If you haven’t read the story before, be warned that there are spoilers ahead.
At its heart A Fete Worse Than Death is a simple story about revenge, told from the perspective of Charlotte, an 18 year-old student who is plotting revenge on her nemesis Bridget Knight, the headmaster’s daughter. She arranges for a gunging to be held at the end-of-year fête, with the victim to be determined by a charity gunge vote in which, as head girl, Bridget is unwittingly “volunteered” to take part.
The story has been around for a while, but it’s stuck with me. ECGunge was the site that first introduced me to WAM fiction, way back when it wasn’t a proper forum but a group over on Yahoo, and the stories were tucked away in the files section. The first stories I read were, of course, Iain’s Shireburgh Series, but the Other Authors section over there is chockablock with hidden gems. Over the course of a decade memory has eroded much of what I read, and I’d probably be hard-pressed to name or even locate my favourites (it’s been the best part of a decade), but A Fete Worse Than Death sticks out, helped by a punchy, memorable title which captures attention and simultaneously summaries the story (and features a pun).
However, it’s the main strength of the story which makes it most memorable: the build-up. WAM is a broad church with a wide variation in tastes, various different preferences and a number of sub-fetishes. Writing good WAM fiction is like walking a tightrope because whatever you do, you’re unlikely to please everybody. The best advice is probably just to write whatever you want because if you don’t enjoy writing it, it’ll be difficult to finish and it is likely the finished article will feel forced. For me, the most important aspect of any gunge scene is the build-up, and it’s doubly important in stories due to the absence of the visual element.
I don’t enjoy a story that’s just about someone turning up and getting a load of gunge dumped over them – the story first needs to establish the who and the why. I don’t think I’m alone in finding build-up crucial to a story , as demonstrated by the continuing popularity of gunge polls, which cleverly ratchet up the tension ahead of the big gunging. To what extent the importance of build-up is about needing to establish a context for humiliation is probably a question for another time.
Personally I favour realism and mild humiliation at most when it comes to stories and A Fete Worse Than Death falls right into this category. After quickly establishing the players – scheming Charlotte and nasty Bridget – the story gets to work building anticipation for the outcome of the gunge vote. Particularly effective is the description of the preparation for the event, including the description of the construction of the gunge tank, which helps build a picture of the gunging in the reader’s mind ahead of the event itself.
As the big day of the fête unfolds there’s some “filler” WAM in the form of a food fight and a pie in the face. In contrast to the players and events in the main story, the author doesn’t really sketch any of this out, and these sub-plots suffer for it. This is a big contrast to the main storyline, where the author excellently delivers on the build-up.
As the announcement of the gunge vote results at the fête begins, Charlotte is certain that Bridget is headed for humiliation in the gunge tank, but here the story delivers a nice twist as the voting totals don’t turn out as expected for Charlotte:
Charlotte’s heart stopped and she felt the world spinning under her. Voices became echoes in her head. A mistake, surely. Bridget turned and laughed in her face.
“And with an amazing 13,000 votes. The winner is Charlotte Baxter! Come on over, girls!”
Charlotte scanned the crowd to find anyone from the maths club who could tell her it was all a mistake. A girl she recognised dashed out shouting. “It’s true – Mr Knight came in half an hour ago and bought £1000 of votes!” Charlotte cast a glance at Alice who stood with her hands over her mouth in shock. Bridget’s father had got her off the hook again.
The focus on the description of Charlotte and her clothing may tip you off that she will ultimately be subjected to the gunging instead of Bridget, but the story does a good job of keeping you guessing by making it appear that Bridget’s gunging is inevitable by emphasising her unpopularity and providing a vote update midway through where Bridget has an insurmountable lead. Having Bridget’s father intervene on his daughter’s behalf is a believable way of subverting expectations. The twist is made all the more effective by the hints that Charlotte actually deserved it as well – she’s vindictive, thinks very highly of herself and lets the attention she receives due to organising the gunging go to her head. It certainly seems like she got her just desserts, and the baying crowd didn’t seem particularly fussed about who was on the receiving end.
The tale ends with a humiliated but spirited Charlotte making her way to get cleaned up, but there are hints that the story may continue in a further installment with Charlotte plotting her revenge on Bridget. However, as far as I know, no follow-up was ever published, which is a shame given the quality of this effort.