Chapter 2 of the Prologue (3ff) presents in an opening frame a man who has abducted a young girl. Straub’s use of third person subjective (from the unnamed man’s point of view) quickly becomes apparent, but it’s not clear for some time whether the narrator is external or internal to the story. (Which is to say, we can’t tell whether the narrator is omniscient or close third.)
The narrator uses omniscient technique of filtering right off (“he thought” ). In the second scene he identifies himself as the nephew of Edward Wanderley (7). The filtering continues in chapter 3: he “wished,” “saw” (9). Straub provides a hint of external narration with “She leaned back into the seat, waiting for him to do whatever he wanted” (9)—a reason the man could not know. Straub finally names him “Don Wanderly,” an author, on pages 11–12.
Through chapter 6, Wanderley’s thoughts and actions are still being described externally: “He supposed that David…,” “The girl probably knew he was holding the knife…” (24); these surmisings stick to a limited, subjective POV, but we still don’t know whether it’s omniscient.
Part One, section I, “Milburn Observed Through Nostalgia”—a sort of prologue—introduces Ricky Hawthorne with more external description: “What he chiefly liked to observe was Milburn itself…” (28).
With the next subheading, “Frederick Hawthorne,” chapter 1, you would think the limited subjectivity would continue. But it doesn’t.
The first paragraph, after telling of Ricky’s appreciation of Sears James’ home and library, states: “But they [the Chowder Society members] felt it: each of them, Ricky Hawthorne perhaps more so than the others, had wished to possess such a place for himself” (31, emphasis mine). This first instance of head-hopping establishes the third person Straub is using as external omniscience. Yet he still pulls in close with phrases such as, “My God, thought Ricky: he can do whatever he wants…” (34).
First-person story embedded in omniscient third
Sears James is introduced in his own subheaded chapter (43ff) in this way: “…Ricky honored tradition by waiting… to ask Sears the question that had been on his mind for two weeks” (43), showing that we’re starting out in Ricky’s head and then moving to Sears’: “She irritated Sears…,” “Sears approved…” (44).
In chapter 2 under Sears’ named subheading, Straub fascinates me with his narratorial dexterity. Sears begins with a paragraph of dialogue, which, naturally is in first person. But then the author dispenses with the quotation marks and continues the first-person narration in the very next paragraph (47). Milly Sheehan interrupts the story by the end of 2; the omniscient interlude continues through chapter 3 (52–56) and contains this clearly omniscient statement: “Sears… was unaware of an event that had occurred that afternoon in town and would affect all of their lives” (52). Sears resumes his first-person story about Fenny Bate in chapter 4, returning to quoted dialogue on page 72 to end the scene.
More omniscient tactics
In a few Ricky Hawthorne chapters, the narrator describes him externally while he’s sleeping. Then, on page 82, the narrator head-hops to Stella’s POV: “When she returned nearly thirty minutes later, he was sitting up in bed looking confused. The pouches beneath his eyes were larger than usual.”
A few pages later, “While Ricky hurried into a scalding shower, Lewis Benedikt was jogging a regular two miles before making breakfast for himself…” (84).
Head-hopping continues throughout the book. Here’s a favorite passage from section II, chapter 1, that demonstrates the power of an omniscient narrator to make comments and jump in time:
The following events occurred a year and a day earlier, in the evening of the last day of their golden age. None of them knew it was their golden age, nor that it was coming to an end….
In Part Two, section III, “The Town,” chapter 1, the first long paragraph does not reveal a narrator. This is omniscient, as well as these:
We dip into Elmer Scales’s thoughts: “…come from Mary boy maybe you do…” and “He could not possibly have foreseen and understood what he would be doing with that shotgun in two months’ time” (233).
Then into Walt Hardesty’s sour attitude: “Dr. Dope Fiend Jaffrey… Mr. Ricky-Snob-Hawthorne-With-Horns and Mr. Sears and Roebuck Snob James…” (233).
Expositional summary: “But Don does not know, so he cannot put in his journal…” (233).
We hop into Milly Sheehan’s head and then Don Wanderly’s on 234.
This scene is wholly of the external narrator, which Straub executes expertly.
Finally, in the climax scene, Ricky, Don, and Peter are in a tenement bedroom where Anna Mostyn disintegrates. Then, in the next paragraph, the narrator whisks us “Thirteen blocks away…” (494).
I’ve rarely experienced such narratorial complexity in any other novel. But that’s part of what makes Ghost Story great—as well as a bestseller. I hope to do as well someday.
Despite its use of time-worn horror conventions and tropes, Paranormal Activity (2007) manages to instill the creeps and dish out the scares.
Director Oren Peli’s ultra-low-budget film features a supernatural haunting by a demon in a home footage/amateur documentary format. Originally shot for $15,000, it’s “the most profitable film ever made, based on return on investment” (“Paranormal Activity”).
This movie touches all the bases for a supernatural horror flick and checks off a number of what many consider are tired genre tropes. Yet it still scares the crap out of viewers.
Tropes and conventions
Here are a few conventions and tropes in this first of the Paranormal Activity series.
Boyfriend who’s a jerk
Micah and Katie live together in his nice two-story house. She’s still a student; he’s a day trader with a thing for electronics.
Throughout the story, Micah demonstrates his dickishness by scorning Katie’s caution (respect) for the supernatural presence, her trust in experts (a psychic and a demonologist), and her disdain for contacting the presence using a spirit board. Later, he throws in her face that she’s the one who’s brought the malevolent presence into his house, using it as leverage to get his way in dealing with the spirit.
Throughout, he pooh-poohs the experts and instead wants to “take care of it,” “solve the problem” himself, but exhausts his plans to deal with the menace.
His disregard of Katie’s wishes by bringing home a spirit board shows his disrespect for his girlfriend and the demonic presence. His bravado makes the situation worse.
Micah’s character does double duty in also playing the part of the “over-reacher” who pursues occult knowledge to destruction (Carroll).
Making contact with a forbidden spirit board
This trope appears in many stories. Most notably in Blatty’s The Exorcist, where “the Ouija board was depicted as a mystical device that lured the demon Pazuzu to possess and otherwise plague Regan McNeil” (“Ouija Board”).
So, this has been done before (see “Horror Movies Featuring the Ouija Board”). But it does its job in Paranormal Activity in an omniscient scene where the camera is left running while no characters are present to witness the planchette moving and the board spontaneously catching fire. Micah’s obstinance about using the board—despite Katie’s fear and insistence against it—produces the negative energy that Dr. Fredrichs cautioned them about.
Occult experts and book research
We’ve got both in Paranormal Activity. Dr. Fredrichs is a psychic who’s not particularly woo-woo but instead asks questions to eliminate natural causes for the phenomena the young couple is experiencing.
Dr. Averies is a demonologist who, because of Katie’s hesitation in contacting him (due to Micah’s recalcitrance), is unable to help them because he’s out of the country.
Wanting to tackle the problem himself, Micah does research from books about ghosts and demons. We see shots of their pages with lurid etchings and drawings of demonic entities. Standard fare in many movies about the occult. These authorities provide “expert” information about what’s going on and constrict the parameters of Micah and Katie’s situation: “Leaving the house won’t help” (thus locking them into the setting where the spirit rules).
Carroll’s over-reacher plot
As mentioned above, Micah plays the part of the over-reacher, whom Noël Carroll describes as a “central character… in search of forbidden knowledge—scientific, magical, or occult” (Carroll, The Philosophy of Horror, 118).
Paranormal Activity employs the over-reacher plot in which this “discovered knowledge is tested by an experiment or incantation of evil forces” (118). It progresses through these stages:
Preparing for the experiment:
Practical preparation: Micah buys the camera and other equipment needed to capture the paranormal activity so that it can be analyzed.
Philosophical preparation: Dr. Fredrichs’ explanation and Micah’s research (through books and Diane’s website) provide background information and justification for the experiment.
Preparations provide time and coverage to include setting, other characters (Katie’s sister), and Micah and Katie’s relationship dynamics. Carroll notes that during this stage, characters may resist the experiment. Katie does this with her disgust over the camera and the Ouija board.
Conducting the experiment:
Early attempts may fail. This happens when Katie finds her keys on the kitchen floor. And early footage of their sleep provides nothing conclusive.
The experiment succeeds and makes things worse. It unleashes dangerous, uncontrollable forces which usually destroy those nearest and dearest to the experimenter (Carroll). This happens after Micah brings the spirit board home. Katie is dragged out of bed. Inhuman, three-toed footprints show up on the powdered floor.
The entity’s destruction leads the experimenter to come to his senses and recant. Or not. Micah finds himself in too deep to fix things. Instead of coming to his senses, he doubles down by burning the cross Katie has cut herself with.
Confronting the supernatural entity:
First attempt(s) may fail. Micah tries to get Katie away from the house to a hotel, but she no longer wants to. They remain in the house for the…
“All-or-nothing battle with a climax.” Katie becomes possessed. I won’t spoil the ending. But I will say the climax is effective.
This plot demonstrates the theme that some knowledge is better left unpursued (Carroll 118).
Despite its use of time-worn conventions and tropes, Paranormal Activity manages to depict characters you can care about and creates suspense, horror, and terror to carry a series still making installments fifteen years later. I enjoyed the flick. Gave me a good scare.
Carroll, Noël. The Philosophy of Horror. Routledge, 1990.
In both Ghostbusters (1984) and Ghostbusters: Answer the Call (2016), four wacky characters find themselves out of jobs and band together to form a supernatural pest-removal business, where paranormal investigation meets high-tech extermination. They’re called “ghostbusters.”
I can say little of depth about either of the films—especially the first one. The four male characters are sophomoric, and the comedy—characteristic of Saturday Night Live of that era—is bad and stupid. (Director Ivan Reitman, who died in February, also directed such gems as Meatballs and Stripes. Blech.) The special effects are so terrible they’re laughable.
Despite its coarse execution, Ghostbusters managed to tell a decent story that starred Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Ernie Hudson, Annie Potts, Sigourney Weaver, and Rick Moranis.
Yet, the story got way better when it was reinterpreted and recast with four women: Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones. (And I didn’t mind screen time with the big, dumb receptionist, played by Chris Hemsworth.)
The 2016 version basically tells the original story with some freshening. The ladies are still sophomoric, but they are way funnier, the writing is better, and the special effects are much improved.
The remake contained lots of fun references to the 1984 version: the Ecto-1 mobile, the slime, the gluttonous ghosts, the Stay Puft marshmallow man, Hook & Ladder #8, and cameos my Murray, Aykroyd, Potts, Hudson, and Weaver.
The National Comedy Center in Jamestown, New York, where I live, was dedicated a few years back, and I saw (and touched—don’t tell anyone) the original Ecto-1 mobile. Maybe someday it will visit your town too.
Since reading Jordan Rosenfeld’s Writing the Intimate Character(Writer’s Digest Books, 2016), my eyes have been opened to recognize omniscient POV and its techniques. We’re seven for eight with omniscient novels for my MFA Readings in the Genre: The Haunted class. Of all the books I’ve read, Stephen King’s The Shining is my favorite execution of the external narrator. King manages to employ the best techniques of greater omniscience as well as close third, executing both perfectly.
With his first line, King establishes third-person POV with the filtered yet italicized thought of the protagonist/antagonist: “Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick” (3). More narrated interior monologue appears on page 6. The final paragraph of chapter one ends with summary and comment: “…he was glad Ullman didn’t offer to shake hands. There were hard feelings. All kinds of them” (14).
In chapter two, King brings Wendy’s POV on stage. Chapter three moves back to Jack’s. And four introduces five-year-old Danny. King represents a young but bright boy adequately without being literarily strangled by the constraints of internal close third.
Chapter five starts in Jack’s POV, then offers a paragraph of Danny’s on page 51, and reverts to Jack inside the Rexall drugstore. Here’s something that a writer can do in omniscient third but not in internal third: “Jack felt a wave of nearly desperate love for the boy. The emotion showed on his face as a stony grimness” (52, emphasis mine). King weaves inner monologue and flashback, follows with a paragraph of Danny’s POV on 64, then closes with Jack.
POV hops from Danny to Wendy and back in chapter eleven (114). Dick Hallorann shares a private moment with Danny, who pitches his powerful psychic fastball at Dick. The chapter closes in Dick’s POV (127).
Another touch unique to omniscient is: “Jack and Wendy… didn’t look down at Danny, who was staring” (133). If they weren’t looking, who noticed the boy staring? The omniscient external narrator. He/she sees what even the characters don’t or can’t.
The first paragraph of chapter thirteen presents the Torrance family portrait before things get rough:
The Torrance family stood together on the long front porch of the Overlook Hotel as if posing for a family portrait, Danny in the middle, zippered into last year’s fall jacket…, Wendy behind him with one hand on his shoulder, and Jack to his left, his own hand resting lightly on his son’s head. (143)
Can you picture this from the narrating global consciousness hovering before the front steps? I can. The writing is so simple, yet King is masterful at painting pictures and making characters come alive in readers’ minds.
On page 193 there’s a time jump to the future and back when Danny is stung by wasps: “Oh Danny… oh, your poor hand.!” / “Later, the doctor would count eleven separate stings. Now all they saw…” (emphasis mine).
Part 4 is introduced omnisciently with “Her hands grew slower and slower, and at the time her son was making the acquaintance of Room 217’s long-term resident, Wendy was asleep with her knitting on her lap” (325). An internal narrator cannot see another character on a different floor nor report any actions or perceptions while asleep. But it works with omniscient.
At the beginning of chapter twenty-seven King performs more sleight of hand: “She didn’t look up…, but if she had, she would have seen Danny…” (336).
POV switches from Jack to Wendy on 358–359 and back over the next few pages, then to Danny on 366. King references Shirley Jackson’s Hill House on page 414. And summarizes that autumn at the Overlook starting on 417.
Danny’s face is described externally at the bottom of 423, and Jack’s POV mentions his “sore-looking lips” (431)—both no-no’s in internal third.
I think I found a mistake (subject/verb agreement) on page 442: “There was three splotches of blood….”
The narrator takes a high-level view of the Overlook, telling its history over time, 447–448.
Dick Hallorann is introduced omnisciently in chapter forty-seven (457). When Dick is reeling from Danny’s psychic cry for help and swerving all over a Florida highway, the POV impressively head-hops in a lane-switch from Hallorann to the Pinto driver, 461–462.
The narrator forecasts the future here: “There would be little sleep for them that night…” Then shares Danny’s and Wendy’s thoughts from bed, finally moving outside: “The hotel creaked around them. Outside the snow had begun to spit down from a sky like lead” (482–483).
Omniscient can get away with filtering the perceptions of two (or more) characters at a time: “And they both heard the vicious, descending swing of the invisible club…” (496, emphasis mine). There’s a jump from Hallorann outside the hotel to Jack inside on 613.
The omniscience overhead camera swoops all over the place with the explosion of the hotel, 640–641.
If I’ve learned anything from this course, it’s that omniscient is a good choice for tales of hauntings, the spirit realm, psychic gifts, and tragic protagonists who perish before the book ends. The Shining was a good novel, one of King’s best, and I recommend it even if you don’t give a fig about external omniscient POV.
The Amityville Horror is a 1977 creative nonfiction book by Jay Anson. “Creative” could very well mean “stretching the truth” because the veracity of the account has been hotly contested (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Amityville_Horror). The original cover of the book included the subtitle: “A True Story.”
Since I have nothing to add concerning the truthfulness of the events or paranormal phenomena that allegedly took place in the Long Island Dutch Colonial, I’ll focus on Anson’s use of omniscient POV.
Tasks of creative nonfiction writers
First off, readers are aware of and accept the author as narrator in the creative nonfiction format. I’m certainly no expert about this type of writing, but we understand that the development of such accounts involves writers performing tasks such as:
Interviewing everyone involved in the events
Researching ancillary information such as news reports, weather history, public records, and more
Hopefully double-checking facts
Drafting all the information into a narrative that presents the people and events understandably
Adding their own slant on the telling of the narrative, which includes surmisings, opinions, and commentary
This final point is a primary reason such books must be written in omniscient POV. The author, like a fictional omniscient narrator, stands outside the events and reports them after the fact from his or her perspective as researcher, interviewer, and interpreter.
Examples of Anson’s POV techniques
In chapter 1, Anson provides an expository overview of the Lutzes, the purchase of their new home at 112 Ocean Avenue (including diagrams of floor plans), and the events leading up to the start of paranormal activity. Although Anson includes brief commentary such as “Irritated, he returned to the truck…” (15, emphasis mine), he does not dip into the consciousness of any characters (real-life players).
Chapter 2 employs omniscient POV, beginning with Father Frank Mancuso. The opening paragraph is pure exposition about the priest. The second zooms closer with the start of his day. (17) Shortly, the first switch to another character’s POV is introduced. Here’s how Anson accomplishes the transition:
[Mancuso:] Father Mancuso had met George Lee Lutz two years earlier. … The three children were Kathy’s from a previous marriage, and as a priest to Catholic children, Father Mancuso [omniscient filtering:] felt a personal need to look after their interests.
[Both Kathy and George:] The young couple had often asked the friendly cleric with the neatly trimmed beard to come for lunch or dinner at their home in Deer Park. … [George:] Now, George had a very special reason to invite him anew: [interior monologue:] Would he come to Amityville to bless their new house? (17–18)
Several paragraphs of action and dialogue from Mancuso’s viewpoint follow. After Mancuso blesses the Lutz’s new house, Anson switches to Kathy’s POV: “Kathy really wanted to thank Father Mancuso for his contribution to the occasion” (19).
With all the bashing of head-hopping in writing circles, Anson (and many other writers of both fiction and nonfiction) employ it with aplomb. Here’s a remarkable example:
[George:] He liked the way both boys looked after little Missy. … [Interior monologue, a close mode:] They’re three nice kids I’ve got.
[Expository transition:] [George:] It was after six before George finally fell into a deep sleep. [Kathy:] Kathy woke up a few minutes later.
[Kathy] She looked around this strange room, trying to put her thoughts together. … (26)
On page 29, Anson makes an omniscient statement about the entire Lutz family that summarizes time as well as his commentary: “Over the next two days, the Lutz family began to go through a collective personality change.”
In chapter 4, Anson adds an omniscient grace note that’s easily missed. Kathy is in the kitchen when she feels a woman’s ghostly touch on her hand. Then, in the following paragraph: “‘Mommy! Come up here, quick!’ It was Chris, calling from the third floor hallway” (32, emphasis mine). If this were internal close third POV, the italicized portion would be a mistake; Kathy could not know for sure where Chris was when he called for her. But it’s a permissible technique in external omniscient.
Anson draws close to Kathy on page 41, including italicized direct thought: “Shaking, Kathy returned downstairs to her shelving. Cool down, she told herself.” Although the thoughts are direct, omniscient includes the attribution.
When George and Father Mancuso are on one of their many telephone calls interrupted by crackling, Anson inserts an omniscient statement: “Both men pulled back from their earpieces in surprise” (46, emphasis mine). Only an external omniscient narrator can pull this off.
Anson achieves another nice transition that’s downright cinematic:
[Lutz home, Amityville:] The snow had stopped falling in Amityville, as it had [traveling transition:] fifteen miles away outside the windows of the Long Island rectory.
[Mancuso:] Father Mancuso turned away from his window. (58–59)
In a single scene, the omniscient narrator moves from Mancuso to Officer Gionfriddo:
[Mancuso:] “[Mancuso] looked up at Gionfriddo, trying to read the expression on his face. …
[Gionfriddo:] Gionfriddo quickly read the priest’s thoughts…” (80)
Two pages later, Anson transitions from the police officer, who’s parked in front of a bar George just entered, to George:
[Gionfriddo:] Gionfriddo… pulled away from the curb, burning rubber like a hot rodder.
[George:] Inside the Witch’s Brew, George Lutz ordered his first beer. (82)
Head-hopping continues from George to Kathy in the same paragraph: “But, tossing and turning, he couldn’t find a comfortable position. In her sleep, Kathy was bothered by his restlessness…” (97). Additional instances occur on pages 113, 122, 130, 181, and 184.
As I mentioned previously, writers of craft books often decry head-hopping. But it’s done, it works, and it doesn’t bother me. Does it bother you?
One thing that did irk me was Anson’s overuse of exclamation points! He (too) often used them at the end of chapters (54, 68)! They kill the creepiness and seem cheesy!
So… Was Anson’s a true account of a haunted, possessed house? We’ll never know.
A fascinating possibility
If Amityville is partially or even wholly fictitious, it still works as horror. I’m not familiar with any other novels that use a straight creative nonfiction narrative format to tell a fictional story. (If you know of any, please include the author and title in a comment.) But it would be fascinating to explore this possibility, producing a (perhaps) more believable narrative like film’s “mockumentary” format. Artifacts such as floor plans would lend credibility. Feature-writing journalists would be ideal candidates to write such fiction.
Next up, Stir of Echoes (1999)…
Anson, Jay. The Amityville Horror. Gallery Books, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster Inc., 2019.
It’s the middle of the night. You’re lying in bed, almost asleep. But a banging wakes you. Your eyes fly open and your heart freezes. What is it? You can’t imagine what it could be. Is it a ghost—or your radiator?
When faced with inexplicable happenings in your home, a place you want to consider a safe haven, it may take time to discern the source. At first you may have no explanation for the events and phenomena. If you can find no natural cause, you may fear what’s happening. Assigning possible meaning requires you to question, research, test, and evaluate.
If you diligently rule out natural causes and consider that such happenings as seeing balls of light, glimpsing shadowy figures, and being touched by unseen presences in the night are supernatural in origin, where does it leave you?
You might decide to do nothing. If so, can you learn to live with spirit housemates? You would need to overcome fear of spirits manifesting in your personal space. For example, if you heard a disembodied voice say, “I love you” in your dark cellar, how would you feel? Warm and fuzzy? Or scared shitless? Would you ever get used to it? You could try, but you may never become perfectly comfortable with such contact.
You may face loneliness, wondering why these strange things are happening to you and your family. Could you confide in anyone else about them? Who?
If you admit to a confidant that you believe what’s happening in your home is supernatural, would they believe you? Will they accept and help you, or mock and reject you? Receiving criticism might make anyone hesitate to share their paranormal experiences with others.
In Grave’s End: A True Ghost Story, an allegedly true account of a haunted home, Elaine Mercado’s husband personifies dogged unwillingness to attribute events to supernatural causes. He provides for Elaine and their daughters plenty of doubt, disbelief, disagreement, sarcasm, and harassment. After Mercado deals with unpleasant phenomena, such opposition simply piles on more grief.
At another point in the narrative, her husband suggests a different approach. He says, “…I couldn’t figure out what was happening to me. I think if we just keep our heads, whatever it is will just go away” (71).
But what if you do keep your head, and it doesn’t go away?
You could move. Yet, what if, like Elaine Mercado, you have nowhere else to go? You may be unable to escape elsewhere on your own. Elaine found herself in this situation before she became a nurse; she couldn’t afford to take the girls and move out.
Mercado is obviously an anxious person, overprotective, prone to worry. Even if you aren’t, many reasons could prevent you from leaving a problem house. If you could afford to vacate, like most people you may be reluctant to make such a drastic change. (Some folks don’t flee abusive relationships for the same reasons.) It makes it even harder to go if the entities aren’t seriously hurting you.
With my study of Spiritualism and mediumship, the experiences in Mercado’s book rang true. Because of her doubts, her husband’s opposition, and all that she dealt with that I’ve outlined above, it took her a long time to acknowledge the source of the activity in her home. However, it boggles me that, suffering as she and her daughters did, she did nothing about itfor over a decade!
Mercado disliked the thought of a medium coming (109). As a result, she and her girls suffered a while longer. She and Karin weren’t sure they liked psychic Marisa Anderson “cleaning” the house. Finally, though, Mercado acknowledged that the trapped spirits were suffering and needed to be sent on their way toward the light.
Mercado concludes, “[Experiences with spirits] proved to me, without a doubt, that we survive our physical death” (174). Although not everyone will agree with her conviction, it came to her hard-earned.
I found Grave’s End a fascinating story about why spirits may linger on earthly properties and what one family did about a haunting. Such accounts provide rich fodder for conjuring fictional tales of the supernatural.
I’ve read a ton of books about the afterlife and a few specifically on rescuing spirits trapped in the physical realm. One such book I edited and published on this topic is by Doris and Hilary Severn called The Next Room [Kindle].)
The Others (2001), directed by Alejandro Amenábar, is one of my favorite supernatural horror/psychological thriller movies. It’s got everything I love: horror, the supernatural, the afterlife, mystery, suspense, Christianity, and Spiritualism. It shows what a haunting is like from “the other side.”
I could approach this film in so many ways. But I want to point out some things about darkness and blindness.
While the screen is still dark before the opening credits, a voiceover begins in which a woman says, “Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.” This is the first instance of information coming from darkness that can be taken two ways: as a mother telling her children a bedtime story (beginning with Genesis chapter 1, where God says, “Let there be light”), or a medium beginning a séance with a table full of sitters.
Grace lives with Anne and Nicholas in her island manse which she keeps in perpetual darkness because the children are photosensitive and will die if exposed to strong light. Yet light in the darkness is exactly what they all need.
It’s 1945, and Grace, played by Nichole Kidman, is still waiting for her husband Charles to return from the war. The previous house servants abandoned their positions some time ago. The children bemoan the fact that, like Daddy, everyone disappears and doesn’t return.
Because they cannot leave the house, Grace homeschools the children using a religious curriculum. She’s a devout Catholic who spends much time indoctrinating the youngsters about such subjects as the four hells, notably limbo for children. As a Christian, she believes in the afterlife. But her rigid doctrine blinds her to the reality that they’re all dead. Their experience fails to align with her beliefs, so she cannot understand the nature of their plight. How and when will the light dawn?
Grace tells Mrs. Mills, the head housekeeper, that she doesn’t like fantasies or “strange ideas,” which she says the children entertain. But the children are closer to the truth—Anne, especially—than their mother is. Anne hears and sees “others” in the house, including a boy named Victor. Yet even the girl is in the dark about the reality of the afterlife.
Who are they? “Ghosts?” her little brother asks. She tells him they’re not ghosts. “Ghosts aren’t like that,” meaning people—like the kids, mother, and servants. Rather, ghosts “go about in white sheets and carry chains.” This is simply more misinformation that blinds them to what the afterlife and spirits really are like.
When Grace herself hears evidence of others in the house, she rushes into the “junk room,” where everything, like ghosts, are covered with sheets. She finds a Victorian photo album of the dead, its subjects all with closed eyes, and begins to see the light.
Grace determines to leave the house for town to fetch the priest, but on her way, she becomes lost in a fog so thick she cannot see where she’s going. Miraculously, she meets Charles returning from battle. Because he is so shell-shocked, he’s unable to shed any light on their situation—until Anne tells him the truth. Although viewers are still kept in the dark about this secret, the result is that Charles departs.
Things come to a head when Grace awakes in horror to find that all the draperies in the house have been removed, spirited away. The house is filled with light, ghastly light. The “others” are forcing her to see the light. Upon searching the house, she discovers a photograph in the servants’ quarters. All three of the servants are dead. She’s been entertaining departed spirits.
During the climax, Grace and the children at last find the “others” sitting in an upstairs room. The old woman, the “witch” that Anne sketched, is engaged in automatic writing, scribbling words she hears from the other side. Words that Grace and her children are screaming: “We’re not dead!” This is a primary tenet of Spiritualism: the dead are only so-called, for “We affirm that the existence and personal identity of the individual continue after the change called death” (https://nsac.org/what-we-believe/principles/).
I love how the books and movies required for my MFA course are tying into everything I’ve studied. I’m impressed with the writers’ knowledge of Spiritualism. For example, when Anne is dressed in her communion gown (looking like a ghost), her change into the blind old woman is a reference to trance mediumship and the Spiritualist phenomenon of transfiguration. This scene foreshadows the end in which the séance reveals “the other side of the story.”
Although the medium is blind to the physical, she sees in Spirit. Because of her contact with the other side on behalf of the living, Grace and the children do see the light. But only concerning their current state: they are dead, this is what ghosts are like, and the house belongs to them. Instead of allowing the light of their new understanding to enable them to move on like Charles, they determine they will never leave. The final shot of the gates being chained indicates that what remains within are only ghosts.
To disembodied souls, the “soul body” is just as physical and solid to them as their physical bodies were, and instead of moving on (because they don’t know they’re supposed to), they remain on the earth plane among people who are still physically embodied.
The only problem is that disembodied souls usually cannot make themselves seen or heard by those still living. When loved ones and helpers in the spirit world come to escort them away from the physical realm, they refuse to go because they don’t believe they are “dead” (physically) and have no concept or belief in an afterlife.
The danger for these souls is becoming stuck on the earth plane instead of progressing to the joys of life in the higher astral realms.
Lee Allen Howard, How to Tell If Your House Is Haunted
I was excited to see a Douglas Clegg title included in our class reading. Years ago, I’d read Goat Dance, The Halloween Man, and Isis, a creepy novelette I especially love. When I saw that Isis was a prequel to the Harrow series, I was intrigued to dig into Nightmare House (1999, 2017), the first installment.
I admire Clegg as a gay writer (I considered him an early role model) and appreciate his accomplishments. He won the 1999 Bram Stoker Award and International Horror Guild Award for his collection The Nightmare Chronicles. More at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Douglas_Clegg#Writing_career. Clegg is great at characterization, dialogue, and action. And in Nightmare House, his gothic/romantic voice fits the book. But for someone so skilled at developing and sustaining mood and atmosphere, Nightmare House proved to be a disappointment for me.
In the first scene of the prologue, Esteban (yet unnamed) shares in first person a memory of his loving grandfather, who built Harrow house. The remembrance is so warm, I was puzzled by the penultimate paragraph, which came out of the blue and fell flat:
Some believed that a great treasure was buried within its walls; that screams came from Harrow more than once; that a madman built it for his own tomb; that no one willingly remained overnight in the house; that a child could still be heard keening from within on damp October nights.
Likewise for the second scene, about his naming. And the third, of his coming of age and being disowned. The paragraph at the bottom of page 9—“I felt I should be pursuing my dreams and ambitions. I went to live in New York, and my life as an adult began.”—provides no examples, like many other passages. If the opening pages should set the tone off the book, the prologue failed.
Chapter 1, section 1 failed to draw me in. Section 2 provided such a brief history of Ethan’s early life that I didn’t connect or care. In section 3, the writing is understandable enough but comes off as under-seasoned summary that barely scratches the surface of the statements it makes: “…my grandfather… collected ancient things and did not much of anything for the rest of his entire life” (15). This says so little to characterize the man.
In section 6, Clegg takes almost no opportunity to show or describe such a magnificent old house, for example: “…in the grand kitchen that seemed made to serve banquets” (21). That’s it. No more. The same for Wentworth: “Wentworth was a round woman whose eyes never seemed to close as she spoke of missing the old man and of the days when he was his usual self” (21).
Chapter 2, section 1: “I… am writing this as a warning to you…” (39). But I felt no sense of foreboding before or after this. Nothing had happened so far to instill a drop of dread. “And then, something happened, and the land where the house would be built acquired a sense of being unclean” (42). Something happened. Such vagueness neither inspires nor moves me. “Harrow… taught him much. Harrow changed him” (44). What? How? This is more bland, indefinite summary unsupported by examples.
In section 2 the POV changes to third, narrated by Ethan, with much filtering (felt, seemed, knew, imagined, heard) (45). But it never comes off as omniscient. It’s close, limited third with filtering.
Section 10 (62–64), Ethan encounters the apparition of a girl on the stairs and whiteness. While odd, it wasn’t frightening to me. In chapter 3, section 2, the strange phenomena continue, but Ethan has little emotional response except the urge to scream at the end. Maggie admits in section 7 that Harrow is haunted: “‘Everyone in the village knows it’” (74). Yet the statement tastes flat as week-old soda pop.
Chapter 4, section 2 – “Pocket Tells a Story Between Puffs of a Cigar.” Here, Clegg switches gears and has Officer Pocket tell a story in first person, revealing his philosophy and sagacity through comment. Pocket’s character (narrator) voice is individualized but becomes tedious despite the third-person/Ethan interludes in sections 3, 5, and 7. In chapter 7, Ethan reverts to first person “to tell you more about myself” (159). We’re back to third person in chapter 8. The change in POV lends variety, but I was never sure why Clegg was doing so.
Toward the end of chapter 8, random oddities happen in the house, but so what? Chapter 9, section 1, Pocket and Ethan shout at each other. This behavior is unmotivated and nonsensical. Maggie calls on the phone for help in section 3, where Ethan says, “The Devil is in this house.” Again, so what? Lake of detail, lack of example, lack of characterization make such statements ineffective. The characters have become puppets enacting a crude script.
By chapter 10, the book disintegrates into a quagmire of more nonsense—Isis Claviger and relics and a séance and Mathilde, who killed people. The brief investment in the story and characters I had gained by the middle I now lost altogether. Ethan says of the basement: “‘It’s a complete world beneath the house’” (198). But since so little of it is shown, it’s not believable or interesting. Pocket and Ethan find the symbol of the “Chymera Magick” (200), the mark of the spiritualists. I laughed. If you’re going to toss tropes in willy nilly, they should make some sense.
Ethan reverts to first-person narration in chapter 11, where he passes through an Egyptian pharaoh’s tomb. Then he forgets Maggie due to a drug mist in the air. Huh? Finally, Ethan encounters Mathilde, who is—gasp!—his mother (210). Mother possesses him, and he kills Pocket.
Epilogue: “…the house itself… has a will, endowed by the magic my grandfather practiced…” (234). Justin Gravesend wasn’t well-characterized as either a wicked or occult man. The mentioned visits from Crowley and Borden? (235) Unconvincing, which is one word that describes the whole book.
Although I’m disappointed in this one, Clegg has other terrific books. Bad Karma (originally published under the pen name Andrew Harper) is a favorite thriller I heartily recommend.
This post is part of class requirements for a “Readings in the Genre” (RIG) course I’m taking toward my MFA from Seton Hill University. This RIG is subtitled “The Haunted,” taught by Scott A. Johnson, MFA. This term, I’m expanding my knowledge and practice of POV, especially omniscient. So, as long as my assignments include books written in omniscient, I’ll blog about it here.
Richard Matheson’s 1971 novel, Hell House, is a nasty little haunted house story. It’s a harrowing, action-filled tale stuffed with debauchery and sex about “the Mt. Everest of haunted houses” (Matheson Hell House 17).
Like Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Hell House is written in third person omniscient. Unlike Jackson’s book, which is limited third omniscient, focusing on protagonist Eleanor Vance, Matheson encompasses all the characters with third person omniscient.
The subjective omniscient narrator
The primary difference between omniscient and other POVs (first or close/intimate third) has to do with the narrator.
Every story has a narrator, but with first and close third, the narrator is one of the characters in the story. With omniscient, the “narrator is not a character within the story but is positioned as an all-knowing… external narrative voice that provides a ‘god-like’ or ‘birds eye view’ perspective of the events within the story” (Cabal How to Write in Third Person Omniscient PoV, emphasis mine).
An objective omniscient narrator reports only what characters do but never what they think or feel. A subjective omniscient narrator can report both what characters think and feel, as well as what they do. Matheson’s omniscient narrator is subjective; we get the thoughts and feelings of all the characters.
Reading to discover POV
How an author handles POV isn’t always readily apparent. Sometimes, you must read a few chapters to fully discover the approach and techniques the author is using.
In the opening scene of Hell House, Matheson’s first line could belong to several POVs: “It had been raining hard since five o’clock that morning” (9). The second sentence provides the first real POV clue: “Brontean weather, Dr. Barrett thought” (9). In omniscient, character thoughts are usually presented indirectly, with a tag. (“Filtering” is acceptable in omniscient and actually necessary from an external viewpoint.) But we can’t be certain of the POV until we read further.
By the end of the first page, Matheson reveals another hint: “[Barrett] was a tall, slightly overweight man in his middle fifties, his thinning blond hair unchanged in color…” (9). We know the author is writing in third person. However, this outsider’s description of the doctor indicates that the narrator is telling the story from an external perspective.
Another clue on page 12 tells us, “Barrett looked appalled.” A close-third character/internal narrator would not describe himself in these ways. After a few scenes, the writing confirms that Barrett’s actions, thoughts, and feelings are reported externally.
As we read through the chapter dated December 20, 1970, we find Florence Tanner introduced in third person (20). Edith Barrett is introduced next with third person that seems closer than the previous two characters’ POVs. Fischer follows with another third person POV (23). By now, we’re able to determine that Matheson’s use of POV is subjective third person omniscient, which he applies to multiple characters.
Techniques belonging to omniscient POV
Omniscient is confirmed on page 27 with a description of multiple character action: “All of them gazed at the hill-ringed valley lying ahead…” (emphasis mine). This is direct reporting from an external narrator. On 29: “The cold was numbing, a clammy chill that seemed to dew itself around their bones (emphasis mine).”
In the December 21 chapter, the scene headed “2:21 p.m.,” the internal thoughts of Fischer (43) and Barrett show up in the same scene (44). At this scene’s end, Edith reads a list of psychic phenomena observed in the house, and the narrator expresses her thoughts (46). Here, we have the POVs of three characters shared in the same scene. This can only be done with subjective omniscient.
“Head-hopping,” as it’s called in literary circles, continues in many scenes (81). (And, contrary to popular belief, there’s nothing wrong with head-hopping—if it’s done right.) Matheson pulls it off skillfully. He even enters three heads in the same short paragraph: “Barrett… had not been aware… Florence sat stricken… Edith felt a rush of pity for her” (228).
Florence tells Fischer “the secret of Hell House”: “Controlled, multiple haunting” (174). Perhaps this is why Matheson used controlled third person omniscient POV to tell this ghostly tale…
I’ll be looking for more contemporary novels to study omniscient POV. I’ve included a short list at the end of this post.
As I read Hell House, I was impressed with Matheson’s knowledge of parapsychology and Spiritualism. His mention and portrayal of mental and physical mediumship; the use of a cabinet (an enclosed space to keep light out and energy in); Florence’s devotion, beliefs, and practices; and Fischer’s description of his boyhood abilities all rang true to my studies.
Other practices Matheson accurately mentioned include: psychometry with Daniel Belasco’s ring (130), Florence’s funeral prayer (129), her mention of guides and spirit doctors (131–132), the renowned physical mediums Daniel Dunglas Home and Eusapia Palladino (136), physical phenomena such as ectoplasmic masking (162ff), the difference between mental and physical mediums, and, sadly, Florence’s channeling of Red Cloud (64ff).
Matheson’s research on Spiritualism and the afterlife in Hell House was probably a carryover from his 1978 novel, What Dreams May Come, which I recommend for a Spiritualist portrayal of “life on the other side.”
This post is part of class requirements for a “Readings in the Genre” (RIG) course I’m taking toward my MFA from Seton Hill University. This particular RIG is subtitled “The Haunted,” taught by Scott A. Johnson, MFA. This term at Seton Hill University, I’m concentrating on expanding my knowledge and practice of POV, which I’ve studied for years and will continue to study until I master as many POVs as I can.
So much could be said about Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel, The Haunting of Hill House, a classic haunted house story. But in this post I’ll concentrate on Jackson’s use of point of view (POV).
In omniscient you can move from a highly external and distant perspective in one paragraph to a close, internal perspective in the next, so long as the switch makes sense to the story and isn’t too jarring for readers. … Omniscient allows you to move between internal and external viewpoints as needed, hop into the heads of multiple characters in a single scene, and offer information above, beyond, and outside the scope of the protagonist’s direct experience through an “all-knowing” narrator.
The book begins with a philosophical statement concerning “absolute reality” (Jackson and Miller 1). Background information follows about Dr. John Montague and his attempts to find individuals having some sort of psychic sensitivity to stay with him at Hill House, where he hopes to experience and study any supernatural manifestations that might happen there. The whole first scene is relayed in omniscient POV.
The next scenes introduce Eleanor Vance, Theodora, and Luke Sanderson omnisciently.
The scene beginning with “3” in chapter 1 contains very few POV clues. It consists entirely of dialogue between Eleanor, her sister, and her sister’s husband, who argue about whether Eleanor may take the car to drive to Hill House. However, in the final line, the brother-in-law says something, and the narrator states that he was “struck by a sudden idea” (8). This indicates that the hovering omniscience has encapsulated his head.
In the following scene, that hovering omniscience—which is like a globe of consciousness that can expand to include many characters, places, and times (as in the opening scene), or shrink to concentrate on the thoughts, feelings, and actions of a single character—engulfs and primarily accompanies protagonist Eleanor Vance.
Jackson provides no intimate scenes from any of the other characters’ viewpoints. Therefore, I would describe Jackson’s book as falling under the category of limited third omniscient: the story is told from an omniscient viewpoint in third person, and when intimate with one character, it is limited to her viewpoint.
Proximal shared POV
When other characters enter the contracted globe of consciousness surrounding Eleanor by becoming proximal to her, their thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and actions may also be also shared. For example:
When Eleanor and Theodora are huddled together in Eleanor’s room, “Eleanor and Theodora saw the wood of the door tremble and shake” (96, emphasis mine).
After a heated quarrel: “Silent, angry, hurt, they left Hill House side by side, walking together, each sorry for the other. … neither Eleanor nor Theodora reflected for a minute that it was imprudent for them to walk far from Hill House after dark” (127, emphasis mine).
Key uses of omniscient
A fine example of broad omniscience occurs at the end of chapter 3. Narratorial description skips from Mrs. Dudley at home in bed, Mrs. Sanderson 300 miles away, Theodora’s friend at home, the doctor’s wife, Eleanor’s sister, and an owl in the trees over Hill House! (67)
The final scene of the book mentions Mrs. Sanderson’s relief, Theodora’s friend’s delight, Luke’s escape to Paris, and Dr. Montague’s retirement. This final paragraph closes with a repeat of the first about the house from a broad omniscient scope.
Considering that the house takes on the status of an antagonistic character, omniscient works well. It enables the narrator to make many statements about the house such as: “Hill House itself, not sane, stood against its hills, holding darkness within” (182).
The expanded globe of consciousness can include philosophy, history, exposition about characters, the hills, and the house itself when no character is there to report his or her perceptions. The ideas, comments, and perceptions belong instead to the lofty narrator.
Omniscient is fitting for a psychological horror story about a house that may itself possess consciousness. Because the house is all-knowing, like omniscient POV, it’s able to invade and subsume the mind of the tragic Eleanor Vance.