Folks, I’ve been writing dark fiction for over 50 years, and no one has ever “got” my writing like Kevin. His 5-star review of The Covenant Sacrifice made me weep in gratitude. 💗 Here’s the Goodreads review in its entirety.
In Lee Allen Howard’s gripping and haunting novel, The Covenant Sacrifice, readers are taken on a chilling journey into a remote rural community where the line between the living and the dead blurs, and the true monsters may not be what they seem. With a captivating blend of supernatural horror and psychological suspense, Howard weaves a tale that left me on the edge of my seat until the very last page.
The story revolves around Jarod Huntingdon, a man desperate to start a family but held back by his own uncertainties. Seeking clarity, Jarod returns to his hometown of Annastasis Creek after the passing of his childhood best friend’s father. However, his homecoming is marred by a violent rainstorm that isolates the community from the outside world, leading to the mysterious disappearance of its residents one by one.
As Jarod gets involved in the search efforts, he stumbles upon a centuries-old curse tied to the reappearance of cicadas. The curse, inflicted upon the community after a tragic house fire claimed the lives of five young people, demands a sinner to be sacrificed to appease its malevolent forces. Unraveling the secrets and facing the horrifying truth, Jarod must confront the defrocked pastor, Uriah Zalmon, who holds the key to breaking the curse.
Howard’s writing style is lyrical and atmospheric, painting a vivid and eerie portrait of Annastasis Creek and its residents. Howard builds suspense, ratcheting up the tension with each new revelation and eerie occurrence. The vivid descriptions of the cicadas’ song and the rain-soaked valley heighten the sense of dread that immersed me in a world teetering on the edge of darkness.
Jarod Huntingdon is a relatable and empathetic protagonist, struggling with his own fears and uncertainties while facing the horrors unfolding around him. The supporting characters, including the enigmatic Uriah Zalmon and the Covenant Trustees, adds depth and complexity to the narrative, with their motivations and secrets gradually unveiled.
The Covenant Sacrifice is more than a traditional horror novel. It explores themes of family, identity, and the destructive power of secrets. Through Jarod’s journey, Howard investigates the consequences of unresolved guilt, the dangers of blind faith, and the lengths people will go to protect their loved ones. The book also touches on social issues, tackling homophobia and the manipulation of religious doctrine with nuance and sensitivity.
With its blend of supernatural elements and psychological suspense, The Covenant Sacrifice will appeal to fans of horror and thriller genres. Howard masterfully crafts a story that kept me guessing, delivering both chilling scares and profound emotional resonance. As the dead return to Annastasis Creek and the cicadas’ relentless song fills the air, readers will find themselves captivated by this atmospheric and thought-provoking tale of darkness and redemption.
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.
William Peter Blatty’s 1971 blockbuster, The Exorcist, recounts the demonic possession of adolescent Regan “Rags” MacNeil in Georgetown, D.C., and how a beleaguered Catholic priest deals with it.
Regan becomes involved with a spirit entity known as Captain Howdy by using an Ouija board. She receives seemingly cogent answers from him. But spiritualistic manifestations soon commence: rapping at night, temperature changes, noxious smells.
As her physical and mental condition worsens, she’s briefly left in the care of director Burke Dennings, a jerk who ends up dead with his head turned halfway around. This demon means business.
When medical and psychiatric evaluations are depleted, Regan’s mother Chris turns to a Jesuit priest and psychiatrist, Damien Karras. Karras, who’s undergoing a crisis of faith, also exhausts his medical and psychiatric excuses for not acknowledging demonic interference nor wanting to perform an exorcism. Where The Exorcism of Emily Rose fails in its due diligence, Blatty covers all the bases. We learn much about psychiatric maladies and the history of Catholic exorcism. By examining and eliminating each possible earthly cause, we’re left with demon possession as the root of Regan’s deterioration.
Although Karras still doesn’t trust this diagnosis, he goes through the process of gaining permission from the Bishop, who calls in missionary priest Father Merrin as exorcist.
After a grueling days-long rite, Merrin dies of heart failure, leaving Karras to finish the job. Finally fueled by compassionate and righteous anger, Karras challenges the demon to infest him instead—then immediately leaps out the window (like Emily Rose will do) to his death, gaining faith and absolution before he passes.
By approaching a spiritual and religious solution from the POV of a man who’s seemingly lost his faith, Blatty avoids over-simplification, self-righteousness, and propaganda—the damning faults of Emily Rose. When Karras is forced to consider the demon’s unfair cruelty causing Regan’s plight and imminent demise, he becomes truly human and thus salvific, willing to offer all he has to deliver her. Despite the utter vulgarity of the demon’s speech, actions, and underhanded tactics throughout act two, the climax brought me to an inspiring catharsis. I caught a glimpse of Christ’s victory (Col. 2:15).
I found this novel to be thoughtful and thorough. Although the dialogue at times is insipid and could have been cleared of the countless “ohs” and “wells” and exclamation points, Blatty knows how to tell an ironclad story. And his employment of omniscient viewpoint (I’ll spare you the blow-by-blow analysis this time) is flawless. It’s no wonder this book is still in print.
Source: Blatty, William Peter. The Exorcist. Harper Paperbacks, 2011.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose
Director Scott Derrickson’s 2005 film, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, also deals with exorcism from a Catholic viewpoint but its ham-handed treatment amounts to little more than religious propaganda.
In the opening scene, we see shots of a crucifix on the wall and a figurine of a nun; the Rose family are devout Catholics. They’ve just lost their daughter Emily to a battle with demonic possession, and the attending exorcist, Father Moore, is accused of her death.
Moore’s goal is to validate possession in a court of law. The movie focuses on the trial and testimony of various experts, pitting materialistic science, including education and medicine, against faith, which in this case means Catholicism.
Although also a so-called man of faith, prosecutor Ethan Thomas isn’t Catholic. “Methodist, I think,” says Erin, Moore’s defense attorney. Between the lines: Thomas is a Protestant, which amounts to being an unbeliever. During the trial, attorney Thomas harasses a witness (showing how Protestants mock the true faith).
Emily was happy before she “went away to university” (read: beware the dangers of higher education, which will shipwreck your faith and open you to demons). She also went to a dance, a worldly activity of which her mother disapproved. A presence enters Emily’s dorm room and attacks her, but possession actually occurs at the hospital (a place of demonic infestation?). A neurologist examines her and suspects epilepsy. Emily discontinues medical treatment because she believes the cause is spiritual and consults exclusively with her priest. Moore advises her to stop taking the (fictional) medication Gambutrol (perhaps because medicine is a gamble?).
Erin calls an “expert” witness to the stand, although I would seriously question the expertise of anyone who appeals to Carlos Castenada… Why did the demons invade Emily? Dr. Adani believes it was because Emily was a “hypersensitive.” And why did the exorcism fail? Because of her medical treatment—specifically, taking medication. Gambutrol, it seems, locked her into the possessed state.
It turns out that Moore wasn’t as negligent as we were led to believe. He invited Cartwright, a medical doctor, to attend the exorcism. However, to meliorate any reliance on science or medicine, Cartwright is a Catholic and former parishioner of Moore’s. This doctor claims that Emily wasn’t schizophrenic or epileptic. And the horrors he witnessed during the exorcism started him praying again (science and medicine bow to faith). Cartwright says he’ll testify and gives Erin a cassette tape from Fr. Moore of the exorcism.
During a struggle with doubt, Erin finds a locket engraved with the initials “ECB,” which happen to be hers—Erin Christine Bruner. Despite her previously professed agnosticism, Christ is in the center of her name. She takes the locket as a sign she’s where she’s supposed to be at this time.
As soon as she accepts faith, she wakes at 3:00 a.m. (the “demonic witching hour”—I rolled my eyes like Regan MacNeil) to Emily screaming on tape, the recorder having started on its own. (Note that it’s a “Realistic” recorder, underscoring the reality of demons and the supernatural.) Erin detects the smell of something burning. In the film, several shots of smoke alarms are used—indicating technology (science) that fails to warn about the dangers of smoke and fire (the dark denizens of hell).
Fr. Moore recorded the ritual to authenticate it and provide a record for later review. He warns attendants during the exorcism, “Above all, do whatever I ask without question.” This is the film’s Catholic propaganda in a nutshell.
Moore admits the exorcism was “a complete failure” and that Emily refused to undergo another. He never told her to stop seeing her doctor. But he did tell her to stop taking Gambutrol: “She had to see this through to the end by faith alone.” Not science, not medicine, but faith.
Emily spoke in foreign languages during the exorcism. She may have been exposed to them earlier in life. If not, speaking in tongues—which evidenced the early Christian disciples’ baptism in the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:2)—is instead treated as demonic.
When Dr. Cartwright reneges to testify (loses faith to fear), he’s immediately struck and killed by a car. Without the doctor’s medical testimony, they’ve lost. Moore insists on testifying to tell Emily’s story.
The Virgin Mary delivers the Bad News to Emily: “The demons will stay where they are. You can choose to come with me in peace and leave your body, or stay and suffer.” The reason: “Through you, many will come to see that the realm of the spirit is real. The choice is yours.” “I choose to stay,” Emily says, in essence sealing her fate as a martyr, albeit for the wrong cause.
In her final letter to Fr. Moore, Emily writes, “God will triumph over evil. People will know that demons are real. … People say that God is dead. But how can they think that if I show them the devil?” This is nonsensical reasoning.
If a true believer (here meaning a devout Catholic) remains in demonic bondage by no fault of her own, even after crying out to God for deliverance, and it eventually causes her death, people will actually say that God is powerless and uncaring because God chose not to deliver an innocent, faithful servant.
It seems (according to the screenwriter Paul Harris Boardman, at least) that Mary is advocating for the devil instead of her Son, who never failed to cast out unclean spirits. The Apostle Peter says, “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power, and because God was with him, he went around doing good and healing everyone who was oppressed by the Devil” (Acts 10:38 ISV).
Thomas’s closing argument pins a natural explanation on Emily’s stigmata (and all things Catholic); Fr. Moore’s beliefs are based on archaic and irrational superstition. “Facts are what must matter,” says Thomas. “It wasn’t the devil that did this to Emily Rose, it was the defendant.”
Erin counters with: “Sincere belief is what determined her [Emily’s] choices and his [Moore’s]. … Facts leave no room for possibilities.” This sounds like “alternative facts” and “fake news” we’ve heard so much about in recent years…
By the end of the movie, I was weary of the propagandistic treatment and hackneyed tropes of Catholic exorcism. What Blatty’s book examines jesuitically (pun may apply here), Derrickson’s film ruins. The only thing that redeemed the movie was its ironic ending: Fr. Moore is found guilty of negligent homicide and is immediately sentenced, the jury recommending a sentence of time served. He’s guilty, but free to go.
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.
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].)
I just finished reading Kyle Winkler’s novella, The Nothing That Is, and I wanted to tell you about it. I loved it because it’s: 1) Short. 2) Contains delightful similes. 3) Quirky and weird. 4) Set in the 80s. 5) Darkly funny. 6) Mentions food, eating, and chafing dishes. 7) Actually freaked me out a few times.
About this last point: I read mostly horror, and it no longer scares me. Yet I found myself reeling on the brink of terror from Winkler’s descriptions of cosmic horrors, like I was about to lose my grip on reality and become untethered, set adrift in the chaotic void. His narrative is reminiscent of early Ramsey Campbell, the master of paranoiac disorientation.
I adored the characters and characterization. Tension mounts to the point of unbearability (a good thing, don’t you think?). I heart Kyle Winkler because of sentences like these: “I felt like I’d fallen behind the couch of reality…” (me too) and “My red-drenched hands hung at my sides like gore mittens.” Yeah, baby!
And 8) You can’t beat cosmic horror from the mouth of a dead raccoon.