As part of my Audience Location Service, I often ask authors to list five words which describe their own fiction. It’s an exercise designed to help isolate exactly what their fiction is ‘about’ or like, so that a whole process of identifying its true market can begin.
But it’s interesting that the most common word which comes up in such an exercise is the word ‘haunting’. From authors who write detective fiction to those who write modern fables, from tales of deception or ennui to stories of modern relationships, I get this word coming up a lot as a description of the quality of a piece of work or set of works. This merits a deeper examination.
The verb ‘haunt’ has several related definitions. Obviously there’s the one about ghosts manifesting themselves in a particular place regularly; an ordinary person or animal can also ‘haunt’ a place or area. Then there’s the definition about something unpleasant continuing to affect or cause problems for someone or somewhere, like a city haunted by war. The one that most applies to us though is ‘to be persistently and disturbingly present in (the mind)'. ‘Haunt’ is from the Old French word hanter, which is of Germanic origin and is distantly related to ‘home’ — which may help us understand it a bit more.
The word itself has a certain quality, as C. S. Lewis delineated in his novel Perelandra:
It was just the word 'haunted'. 'Haunted'. . . 'haunting' . . . what a quality there is in that first syllable! Would not a child who had never heard the word before and did not know its meaning shudder at the mere sound if, as the day was closing in, it heard one of its elders say to another "This house is haunted"?
But what is actually occurring for a piece of fiction to be ‘haunting’?
I think what we are trying to describe is that, in a piece of work which evokes this word, there are things which linger with us invisibly, like ghosts. The mechanics of why they do so take us right to the heart of what a great deal of fiction is trying to do, which is to move an idea or set of ideas, or an image or set of images, from the author over to the reader. If we end up being ‘haunted’ by something in a story, the author has succeeded — the work has transmitted something so effectively that it ‘hangs around’ in our minds even after we have closed the book. But the reason why these things ‘stick’ has something to do, I think, with the make up of our minds.
Human thought has much to do with gaps, holes, incompletenesses, mysteries, voids. In thinking about anything, we are usually trying to achieve some kind of wholeness. Fiction works because of these incompletenesses: an author creates these gaps intentionally, and they act like vacuums, sucking in attention and eventually emotion. If an author does this well, he or she effectively becomes a manager of our attention and emotion, and can then choose to fill the created vacuums satisfactorily (in adventure stories or comedies) or leave them purposefully gaping (as in tragic tales or deeply ironic stories). Created vacuums evoke a sense of emptiness — that emptiness then draws in the images or ideas associated with it. If a vacuum or set of vacuums has been expertly conjured into being, this ‘drawing in’ lingers — and we experience what we call a ‘haunting’ sensation.
Tragedies and Ironies, because they leave the vacuums unfulfilled, are often more haunting than Epics or Comedies, but even the latter genres can still leave us with a lingering emptiness, depending on how effectively the vacuums have been created. The Lord of the Rings is a good example: though the plot vacuums are all settled by the end of the book, with order restored, the king on his throne and everything in its proper place, the story as a whole has managed to kindle such a sense of the vastness of time, and such an awareness of the passing of beautiful things from the world that we are nevertheless left with a haunted feeling.
‘Haunting’ should always be taken as a compliment: an author has triumphed. The concepts have been transferred; the effects of the story have lingered; the power of fiction has been exemplified.
Strive to haunt.