There’s a lot of Harry Potter fan fiction out there. It’s hardly surprising: all the tells were there from the beginning. The rise in popularity of the franchise coincided with a rapid increase in user-generated content sites, social media, and blogging. It takes place in a rich universe full of places to explore and characters to pair up. Its target audience - children and adolescents, gradually aging up as the series progressed - were perfect marks for fanfic. I’ve never been into fan fiction, but I do know a work of insane, irreproducible brilliance when I see one, which is why I’ve a special place in my heart for the greatest Potter fanfic - possibly the greatest fanfic - of all time: My Immortal.
My Immortal is beyond incomprehensible. It centres on 17-year-old Hogwarts student and insufferable goth Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way, as she endures the tribulations of a romantic relationship with dreamy Draco Malfoy. Nearly every canon character comes into play - even Harry Potter himself, though "most people call [him] Vampire these days" - and nearly everyone gets involved romantically or sexually. Hogwarts gets a gothic makeover, as does Albus Dumbledore; time travel (with a gothic Marty McFly) becomes a central plot device; Satan makes an appearance. It’s absolutely nuts, and trying to make conventional sense of it all is folly.
Part of My Immortal’s charm is in how it expresses the weird tastes and obsessions of its alleged author. The main character introduces herself as “not related to [My Chemical Romance frontman] Gerard Way but I wish I was because he’s a major fucking hottie,” and the teenage angst only blossoms from there. The story draws its title from an Evanescence song; the story is peppered with lengthy descriptions of goth makeup and Hot Topic outfits (yes, specifically Hot Topic outfits); bands like Marilyn Manson and Slipknot are referenced constantly. The gang even goes to concerts by Good Charlotte and My Chemical Romance within the course of the story. It’s the stream-of-consciousness ravings you'd find in a pop culture-obsessed adolescent’s secret diary.
The authorship of My Immortal has remained a mystery ever since its release. Posted in instalments, starting in 2006, by a user calling themselves “XXXbloodyrists666XXX” and identifying themselves as Tara Gilesbie, the story always existed in a fog of message-board anonymity. Numerous people have come forward to stake a claim, like people alleging themselves to have shot JFK or been Jack the Ripper. What’s clear is that someone wrote My Immortal, and that someone had a strong creative vision one way or another.
Rumours abound as to whether My Immortal is the genuine article, or merely a troll or parody work. If it’s parody, it’s pitch-perfect. The name of the protagonist’s band, “Bloody Gothic Rose 666,” is chef’s-kiss beautiful. Names are misspelled with wild abandon, often phonetically but sometimes not even bound by the sound of words. The many makeout and sex scenes are written with an impossibly immature voice, with an early Draco sex scene culminating with “He put his thingie into my you-know-what and we did it for the first time.” Fanfic enthusiasts suggest that the length of the piece, and the sincerity with which it’s written, indicate it’s for real. Why would a mere troll go to all that effort, writing over 22,000 mangled words, just to make fun of fan fiction? The argument is a compelling one, at least if one finds bored effort to be an alien concept.
Me? I’m unconvinced. There are just too many nods to fanfic tropes, too many moments that can be read as self-aware, too many wild elements at play. Chapters 39 and 40, claimed to have been written (in far more readable prose) by a hacker, are far too on-the-nose not to be a conscious joke. A reference to Shark Attack 3 at the story’s end only seems to confirm the author’s love of shitty things, for lack of a better term. Put it this way: if I was going to write a parody of barrel-scraping fan fiction, My Immortal is essentially what I’d write. I’ve pulled written pranks nearly as elaborate before; I’ll probably do it again before I fuck off and die. It’s possible Tara Gilesbie was the real deal; it’s possible she was trolling everyone; it’s even possible she’s a fictional construct. Stranger things have happened.
One of the telltale signs My Immortal might have been written in jest is the author’s notes which appear at the top and tail of each of the story’s 44 brief chapters. Initially filled with shout-outs to friends and collaborators, they end up telling a meta-story of the author’s troubles with herself and her haters. Full of defenses of, and excuses for, the story’s canon-obliterating characterisation, Mary Sue protagonist, and poor writing quality, the notes grow increasingly hostile to the reader, lashing out at the “gay fags” who would dare criticise the work. “PREPZ STOP FLAMIGNG!” the author cries, even as her relationship with her editor and co-writer falls to pieces, the prose immediately taking a dive in quality as a result. Post-split, the writing never gets quite as bad as the conversational text-speak of the author’s notes - the author’s clearly at least trying to write properly - but it never reaches the almost-acceptable levels of the opening chapters either. As suicide attempts and personal attacks enter the conversation, and the author’s hatred of “prepz” reaches a crescendo, the story slams into its abrupt, unsatisfying ending. It couldn’t be structured better.
My Immortal has entered the pop culture consciousness in its own right in its years of stinking up the Internet. Fanfic authors have written My Immortal-inspired pieces for other properties; some have wondered whether such stories are written by Gilesbie herself, under pseudonyms. YouTubers and podcasters have done dramatic readings and phonetic ones. It’s got its own dedicated wiki and a webseries adaptation. But the story’s biggest contribution to culture lies in the text itself: the bringing together of every cringeworthy trope of fan fiction. It’s a nexus of badness full of bizarre details and and insane broad strokes, and I can’t help but feel affection for it as a result. My Immortal is the perfect distillation of fan fiction at its worst, and whether or not it was all an act of trolling doesn’t change that one bit. Fuck the haters.