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Authors: Christopher Priest,A.S. Byatt,Hanif Kureishi,Ramsey Campbell,Matthew Holness,Jane Rogers,Adam Marek,Etgar Keret

The New Uncanny

BOOK: The New Uncanny
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First published in Great Britain in 2008 by Comma Press

Copyright © 2008 remains with the authors

This collection copyright © Comma Press

All rights reserved.

The right of the authors to be identified has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright Designs and Patent Act 1988

A CIP catalogue record of this book is available from the British Library.

This collection is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the authors’ imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities, is entirely coincidental. The opinions of the authors are not those of the publisher.

The publisher gratefully acknowledges assistance from the Arts Council England North West, and also the support of Literature Northwest.



Ra Page

Double Room

Ramsey Campbell


Matthew Holness

Seeing Double

Sara Maitland

The Underhouse

Gerard Woodward

The Dummy

Nicholas Royle

The Sorting Out

Christopher Priest


Jane Rogers

Dolls’ Eyes

A. S. Byatt


Adam Marek

Family Motel

Alison MacLeod

The Un(heim)lich(e) Man(oeuvre)

Ian Duhig

Long Ago, Yesterday

Hanif Kureishi

Continuous Manipulation

Frank Cottrell Boyce

Anette and I are Fucking in Hell

Etgar Keret


Recommended Read


I HAD A dream last night (but then I have it most nights) in which I found myself back home. Standing on the front lawn that’s now a patio, or in the bushes now cleared to make a widened drive, or from some other angle, I gazed trying to take in the usual four-square comfort of the sight: my parents’ house. Somehow though, for all its reassurances – the well-worn doorstep, the re-pointed wall – its familiarity saddened me. I knew it was a fake.

Beyond the obvious, certain features began to stand out as altered, their deformations almost spreading as I looked. The back garden seemed flatter, lower, quarried away somehow. Old familiars like the toolshed were left on stilts of bedrock, like museum pieces. Nothing about it was mine or belonged to the house I grew up in. The walls themselves seemed to thin and dry in front of me, mortar dropping from their cracks.

In happier versions of the dream I stay under long enough to realise it’s not all bad; this place is a duplicate. The real house remains preserved, some miles behind this one, in someone else’s keeping. But even knowing this, and having no sense of danger or threat to point to, I would still call it a nightmare.

In and of itself, this may not be an uncanny dream. In his famous essay of 1919 – the reason we’re all here – Freud listed eight officially uncanny tropes, that is to say eight irrational causes of fear deployed in literature:

(i) inanimate objects mistaken as animate (dolls, waxworks, automata, severed limbs, etc.),

(ii) animate beings behaving as if inanimate or mechanical (trances, epileptic fits, etc.),

(iii) being blinded,

(iv) the double (twins, doppelgangers, etc.),

(v) coincidences or repetitions,

(vi) being buried alive,

(vii) some all-controlling evil genius,

(viii) confusions between reality and imagination (waking dreams, etc).

What were these manifestations of exactly? To paraphrase, the uncanny is that which may be familiar, or ordinary, but somehow disturbs us, makes us uncomfortable, and in some cases gives us the full on willies. A murderer leaping into view unexpectedly in a horror film is not uncanny. The fear that we, the audience, feel is perfectly rational, empathetic fear for the character’s safety (and
through them
for our own). Nor is straightforward gore or gruesomeness uncanny – again our aversion to it is rational, natural. The uncanny is rather that subtler, added texture in a film or story (in the best cases, the
texture) specially applied to instil an inexplicable air of unease, a cognitive dissonance that mounts and mounts until we are almost literally ‘unnerved’. Freud, being a self-confessed interloper in the realm of aesthetics, grabbed what literary precedents he could, added a handful of his own experiences to flesh the list out, and then threw a single tarpaulin-theory over all of it: that these phenomena or situations scare us because they remind us of repressed belief-systems; either from childhood (like the belief that dolls can come to life, or the yearning to return to the womb), or from primitive stages of human development (like the belief in a protective twin-spirit accompanying us through life and death). Being reminded of these old, repressed ideas by an uncanny event or object, sends a shudder of recognition through us which we instantly revolt against. The fear of losing one’s eyes is a sublimation of the childhood castration complex. The fear of being buried alive indicates a repression of the childhood desire to return to the womb, and so on.

Each item on Freud’s list offers a kind of literary template, and together they provide writers and filmmakers with an ever dependable shopping list of shivers, a ‘goth-kitty’ to keep returning to indefinitely. Freud, and fellow psychoanalyst Ernst Jentsch, drew the beginnings of the list from the work of just one writer, E T A Hoffman, and largely from just one short story,
The Sandman
. But the vestiges of Freud’s list can be traced backwards or forwards in time, far beyond this one story. Clarence’s famous nightmare speech, in
Richard III
, chalks up three uncanny archetypes in almost as few lines with its talk of jewels lying in skulls on the sea-bed, crept ‘where the eyes did once inhabit […] as ‘twere in scorn of eyes’; there being much of Freud’s fear of being buried alive in his ensuing, sub-aquatic inability to ‘yield the ghost.’ Likewise, ninety years after the publication of Freud’s ideas, cinema’s love affairs with science fiction writers like Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick, and indeed the zombie genre, are all still in bloom, carrying forth an undiminished obsession with automatons, doubles and the living dead. Parallel to this, film’s fixation with the eye and its mutilation could be used to tell the story of cinema itself; from the eye-slitting of
Un chien andalou,
to the eye-gorging of Hitchcock’s
The Birds
, to the eye-replacing of
Minority Report
. It’s hard to find a sci-fi flick these days or a technologically assisted thriller that doesn’t have a retina-scan popping up in it. And every month a new film seems to arrive to play the uncanny card ever more explicitly: David Moreau and Xavier Palud’s
The Eye
(2008), Alexandre Aja’s
(2008), etc. There are even uncanny comedies like Graig Gillespie’s
Lars and the Real Girl

But to get back to my dream for a moment – as the narcissistic patient might say. The homestead remains central to all this. The haunted house is iconic in the oldest and newest of ghost stories (Freud confessed he would have made it number one in his list if it weren’t that, so often ‘the uncanny in it is too much intermixed with what is purely gruesome’). And away from horror, SF writers like Asimov and Dick always knew that robots aren’t all that menacing, until you invite one home.

But it’s more than this. The home is not just the setting and target of the threat. The uncanny is somehow
the home, or
it. It squats in the very word Freud used for ‘uncanny’ in German, ‘unheimliche’, meaning literally ‘un-homely’. It lies beneath the house, under that heavy architecture of habit and belief, buried. And for a reason. As for my particular dream, there remains something peculiarly uncanny about the anxiety in it – I’m convinced. Indeed this act of interpreting my own dreams – splitting the self and subject, with half of me climbing off the couch to look down – is also uncanny. Even more so, the facsimile of Freud that I, and so many other self-diagnosers, habitually refer to: that 2D cut-out of Freud, the blow-up effigy of him we call upon at parties or in the pub when making our almost evangelic deference: WWFS? (‘What Would Freud Say?’).

Some claim that we live in a uniquely uncanny age. Computer games and the internet provide more and more opportunities to duplicate ourselves – Facebook profiles, Flikr accounts, Second Life avatars – not to mention more opportunities to find ourselves duplicated by others: spoofed emails, identity theft, and so on. Other critics insist that the uncanny cuts much deeper than current fads and neuroses, and is timeless. The uncanny is a ‘crisis of the natural,’ argues Nicholas Royle (the literary theorist, not his uncanny namesake featured here). The uncanny destabilises ‘the reality of who one is, and what one is experiencing.’ It disturbs any straightforward sense of what is within and what without, and alerts us to the ‘foreign body’ within us. Or worse, makes us regard ourselves
a foreign body, a stranger.

Seeing as Freud took a single short story as his case study, rather than a patient, it only seems right for the editors of this anthology to test his theories on a sample of similarly unassuming short stories. This was our plan. Fourteen established writers were sent copies of the original essay (though many were familiar with it) and asked to respond directly and consciously, in any way they wished, with a new story. We were curious to see which archetypes still rang true and which, if any, paled. As it transpired, the earlier items on Freud’s list proved the most popular (dolls/automata, sleepwalking/epilepsy, blindness and doubles). As expected new technology provided plenty of confusion between the animate and inanimate, not just through computers, but also tactile, mechanical devices like Jane Rogers’ Ped-o-Matique. The eye found itself new spectacles – like the all-seeing ‘i’ of the internet in Ian Duhig’s story. But there were almost as many un-technological stories here too. Further down the list, the responses thinned. No stories came back about confusions between imagination and reality, or being buried alive. Only one writer explored the idea of a greater, controlling intelligence – namely Christopher Priest in his exposition of that seemingly modern threat, the stalker. And one writer, Etgar Keret explored a cause rather than a symptom of uncanny anxiety: Freud’s ‘fear of sex’.

BOOK: The New Uncanny
11.62Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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