The Uncanny Reader - From the deeply unsettling to the possibly supernatural, these thirty-one border-crossing stories from around the world explore the uncanny in literature, and delve into our increasingly unstable sense of self, home, and planet
Marjorie Sandor talks about her new anthology The Uncanny Reader
Weird Fiction Review: Why do you think the uncanny has been around for so long and pervaded so many cultures and countries?
Marjorie Sandor: You probably already know the wonderful opening salvo of Lovecraft’s Horror in Supernatural Literature: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” If we think about this in terms of what art has always done for humankind, it’s always hovering in this intersection between the known and unknown — between the “official story” and the obliterated history that is not really gone, but suppressed or forgotten. We’ve been using this word, uncanny for hundreds of years, to describe the way we feel when something utterly mysterious happens close by—in the neighborhood, in the house-and-family, in our own bodies and sense of self. It might be supernatural. It might not. It might be fate. Or it might be chance. The crucial thing is that we can’t resolve it. The uncertainty — and what it makes us do and say — makes us uncanny to ourselves.
One cool thing to add here: the really old Scots/Gaelic word, “canny,” and its German equivalent, “heimlich,” originally meant not only safe and cozy but also private, hidden, and in old Scots, possessed of supernatural knowledge.” You might, for instance, go to a “canny man” to lay a curse on someone who’d pissed you off. This means that canny, as a word, has already secretly given birth to its eventual opposite, uncanny. That’s creepy, no?
WFR: This anthology seems to be quite different from the rest of your work in that you’re the editor (not the writer) and also in terms of subject matter. Why the change?
MS: I’m so glad you used the word “seems.” I used to think of myself as a writer of more-or-less realistic stories, but there’s always been another current running beneath — in fact, I turned in a fairy-tale when I applied to MFA programs in the 1980s. Terrific timing. But now, having taught “the uncanny-in-literature” to my own MFA students for the last decade, I can see it secretly pervading everything I’ve written, fiction or creative nonfiction. For instance, in Portrait of My Mother, Who Posed Nude in Wartime, a young woman is forever trying to dig up family secrets that should have remained hidden. The final story contains the most well-guarded family secret of all: she receives an incomplete sketch of it from her father on his deathbed, and the key figure from his past might be an apparition, an invention — we never know. In an earlier story, “The Gittel,” a child on the brink of Holocaust-Germany dreams of being stuffed into a black grand piano by his mother. Wouldn’t Freud have loved that? In my recent nonfiction, The Late Interiors, weird dreams, hauntings, and strange coincidences abound. Why is this? I don’t know: I come from a family of Russian-and-Hungarian Jewish immigrants, and I think we dragged a great mystical and folkloric tradition with us to Ellis Island without quite realizing it. Add to this the fabulous ghost stories I was told as a child growing up in the San Gabriel Valley of Southern California — those suburbs are miles-deep with repressed histories going back to the first inhabitants of the place.
WFR: Do you view uncanny fiction as a distinct sub-genre or more of a tradition or narrative element?
MS: What a great question. In fact, I don’t think it’s a genre or sub-genre at all — it won’t stay pinned-down. In life, it’s a sensation; so, in literature (or in any art, really), it’s an effect, and finally, it’s one that morphs from reader to reader. In fact, I think it defies genre. You might experience it in a work of total realism about an impoverished and hungry child confronting, for the first time, the foreignness that is the oyster (Chekhov, “Oysters”), or during the slow transformation of an English train-station waiting room on a dark winter’s night, as a whole ghostly world reasserts itself (Aickman, “The Waiting Room”). I titled the anthology The Uncanny Reader to put the emphasis on the reader rather than the writer: to invite other readers into this weird (and yes, idiosyncratic) library. The sensation of the uncanny is so individual, so variable from reader to reader, that there’s no telling who will be unsettled by what. It’s kind of subversive that way, and it lets us, as readers, discover just how peculiar we are.
Humor — in the sense of the uncanny feeling caused by “unintended repetition.” Watch youtubes of “The Great Flydini” routine by Steve Martin, and “No One Expects the Spanish Inquisition,” Monty Python (with great thanks to the British literary and cultural critic Nicholas Royle for pointing that out.)
More very early short fiction: the late 18th century Scottish writer James Hogg—I didn’t include him here because I ran out of room and was dedicated to Hoffmann’s “The Sandman” above all. But Hogg’s Country Dreams and Apparitions are a delight, as is Margaret Oliphant’s late 19th c. novella, “The Library Window.” And The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James — uncanniest novella of all time. To leap forward to the 1970s: Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip (a great example of uncanniness in photography-and-writing.