We tend to think of the unreliable narrator as a 20th century development. The unreliable narrator rejects the apparent objectivity of the omniscient narrator so beloved by the Victorians, warning us that all knowledge is subjective, all stories told from a viewpoint. So it’s a bit of a shock to run into the unreliable narrator in a pre-Victorian novel, 1824’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg (1770-1835).
Confessions is a horror story of man who takes the Presbyterian doctrine of predestination to its logical, or perhaps illogical, extreme: because God has determined from the beginning of time who will be saved and who will be damned, and because no man can be save by his own efforts, it follows that no man can be damned by his own efforts. Convinced he is among those who will be saved, our protagonist lies, steals, and kills in the name of God. And he does so at the suggestion of an individual who or may not be the Devil.
Confessions offers us two narrators, the first by a man supplying what is commonly known about the events involving the protagonist, and the second, a memoir composed by the protagonist himself. The contrast is an effective way of signaling the unreliability of both narratives, the first for not necessarily being correct, the second for not necessarily being honest.
The unreliability of the narrators serves two purposes. Hogg portrays the protagonist’s hypocrisy effectively. And he leaves us in doubt as to the reality of the supernatural elements.
Jump a century and a half, and we reach The Other, Thomas Tryon’s 1971 novel that helped kick off the horror craze of the 1970s. In many ways, The Other resembles Confessions. There are, in effect, two narrators, and we have strong reasons for doubting the accuracy of what either of them says.
Yet The Other is clearly a story of madness, although that madness is only slowly revealed as we turn the pages. Niles Perry becomes increasingly worried as his twin brother Holland shows signs of reckless and criminal behavior. The question of what Niles can do to stop Holland gets tangled up in the issue of how complicit Niles is in his brother’s behavior. The unreliable narrators keep us confused while setting up the problem, and ultimately they also provide a definitive horrific resolution.
Tryon is more subtle than Hogg. Hogg aims to expose hypocrisy, Tryon to undermine our certainty with madness. Hogg’s two narrators have completely different perspectives; Tryon’s are intimately related. Paradoxically, by the end we can be certain of what happened in The Other, while uncertainty lingers when one puts down Confessions.
Overall, both novels use their unreliable narrators to portray self-delusion. Whether hypocrisy or madness is the source (and are they so different?), the result is a protagonist who cannot admit the reality of who he is and what he has done. Curiously, the conclusion is both heartening and disturbing. It would seem that people wish to be good, and do not wish to be bad, yet are fully capable or rationalizing or irrationalizing their bad behavior.
It’s worth reading these two novels back to back, as I did, to get a broad idea of how the unreliable narrator can be used effectively in horror. If you have time for only one? Hogg will give you a supernatural story set in old Scotland with a depiction of moral depravity. Tryon will give you a sentimental account of an American childhood from several decades ago that has gone very, very wrong. Let your tastes be your guide.