Stir of Echoes demonstrates a post 9/11 trend I’ve noticed in dystopian literature—that of allowing the protagonist to have agency and to effect change in their world or surroundings. For example, in The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, and Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell the protagonists have no agency and the central story problem is not resolved. But after September 11, 2001 popular dystopian novels like The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, and Divergent by Veronica Roth allow the protagonists to reshape their world for the better. Now I realize we have been studying horror and not dystopian literature, but since they both fall into the realm of speculative fiction, I think this is an interesting quality to note, though in the case of these horror/ghost stories I don’t see it as a trend with a specific pivotal date.
In many of the stories we’ve read and watched this semester the end of the book reflects the conclusion of the story, but not necessarily a resolution of the original problem i.e. the haunting. In The Haunting of Hill House, Paranormal Activity, Nightmare House, The Others, and The Amityville Horror, the haunting continues throughout the story and beyond. By contrast, Stir of Echoes, Hell House, Ghost Story, and Grave’s End each give the protagonists the means to end the haunting.
Allowing the protagonists to find a solution doesn’t just kill the chance for either a sequel or a franchise to be developed around the same premise, it also removes the horror element. Horror could be defined as contact with the sublime—a manifestation of the unknowable, the awe-inspiring, the terrifying, something we mere mortals cannot measure or understand. But if the protagonist comes to at least a minimal understanding of the central problem of the story—enough to eliminate the problem or to set things right again—then they have peeked into the sublime and learned something. And that removes the horror.
When Kevin Bacon, as Tom Wiztsky, finds himself confronted with bizarre and frightening messages from beyond the grave, he doesn’t run away—instead he seeks to understand. He sees the messages as clues, as some riddle he can solve, despite the fact that the process seems to be driving him mad. And even when his wife loses faith in him, he declares that following this trail of clues is the most significant, most important thing he’s ever done in his life. We find out how deep his passions run when he digs up the entire back yard, then proceeds to rent tools to break through the concrete flooring in the tiny basement space under his kitchen.
Ultimately, very much like one would in a mystery story, Wiztsky solves the problem that caused the spirit of a young woman to haunt his house. He brings her killers to justice which frees her soul from its dark despair and allows her to move on. The haunting has ended. Similarly, the protagonists of Hell House, Ghost Story, and Grave’s End solve their respective mysteries and the haunting element is eliminated. That’s not to say Stir of Echoes didn’t have frightening or horrific moments—there were a few moments of body horror here and there that are still making me cringe. And of course the way that Tom Wiztsky seemed to be losing control of his life was also frightening.
I don’t necessarily see this as a similar trend to that which I have noted in dystopian fiction, but more of a stylistic choice. I think most readers find an ending with a full resolution to be more satisfying, and uplifting--and less frightening than one in which there is no hope of solving the story problem. But if an author’s goal is to curdle the blood and make the novel hard to shake for a reader, I would suggest not allowing the central story problem to resolve.