Reasons not to talk to angels

When I found “The Fall of the Site of Marsha” by Rob Wittig in volume one of the Electronic Literature Collection, it initially stood out to me because of its visual presentation. It is a hypertext narrative that pretends not to be: instead of clicking links to move between distinctly presented lexia, the reader navigates what appears to be a regular web page, of the type that was common on Geocities or Angelfire in the late 1990s. (This work was written in 1999 and takes place in 1998.) The narrative unfolds over a period of about half a year, and the reader watches this happen by looking at three different archival states of the site and observing the way it changes.

The title character, Marsha, is a 42-year-old woman who was in what seems to be a depressive state until had (something she understood as) an experience with an angel. With the encouragement of her friend Bits and the programming help of her husband Mike, Marsha sets up a cheerful web page dedicated to stories about people’s experiences with angels. After a while, though, she starts to receive messages that are purportedly from angels, including the angel she believes to be her personal guardian. The messages are all incredibly hateful, and the senders seem to know and be capable of things that normal people would not be, which suggests that they are not simply rude people who stumbled upon her site (although that is left to the reader’s interpretation).

The Electronic Literature Collection’s page describes “The Fall of the Site of Marsha” as “a comic tale of domestic discord,” and there are comedic elements – this is a late 90’s web page with lots of cheesy-looking graphics, and it’s about forty-something-year-old women with an interest in new-age magical thought, which can be very humorous to people who don’t share that interest. But I actually found this work to be deeply troubling, and would classify it as more of a horror story than a comedy. While I initially thought the title’s reference to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” was entirely ironic, I wound up taking it very seriously. The setting may be farcical compared to the gothic House of Usher, but the fear and despair in this story were genuinely affecting to me, and maybe even more so because the playful setting made me unprepared for that.

Where “The Fall of the Site of Marsha” differs from traditional-literature stories of psychological horror, though, is in the very immediate way the reader experiences it. Even though the site’s format is now archaic, it is identifiable as a personal web page that has been set up to have a social networking component. The reader is familiar with navigating websites, reading the comments people have left on different pages, etc., and this means the experience of navigating this website, which is about fictional people but is not fictional in itself (i.e. it’s a real website with a url and clickable links), is also familiar. This kind of immersion makes Marsha’s story feel real, and at least for me, that allows it to make a strong an emotional impact.

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