A factor which has always benefitted the fictional document genre is verisimilitude; if a work of fiction is shaped to not seem like fiction and instead as something you feel you could virtually hold in real-life, this creates multiple effects regarding perception, acceptance and mystery. A document by any admission is considered objective, focussed and often definitive. There should not be space for subjective elaboration or anything which could be challeneged factually. In many many ways this makes the fictional document the perfect form for mysterious and strange fiction because, down to overall appearance, the contents of the text should be deemed authentic because they are being presented in a formal capacity. But of course it’s not just the formal presentation which is good for the story – it’s also what is omitted by using such a format; the selective editing for the sake of concise argument, the bits where the reader has to figure out what is going on for themselves.
Seeing as there’s no need to cover old ground with the likes of Dracula or Frankenstein, etc, a fair example of a modern gothic fictional document is The Historian (2005) by Elizabeth Kostova. Kostova’s epic novel utilises not only the epistolary motifs of Stoker’s original text (on which is feeds rampantly but wisely, revealing its own supernatural narrative strengths), it also does the important thing of bringing the fictional document format up-to-date with the use of a travelogue, making the ancient myth of the story seem more accessible, relating to the contemporary commercial viability of travel. The Historian is a good page-turner, and use of multiple fictional document forms does indeed make it more interesting than the average modern vampire yarn. But it doesn’t break much new ground regarding format; it just updates it somewhat.
Reports of Certain Events in London, from Miéville’s Looking For Jake & Other Stories (also published in 2005), might be a fraction of the length of Kostova’s gothic epic, but it covers more interesting and complex ground than many fictional documents to date. Framed by a first-person narrative where our narrator, “China Miéville”, mistakenly receives a package through the mail filled with documents regarding the activities of a mysterious and secretive committee, the story has the reader on the backfoot from the off. Right away it is nearly impossible to know what to believe; just as the narrator doesn’t know for sure whether they were sent the package intentionally or not, the reader does not know whether the contents (and indeed any conspicuously missing pieces which feel they should be there) are genuine, and at the very least what they represent.
Miéville’s story is in some ways an Ergodic fiction; although the contents of the story are presented to be read chronologically (by the narrator, so read whatever modal adjustment into this you will) effort is required by the reader to piece together several key components, such as discerning who has written annotations and scrawled opinions to who and why: what exactly is the Viae Ferae phenomenon? How does this committee come together and when did they form? Who is “Charles Melville”?, and various other strands of intrigue. Although presented paper in form, the package’s contents reflect the same nonlinear intricacies as any set of discovered anonymous recordings or videos, coded messages, or context-free Internet page links, with just as much chance of causing confusion and lack of direction. In fact it’s the lack of context which gives the tale such a strength of mystery; any document should contain and adhere to its own basis of context. In this tale it does, but that conext is completely absent for the narrator and the reader (the syuzhet may be relatively brief, but the fabula could be near-infinite and labyrinthine).
Such an interactive and mystifying narrative probably could not be presented via straightforward third-person – although of course such use of the document format has been utilised before. A fine example (if not the finest example) of the exponent of the fictional document is of course Jorge Luis Borges. In Ficciones (1962), and in particular the spiralling short story, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, the narrator discusses an elusive entry in the Anglo-American Cyclopaedia (and only the copies of it which this entry is know to be in) regarding these perhaps fictional lands. Knowledge that they are indeed fictional is constantly knocked due to the sheer sincerity and objective format of the encyclopedic entry, and the reader is transported through a mapless territory of fiction and nonfiction prose.
(Returning once again to Miéville, he himself produced a short story in a similar format to Borges’ fictional/factual entries. Entry Taken From a Medical Encyclopaedia (2005) discusses the somewhat gruesome phenomenon of “Buscard’s Murrain, or Wormword”; a parasitic entity which enters the host’s mind via a certain utterance and proceeds to slowly devours the host’s brain whilst looking for its next host through further repetition of the utterance. Although not as convoluted as Borges, Miéville instead uses the formal (and seemingly outdated) encyclopaedic entry format to lend the fiction an authentic but also specifically nauseating slant. Its strengths are appropriated through the aesthetically objective and familiar format, and via the same format its gruesomeness is somehow protracted.)
Where Borges had already mastered the power of fiction magnified through the keyhole frame of the objective document, letter, academic footnote or re-translation, in Reports of Certain Events in London, Miéville takes the narrative a step further by introducing the supernatural element, whereby the reader does not simply have to buy into the names, locations and narrative arcs of characters but must also include the effects of supernatural events into the bargain. The results are disquieting but satisfying and interactive.