[The following contains spoilers.]
With the account @gr3gory88, Twitter might earn something of a reprieve as a storytelling medium. Back in 2017, when the users of the platform were debating whether “Dear David,” a thread about a haunted New York apartment, was “real” or bogus, Tychy leapt nimbly over this unnecessary tangle of limbs and went straight for the throat. How well – this website pondered – did the story actually work?
… I would suggest that the format of the traditional short story should not be dispensed with too quickly. “Dear David” is ultimately haunted by the limitations of tweeting. The opportunities that are earned from its “found footage” status do not make good on its piecemeal progress and lack of narrative agility.
Found footage should have a natural advantage, as a fictional device, in ostensibly allowing a horror story to live in the real world, as a real thing, without constantly rubbing up against some artificial frame. There is an unfortunate defect here with Twitter, though, since the person tweeting can be never exposed to any significant danger. The makers of a documentary film or podcast can be all merrily slaughtered, but their footage, or audio, will survive and somehow find its way on to our screens. Yet seldom is a Twitter account ever manned by more than one person. If Adam Ellis was throttled in his sleep by David, it is embarrassingly unrealistic that a proxy would log in to confirm that Ellis wouldn’t be tweeting anymore.
Only the abrupt, inconclusive ending is thus available to Twitter’s storytellers, unless they plump for the sickly contrivance of a happy ending. “Dear David” was notably unable to negotiate an exciting climax for itself or to even execute any kind of competent narrative manoeuvre. It had begun with an exciting story about a nightmare and a curse but it soon reneged on this premise. As Tychy had perceived at the time, “Dear David” ended up “resembling an Instagram account rather than an active storyline, with photo after photo being aimlessly uploaded.”
In the Irish Times, Seamas O’Reilly is wrong to lump together “Dear David” and @gr3gory88 as projects that showcase “the unique possibilities” of social media. Unlike “Dear David,” Greg’s story is obviously plotted for the long term and with considerable discipline. The horror of this story derives, rather like with E. T. A. Hoffmann’s classic tale “The Sandman” (1817), from the steep awfulness of eyelessness. The thread begins with Greg journeying to the woods of Delaware to take possession of an old house that he has inherited from his grandfather. To his dismay, the property is being staked out by an eyeless hag and Greg later finds an eyeball bobbing in the nearby lake. In the forest, he happens upon a notebook with all of its used pages torn out. A charcoal rubbing of one indirectly imprinted page yields the message: “THEY TOOK MY EYES.”
@gr3gory88 might also nod to a familiar head within pre-existing horror in its occasional resemblance to Peter Straub’s novel If You Could See Me Now (1977). Like Straub’s narrator Miles Teagarden, Greg is an outsider in a rural community where the locals have apparently sided with a supernatural force. Greg grows unbearably lonely and claustrophobic and he is relating his story to Twitter only because there is nobody else to confide in.
But what actually makes @gr3gory88 so impressive is its sprightly imagination, its playfulness, and its deep interest in having fun. The story puts down a deposit of unarguable seriousness, with all of the nauseous terror of eyes being gouged out, but it then proceeds to borrow against this fund in pursuit of levity.
Greg’s story is indeed quietly hilarious. He is aiming to sell the house that he is staying in, even as he is perpetually trashing its reputation on Twitter. His every tweet probably knocks thousands of dollars off the asking price. Some incidents come close to breaking cover for open humour. Finding an eyeball on a country stroll, and a bizarre visit to a restaurant where Greg orders “Benedict,” and duly learns that eggs are taboo throughout the town, would be innocently farcical in a story that had not taken such pains to be ominous.
A far bigger joke lands on Greg with the implication that the horror element of his story, if not most of the story, is basically a misunderstanding. The eyeless lady who is haunting his house, trampling through its rooms and breaking into his dreams, turns out to be an ally. She might even be his lost aunt, a potential source of much-needed mothering. She was only trying to warn him about a greater horror that is lurking down in the lake.
This surprise might seem to be narratively deft but the story is equally exposed to a stress that it proves incapable of dealing with. If this lady manages to give a vaguely logical answer to Greg’s question of “Why are you telling me this now, after all this time[?],” Greg, for his own part, never explains why he doesn’t film his interview with her. After all, his story is being presumably told on Twitter because this medium allows it to be opened up in such a way.
Once it has sucked all of the juice out of the preliminary horror, the story leaves its skin behind and roams on into an altogether broader narrative. There are extraterrestrials or Lovecraftian monsters, as well a little of Robert Aikmann’s capricious surrealism when a mysterious crop of outlandish eggs is discovered out in the forest. A lot of this story nonetheless feeds on chance items. Greg has a penchant for lingering over unusual details, such as the collection of antique wine stoppers that he finds in his cellar. There is also an interactive side to his story – we have to make a message for him out of the rusted letters of an old name sign (I got as far as “WE HATE CREEP,” but the full message is in fact the greatly more evocative “DEEP WATER CHAPEL”). This narrative function appears to be submitted out of politeness, purely because it is expected of this type of story and still cannot at this stage be dispensed with.
I should confess that I had first experienced @gr3gory88 on ReignBot’s YouTube channel, where the tweets are narrated, and laid out luxuriously, to deliver much more of a rounded horror product. I nonetheless struggle with what ReignBot is doing, because she is profiting from somebody else’s content. She might reply that the story is freely available on Twitter and that she is merely reposting it in a video format that @gr3gory88 have neglected to use for themselves.
This puts me in mind of the economics of @gr3gory88. “Dear David” had been linked to an online T-shirt emporium – Ellis’ business model had been essentially to, “come for the ghosts and stay for the shopping.” @gr3gory88, on the other hand, seems to have been charitably floated down on to the world. It is admittedly low-budget, in being woven out of a few photographs and props that are doubtless salvaged from the wreckage of some Halloween party. Yet so far, @gr3gory88 have near to 100k followers and not even any merchandise. Is their project simply disinterested amateurism? Is the story a romantically handmade charm or knick-knack, a piece of arts-and-craft like those stick models that are left dangling around Greg’s house?
The story has now been paused – it is being possibly released in seasons – but we have not yet been given permission to stop being riveted. @gr3gory88 is going to need to work very hard, though, to match the freshness of what it has already pulled off.