by JOHN E WILKINS
he unreliable narrator is a storytelling voice regularly employed by writers in many spheres of discourse. For the fiction writer who ventures into the horror genre at various frequencies and densities, the unreliable narrator is his or her best friend in the dark. In four classics of literary horror—Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, Jeff Lindsay’s Darkly Dreaming Dexter, Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, and Peter Straub’s Ghost Story—the unreliable narrative voices are used to heighten suspense as their stories progress. Examining the power of The Turn of the Screw and Henry James’ narratology reveals how the horror genre’s architecture of chaos can be experienced by readers in the most unique and terrifying of ways: the unreliable voice.
The children of narratology have varied behavior patterns, but the most disturbing of these offspring is the “unreliable narrator”. Before any examination of how unreliability in storytelling is an asset to the horror writer, a definitional understanding or brief recall is necessary. The unreliable narrator has been rather manageable to delineate by critics and academics over the past few decades. This did not come about without intensive scholarly study. Among the most comprehensible of the concise descriptions is by the literary critic who coined the term “unreliable narrator,” Wayne C. Booth. He explained, “for lack of better terms, I have called a narrator reliable when he speaks for or acts in accordance with the norms of the work (which is to say, the implied author’s norms), unreliable when he does not…” and, “it is most often a matter of what [Henry] James calls inconscience; the narrator is mistaken, or he believes himself to have qualities which the author denies him [or her]” (Booth 158-159).
Henry James uses this term in an emotional notebook entry that describes his frustration in creating more saleable and baser characters for his fiction. He seems to resign to never being able to fully give editors the bombastic qualities they want, and instead directs his thoughts toward creating a character who deals with this very struggle—a writer being browbeaten by editors. James’ idea of compelling narration formulates: “Say it’s a woman. She succeeds—and she thinks she’s fine! Mightn’t she be the narrator, with a fine grotesque inconscience? So that the whole thing becomes a masterpiece of close and finished irony?” (James, Notebooks 180) The real-life irony is that James’ most vivid portrait of an inconscient female narrator is the governess of The Turn of the Screw. Her inconscience is indeed “fine[ly] grotesque,” a perfect recipe for a horror story.
Seymour Chatman slightly expands on Booth’s elucidation of the unreliable narrator and illuminates James’ inconscience: “What makes a narrator unreliable is that his values diverge strikingly from that of the implied author’s; that is, ‘the norms of the work’ conflict with the view of the events and existents that the narrator is presenting, and we become suspicious of his sincerity or competence to tell the ‘truth’” (Chatman 99). Nowhere do “values diverge strikingly” more than the in first-person storytelling of Darkly Dreaming Dexter. Before finishing the opening paragraph to chapter 2 of Darkly Dreaming Dexter, the reader knows that Dexter Morgan’s real sport is serially killing murderers who, in Dexter’s mind—or in the harsh and grossly unfair realities of a clunky legal system—have gotten away with their crimes. A person could be an obnoxious tennis “nut”, but on the whole he or she is reliable in the example of an arbitrary tennis narrative. Dexter may be polite and wear the skin of a normal person, but his psychotic-murderer status firmly places him in Henry James’ aforementioned “inconscience”; a softer-pedaling term for unreliable.
Chapter 2’s opening describes Dexter’s cleanup after torturing and murdering a priest who repeatedly got away with killing children. Dexter’s vocation as a blood spatter analyst for local law enforcement gives him investigative tools and evidence-altering abilities to safely catch killers separate and apart from the normal police investigations proceeding around him. Before chapter two begins, readers are aware that the world they are being served up comes from the rationalized, bloodlust-laden sociopathy of an adult male who thinks of himself as a secret vigilante serving the public trust. Dexter is only “reliable” in his own blood red-lensed view of the world. In the “real” world of a society that at least has proximate—or even a tainted pretense to maintain—laws based on ideals, morals, and ethics, Dexter is unreliable, and as the series of Lindsay’s Dexter books progresses, more chaotic elements to Dexter’s moral center are revealed.
Lindsay’s Dexter books have exploded into a Dexter franchise that was rapidly turned into an eponymous television series on premium cable. The transformation of the serial killer Dexter Morgan into a “hero”—in spite of antihero characteristics—with a rapidly-formed cult of personality on message boards, schoolyard conversations, and workplace water-cooler verbal exchanges demonstrates the power of persuasion in an unreliable narrator. Dexter is a not just a killer in the self-defense or military sense of application; he is a murderer, and the nature and form of his unreliability are so unique and popular that numerous philosophical and psychological volumes—like Serial Killers, Philosophy for Everyone: Being and Killing (Waller)—have attempted to soft- and hard-scientifically deconstruct him. Jeff Lindsay demonstrated considerable writing power in his ability to create such a socially powerful fictional character that is arguably among the most unreliable narrators in literature.
Dexter Morgan’s “own taste” produces an “air of reality,” but his unreliable narration is fleshed out in his own “illusion of life.” The solidity of specification for the “normal” narrator is constituted via reliable perception and sanity. The solidity of specification of Dexter Morgan is in the realm of abnormal behavior, tainted by his radically skewed perception and unreliable insanity. Dexter, like the governess of The Turn of the Screw, is indeed inconscient.
Whereas Jeff Lindsay created a somewhat sympathetic character—although this character is sociopathic—in Dexter Morgan via an interesting killer-who-kills-only-killers motif in the Dexter franchise, Bret Easton Ellis gave the world the almost utterly unsympathetic Patrick Bateman. Patrick is the first-person narrator of the controversial novel American Psycho (Ellis). Ellis’ storytelling is so powerful, that the reader’s sympathy level does not alter toward Patrick even as the story progresses and events reveal that “his nights he spends in ways we cannot begin to fathom” may or may not be all in Patrick’s head (back cover). Patrick shares with The Turn of the Screw’s governess a unique form of unreliability “because of being in a disturbed state of mind” ("Unreliable Narrator").
Where Patrick’s disturbance takes a sharp departure from the governess—and arguably even from Dexter Morgan—is the egopathy, homicidomania, and homicidophilia involved in Patrick’s real or imagined acts of murder and torture. One example of Patrick’s disconnection from empathy is while he’s engaged in a homophobic episode of violence and murder. Near the end of the chapter titled Killing Dog, Patrick describes, in vivid detail, killing a male he believes to be a homosexual making a pass at him; this is shortly after disemboweling the man’s pet canine in front of his eyes. What frames this as a horrifying scene, even beyond the head-turning shock and gruesome violence of the murders themselves, is Patrick taking regrettable note of getting blood sprays on a white BMW 320i parked nearby.
Nearly every page of American Psycho is littered with brand names and pop culture items that the Wall Street-savvy and hip businessman Patrick Bateman is obsessed with. Patrick’s world of peace, love, and understanding is only derived from jet-set-level inanimate objects and cultural abstracts. He hates people and reminds the reader of this constantly through his actions and thoughts; that directed hate includes his fiancée Evelyn, whom he discards based more on minor irritations than any type of significant adversity—thankfully without killing her—as the horrors of American Psycho play out. Albeit a horse pill to digest in its sidecar commentary on the “Me Decade” of the 1980s, Ellis grasped the genius of creating an unsympathetic and insane—and therefore unreliable—narrator; a storyteller who is the antagonist and keeps the reader turning the pages. In some sense the reader is compelled to keep engaging in the story to root for those set against Patrick or cheer for those who are able to escape his homicidal crosshairs. If Dexter Morgan and the governess of The Turn of the Screw have stepped into the sphere of Henry James’ inconscience, then Patrick Bateman is standing in and defending inconscience’s center.
Patrick Bateman’s compulsion and necessity to “keep up appearances” is arguably the strongest and most palpable element of creeping terror in American Psycho. The connection to Henry James’ work and specifically The Turn of the Screw, in which the plot involves the “keep[ing] up of appearances” in the midst of supernatural terror, warranted at least one college class on the subject. “Keeping up appearances” involves an element of deception and holding forth oneself as someone they are not or someone they desire to be. Patrick Bateman desires to kill, but must uphold the exterior of Wall Street executive. The governess desires to be heroic in her defense of children against dark and supernatural forces, but must do so within the role of live-in teacher. The turnabout is that Patrick physically attempts to hide his true self via vocation, and the governess attempts to psychologically hide her mundane vocation via what she imagines as her true self, a powerful guardian. The irony that Patrick Bateman and the governess, who in a real world setting would be repulsed by each other, are “strange bedfellows,” like their author-creators Ellis and James, is an unlikely but nevertheless existent linkage that only strengthens their century-crossing and enjoined tap roots of unreliability.
Although the fictional storytellers Dexter Morgan, Patrick Bateman, and the governess have somewhat similar features via James’ inconscience and the frightening horror genre’s literary weapon of unreliability, writers Peter Straub and Henry James are at once parallel and connected in a Siamese twin sense with the narratology and plotting in The Turn of the Screw and Ghost Story. Ghost Story’s plot centers on a group of older men called the Chowder Society. The Society has met over the past five decades or so to tell each other ghost stories. It is discovered later in the novel that the reason for their meetings is to provide an odd and somewhat ghastly attempt at self-run group therapy sessions in regard to a tragedy they all experienced and participated in years earlier. Two of the three primary protagonists of the story are named Ricky Hawthorne and Sears James.
For further summarization of the premise, it is in his cultural study of horror, Danse Macabre, that Stephen King—who has co-written two novels with Peter Straub—writes, “in Ghost Story, [horror novelist] Don Wanderley is summoned by four old men who call themselves the Chowder Society. Don’s Uncle, the fifth member, died of an apparent heart attack the year before while attending a party thrown for the mysterious actress Ann-Veronica Moore” (249).
Adding to the strong currents of unreliability in Ghost Story are the dense amount of characters, and the protagonists’ inability to discover until deep into the novel that at least five—probably more—different females are the same entity. Given that the shape-changing nature of the ghost proves difficult to hunt it down, and that one of the protagonists is a horror novelist who has suffered the loss of his brother at the hands of the ghost, and that four of the older men protagonists are relentlessly plagued by nightmares, the unreliability quotient runs high in Ghost Story. The tug of war over sub-plots is designed by Straub to leave the characters in self-doubt even during their combined forces against the supernatural evil dead set on revenge via their physical, psychological, and spiritual destruction. In this sense, unreliability is Straub’s weapon of choice as a writer. When asked “who’s your favorite writer?” Peter Straub answered, “I guess I have to say Henry James” (Straub, "FAQ", par. 10). The kinship of terror does not organize, but disorganizes. Disorganization begets disturbance, and vice-versa. Disturbance, when related through the subgenre of horror fiction, becomes unreliable narration.
These examples of unreliable narration as a device or weapon for the horror writer indicate a common theme in horror fiction. That theme is that “unreliable narration tends to emphasize the subjective nature of truth and the technique often tends towards the implication that there is no such thing as an objective viewpoint” ("Unreliable Narrator"). The lack of objectivity leaves characters with the flimsy reed of human experience to fight the forces of darkness. These unreliable narrative voices are used to heighten suspense as their stories progress. The influence of Henry James and The Turn of the Screw will haunt narratology for centuries to come.
John E. Wilkins is a secondary and post-secondary adjunct instructor of Art, English, Creative Writing, and Philosophy courses. Through JWi Studios he freelances as an illustrator in the commercial art sphere while producing fine art for gallery shows. He currently lives in his native El Paso, Texas, but will be returning to live in the Denver, Colorado area in Summer 2015 (he lived there before from 1993-2006, but plans on staying this time). He is kept in line by his pet sabre-toothed-tiger-wannabes Manny and Ruby. John will be giving a presentation on Unreliable Horrors at the Colorado Horror Con 2015 (Taking place October 30, 31, and Nov. 1, 2015). For more info see ColoradoHorrorCon.com.
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