March 1, 2022
Nightmare House Falls Short
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.
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.(Clegg, 6–7)
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.
Clegg, Douglas. Nightmare House. Alkemara Press, 2017.Comments to this post
February 3, 2022
Third Person Subjective Omniscient POV in Hell House
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.
A word on Matheson’s portrayal of Spiritualism
Not many know this, but I studied Spiritualism intensively for five years, achieving the equivalent of a masters-level education through completing a year’s study with the Morris Pratt Institute, the educational branch of the National Spiritualist Association of Churches. I also attended a two-year ministerial program at Fellowships of the Spirit in Lily Dale, New York, what many consider to be the Spiritualist capital of the Western world. I practiced mediumship for several years. (Here’s a video I made about developing clairvoyance.)
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.”
Cabal, Alex. “How to Write in Third Person Omniscient PoV.” Scribophile, Scribophile, 9 Nov. 2021, https://www.scribophile.com/academy/using-third-person-omniscient-pov.
Matheson, Richard. Hell House. Tor, 1999.
Contemporary books written in omniscient:
Omniscient POV isn’t just for the Victorian age. Here are some recent popular books written in omniscient:
- Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
- Beartown, Fredrik Backman
- A Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin
- Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel
- Crazy Rich Asians, Kevin Kwan
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January 27, 2022
Limited Third Omniscient POV in The Haunting of Hill House
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).
What is omniscient POV?
Jordan Rosenfeld, in her excellent writing-craft book, Writing the Intimate Character, says:
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.(Rosenfeld 113)
In The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing, Alice LaPlante states that omniscient can employ any or all of the following narratorial abilities. You may implement them completely or limit them in whatever ways you, as writer, decide:
- Present dialogue (direct and indirect) of all characters
- Share every character’s thoughts and feelings
- Report all events and action (knows all)
- Describe everything—what characters can and cannot observe or sense
- Exposit everything—past, present, future (all-knowing)
- Comment on anything
Jackson does most of these things in Hill House.
Jackson’s use of POV in Hill House
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.
LaPlante, Alice. The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing. W.W. Norton & Company, 2007.
Jackson, Shirley, and Laura Miller. The Haunting of Hill House. Penguin Books, 2006.
Rosenfeld, Jordan. Writing the Intimate Character: Create Unique, Compelling Characters Through Mastery of Point of View. Writer’s Digest Books, 2016.