Because this story is so closely rooted in our world, and has a protagonist that comes from a specific and small real-life group, the writing and publication of this story can conceptually shift our own world so that the real dead of the attack have been subjected to the ongoing torture of the story.

I know that doesn’t make any rational sense. It’s not fair to blame an author for violating a philosophical theory that is not widely held, and which I only appear to believe in in some gut-level lizard-brain kind of way. I can recognize this, and I can appreciate the opportunity it has given me for self-examination. It does bother me that my opinions can be influenced by a belief system I didn’t even realize that I had, but I would rather know this about myself than to not know.

It doesn’t mean that I don’t hate the story, of course, but if I can learn about myself from it, then it hasn’t been a waste of my time.