Reed’s Recommendation Corner: Books with an Unreliable Narrator

 Across the street, under the spotlight of the only lamp, a figure appeared out of the mist. The figure stood over six feet tall, at least compared to the lamp post. There was menace radiating from every pore, and I ducked inside of an alleyway to avoid walking past on the same side of the street.

A simple, but ominous statement written from a person’s point of view. But what if that person wasn’t as reliable at describing their surrounds because of some other factor? What if the person in question was struggling with mental illness or inebriated? What if our narrator was considered unreliable for other reasons, such as old or young age? How does that change the story?

One of my favorite subgenres of horror involve narrators who we begin to discover might not be as truthful as they seem. This may be for various reasons - but is the story unfolding before us one of truth or one existing solely in the narrator’s mind? Will we actually have an answer by the time we finish? 

First, The September House by Carissa Orlando!

In September, the wall in the bedroom bleeds and the ghosts of murdered children begin to slowly appear. Otherwise, the house is perfect. Or at least, that’s how Margaret feels about the beautiful Victorian house that she and her husband Hal purchased. It’s been four years and this year seems like this will be the worst. Hal has gone missing and Margaret’s daughter is asking questions that she just doesn’t have answers for. 

What this starts as is a crazy old woman who has learned to live with her one-month-a-year haunting. What it ends as is a much deeper story involving trauma and abuse, where we end up questioning our perspectives on aging and mental health, but also on how we live with things that other people consider to be atrocious. The twists on this particular story nearly gave me whiplash a couple of times, but they did leave me screaming (in ferocious joy, at some points).  

The second book, coming from a much younger perspective, is She Is a Haunting by Trang Thanh Tran.

Jade Nguyen needs money for college, money that even with her meager savings and a scholarship, she doesn’t have. She decides to ask her estranged father for help, and is roped into spending five weeks with him in their home country of Vietnam. It’s not an easy thing, being a teenager close to independence who is still angry with her father’s abandonment. The house feels like something out of a nightmare - and to Jade, it seems hungry. She will go to great lengths to protect her sister who has travelled with her, even from herself. 

This novel really feels like a coming-of-age, where a young Vietnamese American teenager struggles with her identity, her sexuality, and poverty. She feels stuck and the house is just another trap to catch her. Throughout this, Jade makes some questionable decisions that make her even less reliable in the eyes of the reader. She’s young and angry, faced with the loss of her one escape from the family that feels like a blanket trapping her into being something she doesn’t want to be.

Both of these main characters make decisions bring everything else into doubt, but I found myself doubting even their most honest interactions with others. Both of these resolve themselves in different ways, but I found myself questioning my own belief structures. We are so quick to assume that something can’t be real, can’t be true, that we would rather find a way to simply dismiss it without really paying attention to what is happening. I am often fond of saying that humans only experience the world through our senses (albeit sometimes we can enhance those with tools we make). There is so much outside of those senses that we might not be able to experience and that we might not even know we aren’t experiencing! Meaning, we should never just dismiss someone entirely out of hand because of how they look, how old they are, where they are from, etc. Better to approach with empathy first, then judgment.

Thank you again for reading! We will be taking a break next week to prepare for our D&D Show at House of Bits on March 9th (called Roll for Initiative). If you are interested in attending, please contact me at any of my listed social media and I’ll direct you to tickets.

Remember, when the last page is turned and the last chapter is read, I shall be here with another recommendation, should you need it.