Bewildering Stories Editorial
Dead Narrators and Ghosts
by Don Webb
Please consider this a footnote to the Submissions guidelines, which are a kind of reference work. It answers a question frequently asked by contributors and our Associate Editors alike: “What is the ‘dead narrator’ rule, and how do we apply it?”
The rule was formulated by the Review Editors several years ago. I forget who proposed it, but it was adopted by consensus.
Our “dead narrator” rule applies almost exclusively to first-person narration. It boils down to: We can’t have someone tell us a story and end it with “Bang, I was dead” or the equivalent.
Someone must live to tell the tale, otherwise the story logically cancels itself out. It’s like putting the story into a bottle, dropping the bottle into the sea and watching it sink to the bottom.
Does the rule apply to ghost stories? Not necessarily. BwS has nothing against ghost stories. A story can have all ghosts, all the time, or some ghosts, some of the time. They can tell their story to each other or to a live character; either way is okay. Thus, the “dead narrator” rule does not apply to characters like Hamlet’s father.
As in Hamlet, a ghost must have ghostly properties, of course, such as walking through walls, appearing in dream sequences, being visible only to one or more live characters, or having some other paranormal ability or limitation. Otherwise, the ghost may as well be a live character.
But a caution: Can a first-person narrator die and continue the narration as a ghost? Such a strategy is usually more trouble than it’s worth. Who is the ghost talking to, and how? It’s almost always easier to end the story with the “I” character alive. That’s what Albert Camus does with Meursault in L’Étranger.
One classic form of the ghost story is the necrologue, where characters from different times meet in a Paris café, usually, and hold very interesting conversations. They are ghosts, literally speaking, but otherwise they function as real people, complete with beverages and — who knows? — croissants.
I use that trope in the notes to “That Monkey is a Spanish Physicist.” Inviting Lucretius to a party has a serious implication, of course. He, among many ancients, would be fascinated by modern science.
But there’s a comic element, as well: how do ghosts communicate when they don’t speak the same language as other ghosts or live characters? Lucretius would find French rather funny, but he might soon be able to get the gist of the conversation. And his colleagues would understand him when he spoke to them in Latin.
Otherwise, the author would have to tie up the loose end by inviting a character from, say, Star Trek to bring along a “Universal Translator.” That just goes to show you: one can’t be too careful about these things.
Copyright © 2015 by Don Webb
for Bewildering Stories