Sunday, April 28, 2013

Deconstructing the Unreliable Narrator

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                                            The Speed of Dark – Available at

                            by Leigh M. Lane

The unreliable narrator, best exemplified by one of my biggest influences, Edgar Allan Poe, is an excellent choice of trope for writing horror and dark fiction.  Used in conjunction with first-person narration, it offers readers the opportunity to speculate beyond the provided information.  The narrator might be deceptive, misinformed, or delusional, but regardless of his or her motivations or frame of mind, the reader often draws more from what is missing from the narration than what is included.

Deconstructionism is a method of literary analysis that, among other techniques, looks between the lines to determine important plot points or themes.  When deconstructing the unreliable narrator, one might consider the reasons behind the skewed or omitted information.  For example, is the narrator in denial over an event, or perhaps trying to divert the reader from a sense of guilt or judgment?  How does this add to the plot?  Using Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” as a model, we might conclude that the narrator is petty or prone to exaggeration when he lures Fortunato into the catacombs; moreover, we can deduce that Fortunato is an innocent party and the victim of a senseless murder.

The unreliable narrator often portrays the point of view of a person of unsound mind.  By presenting a story that is clearly twisted or unreal as though it were undisputed truth, the author can offer great details about his or her characters.  Poe’s narrator in “The Tell-Tale Heart” is a great example of this.  Poe is able to portray the narrator as a tormented soul without ever offering any direct description of the person.  We don’t even know if the narrator is a man or a woman.  We do know, however, that he or she suffers from psychosis—but also possesses a sound conscience.  His or her response to the glass eye shows a tendency to project delusional attributes to inanimate objects.  The eye no more stares at the narrator than would a doll placed in the corner of the room, and yet it takes on dark, possibly even somehow harmful, attributes through the narrator’s unreliable filter.  The perceived heartbeat relays the guilt he or she feels over killing the kind, honest man who has opened his house to a person in need.  Thus, we can deduce that the narrator is a moral person who, due to a defect in perception in this one circumstance, has committed a terrible act.  What might have been Poe’s statement behind creating such a character?

I use the unreliable narrator in my short story “Plastic People,” using her psychosis to make a statement about petty, superficial people and the impact they can have on those around them.  The word “plastic” takes on a double meaning: the mannequins the narrator perceives to be tormenting her and the people who tormented her in real life.  Deconstructing her encounter, we can determine that she has somehow stood out since childhood and was left traumatized by her childhood bullies.

“Plastic People” is the closing story for Chase Enterprise’s new release, The Speed of Dark, which is available through the publisher’s website and Amazon.  It depicts a woman’s mental breakdown after learning she has lost both her husband and son in a car accident.


It all started on a warm summer evening. I was sitting on my porch, watching the stars emerge one by one in the dimming sky. There was a full moon that night, so big that it looked like it hovered right over town, looming just overhead like a spaceship from Hell, just waiting to swoop down over the unaware and the unwitting. On a night like this one, I think it very well could have done just that.

I was trying to spot constellations in the sky. The Dippers are the only ones I really knew, although I'm pretty sure I had found the Zodiac belt. Anyway, I was stargazing as Alison Franco came up the sidewalk with her stupid cocker spaniel. I hated the bitch with a deep passion, but I smiled politely. She smiled back, taking my gesture as an invitation to chat. She walked up the path to the house, keeping to the stepping-stones as if my lawn were molten lava. Her dog was not so courteous.

Her smile grew the closer she came to me. It was that nosey, I'm-still-better-than-you smile. I'm telling you, I cannot even put into words how much I hated her. . . .

Further reading:

You can find another example of the unreliable narrator in Lane’s traditional Gothic horror novel, Finding Poe, which was a finalist in the 2013 EPIC Awards in horror.

About Finding Poe:

When reality and fiction collide, there's no telling what horrors might ensue.

In the wake of her husband's haunted death, Karina must sift through the cryptic clues left behind in order to solve the mystery behind his suicide--all of which point back to the elusive man and author, Edgar Allan Poe. 

Karina soon finds that reality, dream, and nightmare have become fused into one as she journeys from a haunted lighthouse in New England to Baltimore, where the only man who might know the answers to her many questions resides.

But will she find her answers before insanity rips her grip on reality for good? Might a man she's never met hold the only key to a truth more shocking than even she could have imagined?

About Leigh M. Lane

Leigh M. Lane has been writing for over twenty years. She has ten published novels and twelve published short stories divided among different genre-specific pseudonyms. She is married to editor Thomas B. Lane, Jr. and currently resides in the beautiful mountains of western Montana.
Her other novels include The Hidden Valley Horror, inspired by Barker, Bradbury, and King, World-Mart, a tribute to Orwell, Serling, and Vonnegut, and the allegorical tale, Myths of Gods.  For more information about Leigh M. Lane and her writing, visit her website at

You can also find Leigh M. Lane on Facebook, Twitter, or her Amazon author page.


  1. Great article Leigh. It's been a long time since I've heard/read anything about unreliable narrators. I wonder if that's not due to the fact that most of what gets to the readers of today is spoon fed?

  2. Clayton, you've hit the nail on the head. When a writer like Leigh uses an unreliable narrator, she requires readers to think for themselves rather than simply telling them things. Actually, she requires readers to use ALL their abilities, experiences, and sensitivity to language to appreciate and understand what's happening. The writer just doesn't make it easy for them. The fact that there isn't always a reliable narrator is a major reason -- but not the only reason -- this story is so darn fine. But you know, the narrator is not always unreliable. Some of what she tells you, such as what torments and saddens her, is true. Much of the readers' task is to distinguish truth from falsehood, reality from fantasy.

    I'm really very honored to have Leigh as a guest.

  3. Excellent discussion of an important narrative tool. That this is a well-written post is no surprise given the excellence of the writer's stories in The Speed of Dark.