Unreliable Narrators

Caitlín R. Kiernan’s dark fantasy novel The Drowning Girl: A Memoir and Robert W. Chambers’ supernatural story collection The King in Yellow have several themes in common—ancient malign gods, hauntings, and madness-inducing works of art, for instance—but one of the most interesting is how the two authors handle unreliable narrators.

An unreliable narrator presents the story in such a biased, equivocating or delusional manner that the reader quickly realizes that his or her perspective cannot be thoroughly trusted. Therefore, using an unreliable narrator presents an interesting challenge to an author because mishandling such a narrator can result in damage to the reader’s suspension of disbelief; maintaining the illusion of believability is crucial in any fictional narrative but it’s especially important in science fiction, fantasy and horror. A well-done unreliable narrator gives the reader a satisfying puzzle as he or she tries to “read between the lines” to figure out what portions of the narration are (and are not) true within the artificial reality of the story. A poorly handled unreliable narrator often causes the reader to become dissatisfied and disengaged from the story.

The opening piece in The King in Yellow is a story titled “The Repairer of Reputations.” It is told from the point of view of Hildred Castaigne, whose backstory is that he fell off his horse, suffered from a head injury and spent time under the care of Dr. Archer in a private insane asylum. In the 4th and 5th paragraphs of the story, Castaigne truculently rejects the possibility that his mind is impaired:

At last he decided that I was well, and I, knowing that my mind had always been as sound as his, if not sounder, “paid my tuition” as he jokingly called it, and left. I told him, smiling, that I would get even with him for his mistake, and he laughed heartily, and asked me to call once in a while. I did so, hoping for a chance to even up accounts, but he gave me none, and I told him I would wait.

The fall from my horse had fortunately left no evil results; on the contrary it had changed my whole character for the better. From a lazy young man about town, I had become active, energetic, temperate, and above all—oh, above all else—ambitious.

Other characters, however, treat Castaigne as though he does suffer from some form of insanity, and he resents them for it:

He looked at me narrowly, much as Doctor Archer used to, and I knew he thought I was mentally unsound. Perhaps it was fortunate for him that he did not use the word lunatic just then. “No,” I replied to his unspoken thought, “I am not mentally weak; my mind is as healthy as Mr. Wilde’s.”

And later in the story:

“Have you never read it?” I asked.

“I? No, thank God! I don’t want to be driven crazy.”

I saw he regretted his speech as soon as he had uttered it. There is only one word which I loathe more than I do lunatic and that word is crazy.

The other characters are clearly taking such care to avoid angering or offending Castaigne that even a fairly careless reader realizes that all is not right within the confines of his skull. So, the puzzle that Chambers offers the reader through Castaigne is not whether the character is insane, because by the time we reach the final paragraphs of the story, it’s clear he’s a psychopath:

“Ah, you are the King,” I cried, “but I shall be King. Who are you to keep me from Empire over all the habitable earth! I was born the cousin of a king, but I shall be King!”

Louis stood white and rigid before me. Suddenly a man came running up Fourth Street, entered the gate of the Lethal Temple, traversed the path to the bronze doors at full speed, and plunged into the death chamber with the cry of one demented, and I laughed until I wept tears, for I had recognized Vance, and knew that Hawberk and his daughter were no longer in my way.

The puzzle lies in how profoundly his insanity affects his narration. It’s possible, for instance, to question the entire setting of the story in light of Castaigne’s madness. In the opening paragraph, Castaigne describes an America dotted with suicide chambers and a city full of dragoons of soldiers in bright blue uniforms. However, the disturbing chambers could be something as mundane as subway entrances; it’s easy enough to imagine a person with an impaired sense of reality hearing about someone killing themselves by falling on the tracks and gradually convincing themselves that the underground train stops were created for suicide. The soldiers could simply be blue-uniformed policemen. All of the futuristic/supernatural aspects of the story are ultimately suspect, but Chambers handles that deftly enough that reading the story is still a satisfying experience.

Furthermore, Chambers uses the reader’s increasing awareness of Castaigne’s psychopathy to increase plot tension and suspense. The reader becomes horrified as he or she reads about Castaigne’s unfolding plans to murder his decent cousin Louis’ likeable fiancée, and instead of hoping he succeeds (as would be the case with most first-person protagonists) hopes that he will fail. The reader breathes a sigh of relief at the end of the story when he or she learns that Castaigne ends up in an asylum for the criminally insane.

India “Imp” Morgan Phelps, the narrator of Caitlín R. Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl, is in many ways the exact opposite of Hildred Castaigne as a character. She’s likeable and wants to save her loved ones; she has no fantasies of murder or power. But like him, she is obsessive. She does not wish to inflict her madness on anyone else, but as an artist she feels compelled to create, and knows her creation is likely to be destructive. She seeks to contain the damage her work causes; Castaigne, by contrast, actively seeks to create a world in thrall to The King in Yellow’s evil. But perhaps most important, Imp accepts and is painfully aware of her own illness:

I’m crazy because Rosemary was crazy and had a kid, and Rosemary was crazy because my grandmother was crazy and had a kid (well, several, but only Rosemary lucked out and got the curse). I told Dr. Ogilvy the stories my grandmother used to tell about her mother’s sister, whose name was also Caroline. According to my grandmother, Caroline kept dead birds and mice in stoppered glass jars lined up on all her windowsills.

So, I have my amber bottles of pills, my mostly reliable pharmacopeia of antipsychotics and sedatives, which are not half so interesting as my great aunt’s bottles of mice and sparrows. I have Risperdol, Depakene, and Valium, and so far I’ve stayed out of Butler Hospital, and I’ve only tried to kill myself. And only once. Or twice. Maybe I have the drugs to thank for this, or maybe I have my painting to thank, or maybe it’s my paintings and the fact that my girlfriend puts up with my weird shit and makes sure I take the pills and is great in the sack.

Furthermore, Imp is quite upfront about the unreliable nature of her narration:

I can’t tell my story, or the parts of my story that I’m going to try to tell, without also telling parts of their stories. There’s too much overlap, too many occurrences one or the other of them set in motion, intentionally or unintentionally, and there’s no point doing this thing if all I can manage is a lie.

Which is not to say every word will be factual. Only that every word will be true. Or as true as I can manage.

Imp constantly questions herself and her own memories in a way that Hildred Castaigne never would:

A lot of my most interesting memories seem never to have taken place. I began keeping diaries after they locked Rosemary up at Butler and I went to live with Aunt Elaine in Cranston until I was eighteen, but even the diaries can’t be trusted. For instance, there’s a series of entries describing a trip to New Brunswick that I’m pretty sure I never took. It used to scare me, those recollections of things that never took place, but I’ve gotten used to it. And it doesn’t happen as much as it once did.

Imp is a troubled but decent young woman seeking the truth of her existence; Castaigne is a violent narcissist seeking to glorify himself and justify his repellent power fantasies. So, as the narrative of The Drowning Girl unfolds, an interesting reversal happens. The reader, who has been told right away by Imp that her memories are flawed and her mind fractured and heavily medicated, prone to “weird shit”, follows along with her story told in lucidly beautiful prose…and finds her logic and her motivations plausible. She comes off as mostly normal, aside from her obsessions. But since primary target of her obsession is finding out the truth, that aspect of her mental illness ultimately makes her come off as more (rather than less) believable:

I think maybe now I’m ready to try to write it out in some semblance of a story, what I recall of the first version of my meeting with Eva. A story is, by necessity, a sort of necessary fiction, right? If it’s meant to be a true story, then it becomes a synoptic history. I read that phrase someplace, but I can’t for the life of me recall when or where. But I mean, a “true” story, or what we call history, can only ever bear a passing resemblance to the facts, as history is far too complex to ever reduce to anything as clear-cut as a conventional narrative. My history, the history of a city or a nation, the history of a planet or the universe. We can only approximate. So, now that’s what I’ll do. I’ll write an approximation of that night, July 8, the most straightforward I can manage.

Kiernan increases plot tension and reader interest through Imp’s sympathetic portrayal. The reader cares about her welfare and is invested in her quest to sort out what’s happened to her. Unlike Castaigne, she’s got us in her corner, hoping her story doesn’t end in tragedy. The puzzles she presents to the reader are the same puzzles that she presents herself with, and it is through Imp’s scrupulous (if obsessive) journalistic instinct that she comes off as an ironically honest unreliable narrator.

And so we readers who have been repeatedly told by Imp that she is insane and not to be believed find her to be pretty trustworthy after all.

Student writers who wish to use unreliable narrators in their own fiction can learn a lot from reading The Drowning Girl and “The Repairer of Reputations.” Both are excellent examples of the narrator whose story is compromised due to insanity and both take complementary approaches to that technique.


Works Cited

Kiernan, Caitlín R. The Drowning Girl: A Memoir. New York: Roc, 2012. Print.

Chambers, Robert W. The King in Yellow. Amazon Digital Services, Inc., 2012. Electronic.

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