I just listened to the PodCastle
reading of Jennifer Pelland's "The Ghosts of New York,
" a short fantasy story that deals with some of the most difficult parts of the Manhattan tragedy of September 11, even now.
There are some praises for the mechanics of the podcast that I must address before I delve into my response to the story. The reader of this story is Rashida Smith, and I think it would not have had so much impact without her. Rashida's vivid voice and subtle changes in tone and phrasing for each character lent a reality to the dialog. I enjoy podcasts and audiobooks so much more when the reading has been done with the kind of care Rashida took in hers. I can tell she either rehearsed this story, or is experienced with this kind of work.
With regards to the work itself, "The Ghosts of New York" easily deserves the nomination it received for the Nebula Award. It's written with such an honest hand that I almost hesitate to recommend it - because recommending others to read it almost seems like I'm aiding in the further torment of the main character. Something written this thoughtfully must
The reality of the main character - who is not named here because she remains nameless throughout the work - is firm and consistent, discovered a fragment at a time throughout the story. I found myself hoping for her, clenching my fists with hope, feeling helpless that there was nothing that I could do for her. Details surrounding her circumstances were so consistant and so vividly presented that it made me wonder if this really is
the truth about what happens after death. Many theories about ghosts put forth the suggestion that these spirits are no more than a recording, playing back in an endless loop. But how does the recording feel? Do they have thoughts, do they feel pain? Do they know they are just a video clip of someone's life? Do they exist in the same sense that their creator existed?
I think it's appropriate now to consider - with the same respect given to any real event - writing fiction about the Twin Towers. The shadow of that event falls over everyone, from those who witnessed it, to those who survived it, to those who are simply curious to know more about the event. This story prompts us to ask questions we may not have thought of before or deliberately sidestepped for our own mental and emotional safety. What was it like? What were they thinking? What is it like to die? What exists afterward, if anything? What would I have done in their place? As writers - and as humans - we ask these questions to understand, for any number of personal reasons.
This story contains some very strong, graphic imagery. I think the warning on the podcast for violent language is appropriate. I found myself holding my breath, and then I found myself shaken and in tears. I couldn't listen to it all at once. Listeners who think they may have too difficult a time with this subject should definitely avoid it. Listeners who have difficulty with written descriptions of gore should be wary - "The Ghosts of New York" is pretty frank and stark about that.
I can't... exactly... give this story a glowing recommendation simply because the subject matter disallows it. I think it's important to read. I think it's written with a genuine attempt to understand, to posit, to experience. But I don't think everyone will be able to read it, and while I think most readers will find it powerful and moving, it probably won't be something you can honestly say you enjoyed
One more plug - if you enjoy listening to short stories, and you enjoy fantasy, consider hanging out at PodCastle. They post a weekly story podcast and I have never EVER been let down. The stories are carefully chosen and the audio has always been well executed and pleasant to listen to. I look forward to PodCastle's updates on my phone via Stitcher, which is an awesome podcasting app for anyone with a Palm or Android powered phone. You don't have to download the podcasts on your phone, and the user interface is really simple to navigate with a ton of categories and subcategories. There's even podcasts available in foreign languages - like Italian! I have a whole list of favorites I listen to weekly - like NPR's "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me!" Dan Savage's "Savage Love," and "The Moth," as well as daily podcasts like "Big Gay News" and "Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac."