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.
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.
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.