The Disaffected Narrator of Internet Gothic Fiction

Kate Folk’s short story “The Bone Ward” ends thusly: “Coyotes wail in the distance. Soon they will find me and sink their teeth into my boneless flesh. I pray that my bones will reconstitute inside them at sunrise, piercing their organs, killing them. My eyes sparkle with their own starlight and I know I’m about to pass out from the pressure on my brain. I comfort myself with unlikely scenarios.” The narrator suffers from Total Nocturnal Bone Loss (TNBL), a disorder that liquifies the victim’s skeleton overnight, dissolving the minerals into the blood, until morning when each bone grows back, an excruciating process.

“The Bone Ward” is part of Folk’s debut collection Out There, a book that’s been called “weird,” “otherworldly,” “unsettling,” all words that skirt the encroaching wine spill of “genre.” Like so many recent works of fiction, Folk’s stories begin with the absurd, the exaggerated, and go from there. Like so many recent works of fiction, Folk’s stories can often be narrated by wan, disaffected white women.

Out There feels of a piece with other works of “internet gothic fiction,” like Mary South’s collection You Will Never Be Forgotten (South seems to have coined the term “internet gothic fiction”) and Beth Morgan’s novel A Touch of Jen. Such a new genre has a limited number of referents to point to, but the general vibe is one of screen-mediated, app-addled anxiety, paranoia, a bodylessness, combined with a distinct obsession with its functions. The speculative surrounds these stories like a cosmic microwave background, a fact of each world rather than a discovery, and rarely something any character has a tonally heightened interest in. On the occasion that such an incongruous discovery is made, say, a sudden void that appears on earth in Folk’s “The Void Wife,” it’s easily adjusted to. Unsettling realities are mundane, the weirdness stemming from both the extremity of the characters’ lack of feeling or surprise, as well as the sometimes intensely violent actions that occur.

In Out There‘s titular story, a standout piece featured in The New Yorker, a woman navigates the minefield of modern app-based dating in a world where “blots,” humanoid non-human male creations that are distractingly handsome and eager to seduce women in order to steal their personal data, are as common as stray cats. In “The Last Woman on Earth,” the last woman on earth hosts the world’s most popular talk show, watched and adored by the all-male populace who foist every gendered neurosis onto her like a combination lover/mother/therapist/object. In “Doe Eyes, a woman who longs to get her distant, cheating on her husband on her back on her continually tries to get local hunters to shoot her in the hopes that her pain on her will command his attention and concern on her .

“The Head in Floor” features a human head slowly coming up through someone’s apartment floor. “Moist House” is about a house whose walls need to be lotioned multiple times a day. “The House’s Beating Heart” is about a house with…. you guessed it. There are few metaphors Folk can resist making literal. What you see is what you get, with some twists and turns along the way that are presented without inflection or alarm. Longer stories are filled with daily minutes. Shorter ones seem more like thought exercises that fizzle out after a few pages.

In Elaine Scarry’s book The Body in Pain, she writes about the impossibility of describing physical pain, a theme analogous to the humming existential anguish many of Folk’s characters seem to experience. Scarry writes, “When one hears about another person’s physical pain, the events happening within the interior of that person’s body may seem to have the remote character of some deep subterranean fact, belonging to an invisible geography that, however portentous, has no reality because it has not yet manifested itself on the visible surface of the earth.” Sometimes, in the realm of “internet gothic fiction,” when characters are presented as so overwhelmed by feeling as to become completely numb to it, that subterranean well becomes similarly unreal to the reader. “The only state that is as abnormal as pain is the imagination,” Scarry writes. “While pain is a state remarkable for being wholly without objects, the imagination is remarkable for being the only state that is wholly its objects.”

In Folk’s story “Shelter,” a woman in a relationship with a trying hard musician who becomes obsessed and aroused by the storm shelter in their basement. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that she’s fascinated with her, turned on by the possibility of disappearing from her, of her absence from her being noticed, a theme echoed in a few of Folk’s stories. Existential pain is redirected into a literal, physical shelter from it. Contrast that with the collection’s final entry “Big Sur,” a complement to “Out There” and set in the same blot-riddled world, a standout from the rest of the bunch for being surprisingly sweet and earnest. Not every story works. Some of the shorter entries feel like they were added to fill the collection out. But one of the reasons I was able to mostly enjoy Out There is because Folk seems genuinely invested in trying to figure out why her characters act so unusually instead of leaving them as ciphers.

Which is to say, I like Out There in the same breath as I do My Year of Rest and Relaxation and if I’m being honest, I prefer Folk’s lighter, leaner, though no less gnarly touch. But what felt exciting and new with a book like Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties (to say nothing of the fact that, even now, Machado’s stories maintain a deeper complexity for more ambitiously and often uncomfortably navigating themes of race and sexuality beyond the mundane torture of heterosexuality) has begun to feel unsurprising, predictable. It’s not that the premises of newer works of fiction aren’t imaginative or well considered. It’s that they can be so lukewarm, the product of a good idea mutated by a glum narrator whose dark humor feels too affected to garner a laugh.

In one of Folk’s stories, the narrator says something that wouldn’t feel out of place in any number of recent fiction releases, though it comes closest to sounding like a thesis: “A few weeks ago, this would have wounded me but I feel eerily calm. The thing I most feared has already happened, and I am now able to spectate on the particulars of my own rejection from a slight remove. I almost convince myself that it’s a relief, to no longer have something to lose.”

Nicholas Russell is a writer from Las Vegas. His work by him has been featured in The Believer, Defector, Reverse Shot, Vulture, The Guardian, NPR Music, and The Point, among other publications.

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