Help Me Follow My Sister into the Land of the Dead

Ursula Ruiz does something clever with her short story – it’s arranged like a Kickstarter with all the usual elements, cleverly structured to provide the exposition, conflict, and growing horror that something terrible is going to happen.

There’s a risk with inventive formatting of fiction that Ruiz is taking here. For one, there’s a lot of unnecessary expended space and words just to accomplish the feel of the Kickstarter vibe. Names, dates of posts, headings and frequent line breaks make for a jarring read. There’s also the risk that your audience, admittedly a safer bet in a sci fi setting, doesn’t understand the reference you’re making. Last, but probably most important, is that you sacrifice story and plot to suit the format.

It was that point, the plot, that I was wondering about as I read Ruiz’s story. There’s references to places like Bethlehem, but it’s unclear whether it’s the Biblical one or a different town. There’s talk about physically entering the Land of the Dead, something that can apparently be done with a few hundred dollars worth of ingredients and a hefty ticket price on top. Still, we’re talking a world in which relatives can go visit their deceased family. And, apparently, the deceased family can talk back to them through the Internet at will. The character’s sister, whom she is trying to find, communicates via postings on the kickstarter.

That last kind of breaks the story a bit for me – if the sister can communicate, then why wouldn’t she tell Ursula (the protagonist) that she knows what happened to their parents, thus obviating the entire search in the first place?

If you ignore that hole, though, the rest of the story is inventive, quick, and brutal. There’s personality carved into the few paragraphs. Enough so that you feel the sarcastic, disillusioned sister trying to find her sibling and identify with the struggle. The last few messages, increasingly desperate, from someone who must be a family friend, neatly convey the growing horror at an outcome most readers will probably guess. That the mystery can be solved isn’t a problem, here, because again Ruiz succeeds with her characters. And when we’re talking less than ten pages of story, creating realistic, interesting characters is an achievement in and of itself.

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