The Role of the Troll

Albert Jærn, from Asbjørnsen and Moe's classic fairy tale The Three Billy Goats Gruff

I rest easy in the long, lonesome place between completing a novel and making the sale, all thanks to a forum troll.

It’s not fun, mind you. Agents queried thus far have passed. Contests and direct submissions aren’t panning out either. It’s disappointing, but it’s just business, and these people are polite and professional.

I rest easy mainly because I have faith in the project but also because a troll fulfilled his role. I’m inoculated. If my own dear mother called to say I should give up this writing business, I would smile and nod and keep right on doing what I do.

But let me just tell you the story:

In 2009, my favorite online home-away-from-home was a fan forum for XTC (the band, not the drug). This unique bunch, XTC fans of all ages from Scandinavia to the Antipodes, are by far the wittiest, most knowledgeable and kindest online family it’s ever been my pleasure to meet. I count several of them as “actual” friends, not just online friends, and in the days before Facebook, we shared personal details on the forum we wouldn’t share online today. It’s a pretty tight group.

I took several months offline to complete the first draft of The Drowning God, a paranormal thriller. When I got back online, I was eager to tell my fellow fans about the novel and other projects. It went something like:

(between chapters of The Drowning God)… I also wrote something much more Gothic and ornate: an eight-part 1930s-serial-style Lovecraft Mythos/Clive Barker mash-up. It’s about 18k of crazy layered with Lovecraftian paranoid prose, teased with a dash of Borges, and topped with Stephen King/Michael Crichton “actual doc” verisimilitude frosting. Yum.

Yes, this was very silly (although it’s an accurate description of In the Red, my 2009 novella), but keep in mind that these are my people. We’re the last hardcore fans of XTC, a British punk band that went pastoral and even orchestral and survived till 2006, and we’ve survived with them. On that level — our shared obsession with the sublime and sometimes frightening music of Andy Partridge and XTC — no one understands us as we understand one another. So silliness is not out of bounds there. We’re an odd online family, but family’s what we are.

Except for one spiteful and maladjusted bastard stepchild who called himself H0neyc0mb Jack. Jack lurked on the “friends” forum, which he had chosen not to join. He responded the next day on the “official” forum, an entirely different entity:

Hay Guys!
Good to be back! I’ve been away researching my new novel and its a spinecrackler! At least three (Count’em, losers) internet publisher ibook download companies have picked up on the idea and guess what?! I’ve actually written it and people are telling me it IS good! I cannot believe I am this close to the Booker Prize at age fifty laugh.gif . My first novel!!! Based on black and white films catapulted into a Die Hard present mixed with Sopranos vava voom and tossed off with words written in another style, I cannot BELIEVE the hum it is stirring blink.gif blink.gif . If you had asked me at age seventeen when the sap was still rising if I could have written anything so erudite and funny and musical and in touch; well, I would have said…NO WAY laugh.gif laugh.gif laugh.gif
Thanks for the support guys, because without you all,there is no way I would have written this blink.gif blink.gif
Peace wub.gif

Juvenile mockery, but it was good enough. The troll fulfilled his role.

Familiar and not-very-interesting troll strategies here:
• posting on a different forum for deniability (“Dear boy, my post had nothing to do with you! Just trumpeting my successes and whatnot. But what is this? Do you scribble as well? What a coincidence!”)
• exaggerating the target’s claims (“But of course you’re shooting for the Booker Prize, old sock. What young Turk like yourself would not?”)
• and the troll’s best game, playing on my perceived weaknesses: academia’s scorn of genre writing, the rapidly changing publishing market, my advanced years (I was 47 at the time, not 50), my lack of contacts, and my wide-eyed naïveté.

I kept on writing and submitting. Several friends PM’d to commiserate about his unwarranted cross-forum cruelty, but I held my tongue. That in itself was unusual. At the time, I loved an occasional wee online dust-up, and I’ve never been one to let a bully have the last word, online or off. But this was different because there was something to be learned here. This troll had touched a nerve somehow, and I sucked it all in and examined it instead of lashing out.

I kept on writing and submitting. I looked up the Booker Prize to see how hard he was mocking me.

And I kept on writing and submitting. With a full-time job, a new baby, three moves, and an overlong sojourn in the barren gulag archipelago of for-the-love online litmags, I kept on writing and submitting. I joined a professional writing organization, The Horror Writers Association, and a couple of local writers’ clubs. I put out 80,000 words of short stories, essays, and reviews, and I polished The Drowning God to within an inch of its life.

That was the lesson. I kept on writing and submitting. Over time, the truth in the action dispelled the troll’s lies.

Think of it this way: every environment has a scavenger, a bottom-feeder that turns dead matter and excreta into energy. In the process, it removes toxins and debris to make room for new life.

Trolls and haters are good for the writer’s mental environment. They uncover the fears, thus helping to turn toxins and debris into new energy and new work.

Thank you, bottom-feeding scavengers.

Thank you, H0neyc0mb Jack, wherever you are.

As for Kendley Fiction, I will meet meaner, stronger, smarter trolls. That’s part of the deal.

I write.
I submit.
I am rejected.
I am disappointed.
I write.
I submit.
I am rejected.
I am disappointed.

Lather-rinse-repeat.

I write for today. I also have hopes for the future, but I write for today.

Oh, the future:
Every dog has his day.
Kendleyness is next to dogliness.
Therefore, I will have my day.
Quod erat demonstrandum.

[update 10/11/2013: I wrote this post assuming that H0neyc0mb Jack pissed off into the ether on Jan. 31, 2011 either because he tired of trolling well-adjusted adults or because forum admins finally booted him. However, astute forum members correlated Jack’s disappearance with the suicide of a long-time XTC fan, a man with a similarly troubled online history. Honeycomb Jack seems to have taken his own life. Weirder still: at one point, the troubled XTC fan in question, the man who was probably Honeycomb Jack, friended me on Facebook.]

Have a troll story to share? Feel free to post it in the comments below.

James Kendley launched his fiction career in 2009. He has written numerous short stories and two novels, including The Drowning God. He is a member of the Horror Writers Association. He has written and edited professionally for more than 30 years, first as a newspaper reporter and editor, then as a copy editor and translator in Japan (where he taught for eight years at private colleges and universities), and currently as a revisions and documentation specialist for a nonprofit educational publisher. He lives in Charlottesville, Va.

Posted in Writing Life
2 comments on “The Role of the Troll
  1. Zak says:

    Witnessing pointless attacks is a good lesson for all of us who might from time to time be tempted to give in to the urge to snark. The best comparison that I’ve heard to many an un-moderated forum is to the Land of Toys (AKA Pleasure Island) in Pinocchio, where the longer one stays to hooliganize and loiter the more likely one is to turn into a jackass. Obviously turning into a jackass under a funny handle, e.g., 2CleverByHalf!, seems like a harmless outlet to those who do it, who seem to think of themselves as hardened snipers instead of disruptive spitballers, but if we believe that an anonymous gift of charity can strengthen our character then we have to admit that anonymous teasing can weaken it, no matter how we try to disguise our identity from others.

    I think of new communication tools as analogous to Dr. Jekell and Mr. Hyde: because Jekell had suppressed the dark side of his nature, when Mr. Hyde appeared he was notably younger than the good doctor. When people learn to communicate in a new fashion, like email or online forums, there is an age regression you can see in the style of communication that goes with it. Most people learn from trial and error and “age” their behavior appropriately and quickly; but some, like our trolls, never grow up, staying in the Land of Toys too long, until the Coachman comes to make them a permanent circus act without their ever realizing it has happened.

    Personally, I prefer not to make a jackass of myself, either in public or in secret. Sometimes I fail, but hopefully manage to learn from failure, at least occasionally.

  2. kauboi says:

    I find all this vilification of H0neyc0mb Jack distasteful in the extreme. Any imputation of his nastiness is hugely exaggerated.

    He was delicious.

    His name led me to believe he would be crunchy and sweet, the thought of which put me off quite a bit, but he was actually very moist and juicy, almost as if he had been marinated in some sort of soup. Duck, I believe, or maybe chicken.

    But in the end, everything tastes like chicken, n’est-ce pas?

    As a bonus I also found him to be full of bile. Just BRIMMING with it! I sold most of it to a Chinese apothecary as a cure for incontinence, impotence, incompetence, and logorrhea. Paid for my vacation in Cite Soleil!

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