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Authors: Marjorie Sandor

The Uncanny Reader

BOOK: The Uncanny Reader
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For Rory Watson, Poet and Professor Emeritus, University of Stirling, Scotland, with gratitude



A few years ago, a friend and I stayed the night in an English farmhouse rich in ghost stories. As our host led us around, I found myself shadowed by my childhood reading self: that devourer of supernatural tales, that reader with her forbidden flashlight, lost in the story but dimly aware of—and pleased by—the little circle of light and the way it boldly resisted the dark. And so I roamed the thousand-year-old house as if it were a book. I peered into the old closet on the landing, where once a young housemaid read her own forbidden book and left her candle's scorch mark on the ceiling. I stepped cautiously around the boggy shoreline of the small lake where, we were told, the figure of that young maid had been known to appear.

I left unhaunted.

Or so I thought. Back home in America, feeling curiously bereft, I started looking—in stories of the supernatural old and new—for my old reading self and her simple pleasures. She was long gone, but someone else began to show up. A reader who inclined toward stories fractured and stippled with uncertainty; stories set in entirely recognizable, earthly places and whose language undid the ordinary, button by button, then kept on going, until every last thread of the safe-and-the-known was unraveled. Sometimes these stories were set in romantic old houses far from home. But the newer stories took place in familiar cities and suburbs, in apartment buildings, commuter trains, and back gardens. Their strange acid dissolved the lines between public and private, animate and inanimate. Between the living and the dead.

In these stories—and increasingly in the newspaper, on the radio, and especially on the Internet—this reader was aware of a word that kept cropping up; everywhere she turned, there it was.


Old and homely and volatile, this word. Old Scots/Northern English, it's been traced as far back as 1593. In its simplest current usage, you'll find such slim definitions as “seemingly supernatural” and “mysterious.” But then again,
. Already a door has opened. Something is uncertain. We have stepped over the threshold into a haunted word, a way of perceiving, a way of saying. In fact, if you look back to its origins, you discover that the word “canny”—Scots-Gaelic for “cunning” and “knowledge”—also meant, very early on, “supernaturally wise.” You might say that from the get-go “canny” had a shadow self, a doppelgänger waiting to emerge.

Why am I telling you this at the beginning of an anthology of short stories? Because it was this capacity in the word itself that led me to collect thirty-one stories that do not fit neatly into one literary category—ranging as they do from the darkly obsessive to the subversively political, from the ghostly to the satirical.

By the late eighteenth century, the word “uncannie” can be found burrowing into stories and poems with homely force. Read the “Country Dreams and Apparitions” of Scots writer James Hogg or the poems of Robert Fergusson and you'll find it there, a small lantern light held over someone—or something—close to home but not home-like: a shepherd with the second sight, or two little children whispering about murder at bedtime. In some of these stories, the word hovers close to the exposure of a suppressed crime or socially taboo act within the intimate confines of family or village.

Over the course of the nineteenth century the uncanny migrates from rural to urban, from village and glen to the crowded cities with their factories, their soot-blackened tenements and jails. The railroad and its stations, its signal booths and waiting rooms. We are moving faster and faster, and as we do we bury our old buildings and their histories under new ones. We replace our old rituals, our language itself. We forget who we were. But something remembers. Something wants to speak from beneath the rubble.

The modern experience of alienation has come of age, and throughout the nineteenth century artists and thinkers—Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche among them—begin to reflect on it, to explore its sources, its peculiar traits and expressions, its possible consequences. Think—in the world of fiction—of Henry James' 1898 novella,
The Turn of the Screw
, in which a story of “general uncanny ugliness and horror and pain” is offered up as a country-fireside Christmas tale. The story has been locked in a desk drawer in London for twenty years. It must be sent away for and unwrapped—the story we hear has been “transcribed” from the original, which was written in “the beautiful hand” of a woman long dead. Most disturbing of all: the gathered audience rubs its collective hands at the prospect of a tale of two children—not merely one—being the victims of a haunting. It has “the utmost price.” We want the story, and we will pay for it. But it is not “ours,” we tell ourselves. Our hands are clean.

*   *   *

It was Sigmund Freud's 1919 essay
Das Unheimliche,
translated into English as
The Uncanny,
that revealed the word's capacity to speak to what unsettles us now. (It's hard, these days, to find a place where the term hasn't found a home. Nicholas Royle, in his 2003 study,
The Uncanny,
finds it “transforming the concerns of art, literature, film, psychoanalysis, philosophy, science and technology, religion, history, politics, economics, autobiography and teaching.”)

When Freud wrote his essay, he was following up on the work of another German psychologist, Ernst Jentsch, whose short essay “On the Psychology of the Uncanny” is well worth reading. But the Freud essay, driven by an impulse to be exhaustive, is a carnival ride of weirdness. Among other things, he gets drawn into the sticky web of the German word
which is just as capacious and unstable as “canny.” For our purposes here, it's enough to note that like the old Scots word “canny,” the word
contained, among its early synonyms, not only “belonging to the house,” but also “private,” “secret,” and “concealed.”

Is it any wonder that the concept of the uncanny, emerging from a pair of words with such complex histories, would infuse the literature of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries? If ambiguity and uncertainty live in the very root of the word—a word that itself touches on all that we think most safe and familiar—then there's no end to its linguistic and dramatic potential, its capacity to reflect us and our times. As Royle declares, “the uncanny is a ‘province' still before us, awaiting our examination.”

Here are a handful of the experiences Freud catalogued as capable of causing the sensation of the uncanny. I include them, in a roughly paraphrased improvisation, here at the threshold of this cabinet of curiosities, to suggest just how tricky—how full of nooks and crannies and trapdoors—the uncanny-in-fiction really is. It's just a bare glimpse but might give you a sense of the full and glorious range of possibilities for uncanny effects, whether in a story by Ambrose Bierce or Franz Kafka or any of the contemporary writers included here.

When something that should have remained hidden has come out into the open.

When we feel as if something primitive has occurred in a modern and secular context.

When we feel uncertainty as to whether we have encountered a human or an automaton.

When the inanimate appears animate. Or when something animate appears inanimate.

When something familiar happens in an unfamiliar context.

Conversely, when something strange happens in a familiar context.

When we find ourselves noticing a repetition—such as the number 17 appearing three times in one day, in different contexts. Or when we catch ourselves involuntarily repeating a word, for instance the word “uncanny.” Or the word “word.”

When we see someone who looks like us—that is, our double.

The fear of being buried alive.

When we feel as if there is a foreign body inside our own. When we become foreign to ourselves.

There are many more uncanny-inspiring occasions listed in Freud's compendium—too many to include here. Suffice it to say that they all, in some way or another, speak to the uninvited exposure of something so long repressed—whether by individuals or by whole cultures—that we hardly recognize it as ours. That may be why the sensation, at its core, makes us anxious about the stability of those persons, places, and things in which we have placed our trust, our deepest sense of identity and belonging.

Is that why so many of the stories here take place in dwelling places? The uncanny likes to let the lamplight fall a different way on a perfectly ordinary silver picture frame. Above all, it seeks out a recollected or half-neglected
physical place
to inhabit: childhood houses, houses under construction, houses revised by later occupants.

Maybe, too, this lean toward dwelling places—and the personal and secret lives held within them—accounts for the prevalence of first-person narrations in this anthology or, if not first-person, then a third-person voice that holds tight to the consciousness of one character. Because as Henry James—and Sigmund Freud—understood so well, the uncanny is nothing if not idiosyncratic. It happens to one person at a time and isolates that person, heightening the terror or the exaltation.

Not all of Freud's examples will speak to you. But the marvelous thing about his essay is that for a good stretch of it he turned to a piece of fiction as a base from which to explore what was, in his day, a neglected corner of psychology. He sounds a bit wistful near the essay's end, as he remarks: “The uncanny that we find in fiction—in creative writing, imaginative literature—actually deserves to be considered separately. It is above all much richer than what we know from experience.” Later he goes a bit further: “… In a sense, then, [the fiction writer] betrays us to a superstition we thought we had ‘surmounted'; he tricks us by promising us everyday reality and then going beyond it. We react to his fictions as if they had been our own experiences.”

BOOK: The Uncanny Reader
7.68Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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