Harbingers of Horror: Five Books With Unreliable Narrators

Unreliable narrators bring me great joy. It’s not the idea that they’re tricking the reader that I find compelling—it’s all the more fascinating when a narrator can’t trust herself. In this way, unreliable narrators are harbingers of horror. What is more frightening than dementia, going crazy, or tipping over that fine line that separates sanity and insanity? And what’s more fascinating that the machinations of the human brain? When unreliable is done well—really well—you can’t hate the protagonist for fooling you. You empathize, and you burn to find out more about how the narrator’s brain works—or in some cases, what or whom is responsible for provoking delusions.

Even when the narrator deliberately withholds from the reader (as in the case of We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson), it is often justifiable withholding. Still, it begs the question: what responsibility does the author have to ...

cuckoo-song
liars
verity
Shirley Jackson We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Turn of the Screw

Five Books Featuring Unreliable Narrators

Deborah Kerr in The Innocents (1961), based on The Turn of the Screw

Unreliable narrators bring me great joy. It’s not the idea that they’re tricking the reader that I find compelling—it’s all the more fascinating when a narrator can’t trust herself. In this way, unreliable narrators are harbingers of horror. What is more frightening than dementia, going crazy, or tipping over that fine line that separates sanity and insanity? And what’s more fascinating that the machinations of the human brain? When unreliable is done well—really well—you can’t hate the protagonist for fooling you. You empathize, and you burn to find out more about how the narrator’s brain works—or in some cases, what or whom is responsible for provoking delusions.

Even when the narrator deliberately withholds from the reader (as in the case of We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson), it is often justifiable withholding. Still, it begs the question: what responsibility does the author have to ...

cuckoo-song
liars
verity
Shirley Jackson We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Turn of the Screw