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


The Uncanny Reader: Stories from the Shadows, Ed. by Marjorie Sandor. St. Martin's Griffin, 2015.

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. The Uncanny Reader: Stories from the Shadows opens with "The Sand-man," E.T.A. Hoffmann's 1817 tale of doppelgangers and automatons--a tale that inspired generations of writers and thinkers to come. Stories by 19th and 20th century masters of the uncanny--including Edgar Allan Poe, Franz Kafka, and Shirley Jackson--form a foundation for sixteen award-winning contemporary authors, established and new, whose work blurs the boundaries between the familiar and the unknown. These writers come from Egypt, France, Germany, Japan, Poland, Russia, Scotland, England, Sweden, the United States, Uruguay, and Zambia--although their birthplaces are not always the terrains they plumb in their stories, nor do they confine themselves to their own eras. Contemporary authors include: Chris Adrian, Aimee Bender, Kate Bernheimer, Jean-Christophe Duchon-Doris, Mansoura Ez-Eldin, Jonathon Carroll, John Herdman, Kelly Link, Steven Millhauser, Joyce Carol Oates, Yoko Ogawa, Dean Paschal, Karen Russell, Namwali Serpell, Steve Stern and Karen Tidbeck.

SOMETIMES I THINK there are two kinds of readers: readers for whom books are bread and coffee, and readers for whom books are magic mushrooms. The bread-and-coffee people prefer to read about real life (marriage and parenthood, vocations and vacations, adultery and war), while the magic mushroom readers live for the shadow in the corner, the mysterious figure on the train, and the eerie music floating over the darkened lake. For these people, Marjorie Sandor’s new anthology, The Uncanny Reader: Stories from the Shadows, offers an abundance of delights. Even better, many bread-and-coffee people, should they take the plunge, may find themselves under the spell of the kind of story to which they believed themselves immune.
Though containing fewer than three dozen pieces, The Uncanny Reader feels remarkably generous and comprehensive. Casting a wide net chronologically and geographically — and, more important, stylistically — Sandor grounds this collection with E.T.A. Hoffman’s classic tale “The Sand-Man” (1816) and Edgar Allan Poe’s creepy “Berenice” (1835); moves forward through de Maupassant, Wharton, and Chekhov; touches essential 20th century masters from Shirley Jackson to H.P. Lovecraft; then finishes up by devoting a fair amount of space to contemporary writers both well-known and otherwise, including Kelly Link, Karen Russell, and China Miéville. She samples works from all over the world, including Egypt, France, Japan, Russia, Sweden, Uruguay, and Zambia, as well as many from the United States.
Did you stumble over Chekhov’s name in the previous paragraph, wondering what his fiction is doing in an anthology of the uncanny? It’s a good question, and the answer sheds light on what Sandor is up to here. In her smart and engaging introduction she writes, “[B]ecause I don’t think of the uncanny as a literary genre so much as a genre buster, a kind of viral strain, I have included here a story of Anton Chekhov’s with nothing remotely supernatural about it.” “Oysters,” one of Chekhov’s brief slices of life, concerns a hungry boy standing on the street with his unemployed father. The boy is so famished that his mind takes an unfamiliar word — oysters — and spins strange fantasies around it. Informed that an oyster is “an animal… that lives in the sea,” he imagines a “creature in a shell with claws, glittering eyes, and a slimy skin… The grown-ups would take it and eat it, eat it alive with its eyes, its teeth, its legs!” Who knew Chekhov could sound so much like Poe? A story like this suggests how the uncanny may wriggle up from the sea — or out of the mind — onto a prosaic Moscow street; onto any street.
This is exactly what interests Sandor. Citing Russian critic Viktor Shklovsky’s concept of “ostranenie,” or defamiliarization — the way literature makes the world seem strange and new — she writes, “This aesthetic principle is at the heart of this anthology: Every writer in this collection strips away the armor of familiar, overused language…they make us see and hear anew.” It is this conceit that makes room under one sprawling mansard roof for a horror story like Poe’s “Berenice,” in which a crazed lover disinters his beloved in order to rip her teeth out of her head (“…and still the phantasma of the teeth maintained its terrible ascendancy”); a surrealist story like Bruno Schultz’s “The Birds,” in which the narrator’s father turns the family home into an incubator for exotic eggs (“Characteristically, both the condor and my father used the same chamber pot”); and a fantastical story like Karen Russell’s “Haunting Olivia” in which two brothers use a pair of magic pink underwater goggles to hunt for their dead sister’s ghost (“There are ghost fish swimming all around me. My hands pass right through their dead bodies”).
Sandor traces the word uncanny back to 16th-century Scotland, and she usefully unfolds its relationship with the German word unheimlich, about which Sigmund Freud wrote an influential essay. “Heimlich,” which may mean “private,” “secret,” or “belonging to the house,” is related to our word “haunt” — it’s no coincidence, it seems, that houses are so often haunted. Sandor also passes along a partial catalog of the disparate experiences Freud collected under the unheimlich umbrella, which include:
When something that should have remained hidden comes out into the open.
When we feel uncertainty as to whether we have encountered a human or an automaton.
When we see someone who looks like us — that is, our double.
The fear of being buried alive.

There are stories in this anthology for each of those categories. One of the strengths of this collection is how broadly women writers are represented, beginning with Edith Wharton. Like Henry James, Wharton wrote many ghost stories, and though Sandor doesn’t include my favorite (“Kerfol,” about a house haunted by ghost dogs), the story she has chosen is a gem. “The Pomegranate Seed” is told from the point of view of the young bride of a man whose first wife has died. No sooner does the happy couple return from their honeymoon when mysterious letters begin to arrive for the husband. You can doubtless guess who they’re from, but what I love about the story is that the psychological realism here is as acute as in any of Wharton’s more thoroughly realistic works. Her skillful portrait of a sensible young woman racked by jealousy reminds us that characters in uncanny fiction can — and should — be as fully developed as any others in literature. If fantasy or horror fiction has a bad name in some quarters, it is perhaps because some writers don’t expend as much effort on this aspect of their craft as we might wish, apparently feeling that dark surprises or shivery effects are sufficient. Not every writer in this collection has Wharton’s literary chops, but the overall quality of the work— the complexity of the characters, the satisfying unfolding of action, the compression and force of the prose — is largely outstanding.
One surprise: how many of the stories involve a sex doll (or puppet). Sandor gives us three in a row starting on page 310 — all, unsurprisingly, written by men.
A notable omission in the collection is Henry James, close contemporary and correspondent of Wharton, but of course you can’t include everybody. Sandor does, however, discuss James in her introduction, explaining something that has always puzzled me: Why is the tale of the governess in James’s classic ghost story The Turn of the Screw read out loud from a manuscript written by someone long dead? Why does the manuscript have to be sent for? What’s the point of interposing all those layers between the reader and the tale? I have always vaguely speculated that James wanted to build our anticipation, and perhaps make the story feel more precious, or more authentic; but Sandor argues convincingly that what James has his finger on here is our modern impulse to distance ourselves from the uncanny: “We want the story, and we will pay for it,” she writes. “But it is not ‘ours,’ we tell ourselves. Our hands are clean.”
There are advantages and disadvantages to collecting so many stories in a single category. Should you read too many at once, a certain sameness sets in, Sandor’s wide net notwithstanding. Over and over in these pages those distant voices, or that music, or the anachronistically dressed figure, or the faint spidery handwriting on an envelope, turns out to belong to the dead. If we guess a story’s twist in its opening pages, what is the point of reading on? Certainly one can appreciate the endless variations on the theme, admire the different textures of the language, or measure the varying lengths of the shadows; still, I found that I was relieved when stories took place in mid-afternoon instead of in the dark, just for the change of pace.
One of my favorites, Steven Millhauser’s “Phantoms,” doesn’t save up the fact that we’re dealing with ghosts as a final twist but adroitly gets it out of the way in the very first sentence: “The phantoms of our town do not, as some think, appear only in the dark.” This story of a haunted town is told through short sections called “The Phenomenon,” “Explanation #1,” “Case Study #1,” “Fear,” “Photographic Evidence,” and so on. In Millhauser’s hands, the elemental relationship between phantoms and death, worn thin thanks to centuries of ghost stories, becomes new again. Death is no longer a rabbit pulled out of a narrative hat, but a shocking hole at the center of life. In a section called “Forgetfulness,” the narrator explains,
There are times when we forget our phantoms. On summer afternoons… [s]hadows of tree branches lie against our white shingles… The air is warm, the grass is green, we will never die. Then an uneasiness comes, in the blue air. Between shouts, we hear a silence.
Other standouts: Shirley Jackson’s energetic and urban “Paranoia”; Chris Adrian’s surprising suicide-on-Nantucket story, “The Black Square”; and Kelly Link’s haunted and haunting tale of domestic life, “Stone Animals.” (I have been hearing Kelly Link’s name for so long and spoken so reverentially that I confess I have resisted reading her until now. I have been missing out.)
In “Stone Animals” a family moves out of an apartment in New York City and into a big house in the country that turns out to be haunted. The little boy, Carleton, knows something’s wrong right away: “I don’t like this staircase. It’s too big,” he says as the real estate agent shows them around. “I don’t like the house,” he insists. “I don’t like houses. I don’t want to live in a house.” His parents think he’s just being difficult, as usual. “[W]e’ll build you a tepee out on the lawn,” his mother offers. But the lawn, it transpires, is overrun with creepy haunted rabbits.
The unexpected and poignantly human way in which this house turns out to be haunted is one of Link’s great achievements. Basically, in this story, being haunted means that people find themselves suddenly and unaccountably uncomfortable using or touching a thing. This isn’t such a big problem when the thing in question is only a toothbrush, but pretty soon the contagion spreads to the alarm clock, the dishwasher, the downstairs bathroom, and the cat. The bathroom haunting is very inconvenient for heavily pregnant Catherine, and things only get worse from there.
Like the baby Catherine is expecting, the new house is part of a plan to save this couple’s marriage, and as the pages go by it becomes clear that it’s the marriage, not the haunting, at the center of the story. Or rather, the house is haunted because the marriage is unraveling. It’s not that haunting is a metaphor exactly — that would be too easy; it’s more like a sad, quotidian condition of these people’s lives. “We have to get a new dishwasher before I have this baby,” Catherine tells Henry. “You can’t have a baby and not have a dishwasher.” And then, a little later, when he reaches for her, “You can’t touch that breast… It’s haunted.” It’s Link’s understanding of the uncanny supernatural horror of daily life that makes me love this story so much:
When Carleton was three months old, Henry had realized that they’d misunderstood something. Babies weren’t babies — they were land mines, bear traps, wasp nests. They were a noise, which was sometimes even not a noise but merely a listening for a noise; they were a damp, chalky smell; they were the heaving, jerky, sticky manifestation of not-sleep.
And wait till you get to the killer last line.
Who or what is an anthology for? You might want to keep this volume on your shelf and dip into it now and then, rather than read it straight through. And I imagine many college English classes will find it a valuable resource — maybe particularly undergraduate fiction writing classes. When I have taught such classes, I have sometimes been made weary by the number of students — bright, hard-working, often extremely well read — who want only to write about zombies, aliens, and ghosts. This anthology might persuade such students to push themselves in new directions, revealing that the universe of the uncanny is bigger and stranger than they suspected. It will certainly remind them that good fantasy (or horror, or SF) writing is, at its core, good writing, period. And that, seen from the proper perspective, all of our houses are haunted. - Rachel Pastan 

Marjorie Sandor talks about her new anthology The Uncanny Reader

Majorie Sandor
I’ve always thought of weird fiction and uncanny literature as being one and the same. It was only until recently when I read an anthology called The Uncanny Reader: Stories from the Shadows that I realized that while there are many commonalities and similarities, the uncanny and the weird aren’t exactly synonymous. In The Uncanny Reader, the editor, Marjorie Sandor, opens with an incredible essay on the word uncanny: what it means, its history in literature, and her own personal account of how she became interested in it. From there the anthology goes on a whirlwind tour of the uncanny from the diverse areas of modern international literature to centuries old tales about ghosts and strange occurrences. Sandor does a fantastic job of balancing out newer, diverse names like Yoko Ogawa and Mansoura Ez-Eldin with established classics like E.T.A. Hoffmann and Edgar Allan Poe.
In short, this anthology is bound to put uncanny fiction on the map for modern audiences and the only thing I think that matches its excellence is Sandor’s enthusiasm for the subject which she was happy to speak to us about. Be sure to stick around this week as we’ll also be featuring an exclusive essay on the uncanny based on the anthology’s introduction that Sandor has generously adapted for us to feature at Weird Fiction Review. Also, we’ll be posting the same translation of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Sand-man” that is included in 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?
But to go back to your question: we’ve always told ourselves stories after meeting with something inexplicable. The more we try to light up all the corners and rid ourselves of dangers, the more this primitive sensation takes root — like a seed of anxiety that will find a home wherever it can. The harder we try to expel it, the more it wants in. You can see why this is so rich and complex and unnerving when it comes to the art of storytelling, and all art forms, for that matter.
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.
WFR: Were there any stories you wanted to include but weren’t able to due to copyrights?
MS: Big time. I envisioned an anthology composed almost entirely of reprints, and I also wanted it to have an international scope. And, alas, I was the greenest of greenhorns when I began the process. My vision turned out to be almost comically at odds with the reality of rights acquisition on a limited budget. I was, early on, a bit like Dorothy at the great doors of Oz, confronted by the guard who yells, “Go Away! The great Oz cannot see you now — or ever!” Early on, I longed for Kawabata’s “The Arm” and Julio Cortázar’s “Bestiary.” I probably could have gotten them; I just didn’t know how, at the early stage, to pull it off without spending my whole advance. Then, too, I wrote heartfelt letters to a few very famous contemporary writers and/or their editors, and was greeted with silence — I shan’t name them here; they actually don’t know who they are. So, let’s just say that financially and spiritually, I had to let go of a few. But a lot of people in the business turned out to be angelically kind, and some of them saved me from bankruptcy.
WFR: What other works would recommend to those who’ve enjoyed The Uncanny Reader in terms of books and perhaps other media like film and art?
MS: Films: The Babadook (2014); The Spirit of the Beehive (1973). The Innocents (1961); The Haunting of Hill House (1963). The Quay Brothers’ animation of Schulz’s stories, watchable on Youtube.
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.)
Visual Art: most recently, this very exciting art installation of gigantic self-propelled creatures made of PVC pipe and fabric, by Theo Jansen. As I write this, his Strandbeests are moving along Miami Beach. Going back a century, you might check out the work of the symbolist painter Odilon Redon, especially his series of “noirs” based on the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. If you look at just one, make it “The Teeth,” based on his story “Berenice” (which is in the anthology).
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.
Nonfiction: Start with Freud’s very strange essay, “The Uncanny,” then follow it up with a dip into Nicholas Royle’s The Uncanny, Anthony Vidler’s The Architectural Uncanny, and Lawrence Weschler’s essays in Uncanny Valley. Puppet, by Kenneth Gross, is also a dream.
WFR: Have you found other works outside of the uncanny that have been influenced by uncanny fiction in some way?
MS: Ah, yes. That way lies madness — in a good way. You’ll find it in studies of architecture, medicine, robotics design, war, race relations. Nicholas Royle, says in his book The Uncanny, “the world is uncanny.” Why is this? Because it provides an incredibly valuable — and ever surprising — lens through which to look at the way we live now. I’ve discovered that if I reconsider an unsettling encounter, a disturbing work of art, or something as potentially mundane and depressing as an abandoned shopping mall, I don’t look away quite as quickly. Thinking about the uncanny forces us to slow down and consider the nature of our own “first reading” of a moment, person, or place. This could have profound implications in our political and cultural life.
WFR: What are your plans for the future? Do you plan to return to the uncanny again sometime or somehow reuse things you’ve learned while editing this anthology?
MS: I’ve been infected for life. I’ve got a novel-in-progress and new stories and I can feel them edging, of their own accord, deeper into ghostly territory. My most recently published short story is about a haunting: it’s an update of “Pomegranate Seed,” the Edith Wharton story in this anthology. As I wrote it, I found myself confronting my fear of contemporary technology — the story is called “” What a surprising title, given that I’m practically allergic to the world of devices and the Internet. I’m also at work on a novel set in Inquisition Spain: it opens with an old man sitting in an empty palace, holding an obsolete musical instrument and invoking the shade of his dead lover. I think that “knowing” about the uncanny has heightened my sense of just how storied and haunted all our spaces and bodies are. I don’t think my material has changed. But my view of it absolutely has. There’s no going back.

Uncanny: a Brief History of a Disturbed Word

And the crack in the teacup opens
A lane to the land of the dead
–W.H. Auden
Trust me: trying to define the uncanny, whether as a sensation in our lives or as an effect in a short story, is a fool’s errand. From its roots in old Scots/Gaelic to its recent renaissance as a field of inquiry, it eludes the firm grasp. A student of mine once called the uncanny “a rabbit hole with no Wonderland at the bottom.” Amen.
And yet I’ve just gone through the exercise of shaping an anthology of short stories called The Uncanny Reader: Stories from the Shadows, suggesting that in this volume, a certain kind of reader will find a certain kind of story. So it seems to me I ought to try to provide a blueprint, if only to show you how full of unsuspected rooms and dead-end staircases and trapdoors the house of uncanny fiction might be.
Already I’ve fallen through the floorboards. Surely there’s no such animal as “uncanny fiction.” The uncanny-in-fiction might be a better phrase. Let’s just say there are stories — and they come in every shape, size, and genre — capable of inspiring a special form of unease in the susceptible reader. Such a story might begin in a world deeply familiar to its characters, and in a voice which, if only for a moment, establishes an intimacy, a sense of trust. But drop by drop, that familiarity will begin to wobble. Sometimes the whole structure of the story itself begins to fracture — so faintly the reader might miss it. We undergo, like the most hapless of characters, a growing sense of dreamlike disorientation, as if the story’s terrain has begun to waver and reorganize itself — and us.
Think of Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.”
Of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw.
Of almost anything by Franz Kafka.
All shapes and sizes.
However it comes, the uncanny is a haunting sensation. A bit like a curse passed down from writer to reader. A new — and disturbing — awareness seems to have formed. It won’t dissipate. The world beyond the page looks different now.
Uncanny. Look it up in a standard collegiate dictionary, and it appears to stay neatly in its bounds. Seemingly supernatural; mysterious [orig. Sc & N. Engl.].
But the slippage has already begun. Seemingly.
Scholars have traced the word back as far as 1593, and discovered something very telling about its roots. Long ago, the Scots/Gaelic word from which it emerges, canny, meant not only what you’d think — “safe” and “cozy” and “prudent” — but also “sly of humor,” and “having supernatural knowledge.” You might go to “a canny man” to have a spell cast on an enemy, or to have one reversed. So you might say that from early-on, “canny” secretly contained the seed of its own negative. A shadow-word just waiting to emerge.
Maybe it’s that wobble in the parent-word that invites uncertainty into the tales of the early 19th century Scottish writer James Hogg. His Country Dreams and Apparitions are set in country villages and croft-houses, and are full of the homely dialect of his time and place. Ghost stories, yes, but with strange hanging endings, a sense of unfinished business both in language and action. They create a deeper sort of shudder than the Gothic tale. They speak to crimes we’ve buried. And the human compulsion to confess — or bear witness. To share the news.
Around the same time, in Germany, the künstlerroman, or art fairy tale, is coming into being. Hoffmann, Tieck, von Kleist and others are writing long tales in which something extraordinary happens in a familiar world. The locales are usually urban — the coffee houses and market squares of university towns and cities — and rich with recognizable place-names, known figures, and scrupulous attention to realistic domestic detail. Then something strange happens to the protagonist. Something seemingly supernatural. From that moment forward, his perception — and ours — is fundamentally, violently, shattered. The experience of seeing differently isolates him from his oh-so-rational friends. Neither he nor the reader can fully resolve whether he has imagined all of it, or it’s simply that no one else is “aware.”
The stories in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Nachtstucke, or Night Tales left a lasting mark on such writers as Poe, Dostoyevsky, and Hawthorne. Think of the great tradition of the doppelgänger — a feeling of the self as split in two. Of the artist as hero. Of the artist’s fear that his culture does not value him, let alone the deep strangeness of the human imagination — and all it might perceive beyond that which can be proven. And one story in particular, “The Sandman” (1817) continues to leave generations of readers feeling deeply unsettled.
Terry Castle, in her book, The Female Thermometer: the Eighteenth-century Culture and the Invention of the Uncanny, suggests that “the aggressively rationalist imperatives of the epoch also produced, like a kind of toxic side effect, a new human experience of strangeness, anxiety, bafflement, and intellectual impasse.” This brief quote gives you only a micro-glimpse of the critical work that’s been done, across a range of disciplines, to trace the roots of the uncanny in modern history. The late 18th century and early 19th century saw the rise of great urban centers, a proliferation of new technologies in science, transportation, mass communication. Those years also saw the rise of a new kind of ghost story, one which, unlike its Gothic predecessors, takes place in familiar domestic locales. From the early 19th century tales of Hogg and Hoffmann to James’ 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, a story of “general uncanny ugliness and horror and pain,” homely spaces — country houses, city apartments, private gardens and cozy libraries — become sites for the uncanny, the suppressed past in ghostly form. As editors Cox and Gilbert write in their introduction to Victorian Ghost Stories, “[T]he ghost story seemed to thrive precisely because it dealt in possibilities that were in fundamental opposition to the explicatory march of science.”

But it was Freud’s landmark 1919 essay, Das Unheimliche (The Uncanny) that blew open the door of the uncanny as a field of inquiry — and ushered in a century of new thinking about modern forms of alienation and estrangement. Freud wasn’t actually the first person to explore the uncanny: credit goes to Ernst Jentsch and his short 1906 essay, “On the Psychology of the Uncanny.” But Freud’s effort to net as many instances of uncanniness as he can, along with a delightful strangeness in the writing itself, makes his essay the definitive introduction to the modern conception of the uncanny as a way of reading the world.
In his effort to expand on, and argue with, Jentsch’s notion that the sensation of the uncanny comes from intellectual uncertainty, Freud found himself drawn into the sticky web of the word’s many uses, its capacious and unstable quality. His essay brought out into the open its ever-proliferating range of psychological and literary capacities.
In a nutshell, his catalogue of uses of the word unheimlich turns up its own unstable habit: like the word “canny,” heimlich appears to have leaned toward its own opposite from early in its history. Not only did it mean “belonging to the home,” and “familiar,” but also, “private” and “secret.” There is even mention of the word “magic” and “supernatural.”
In their efforts to get ahold of the idea of the unheimliche, both Jentsch and Freud try to account for human experiences that create the sensation. Freud lists at least twelve such categories of experience. I’ll paraphrase just a handful here, to give you a glimpse of the glorious range of possibilities for experiencing the sensation of the uncanny — and arousing it through literature.
  • That which should have remained hidden has come out into the open.
  • The return of the primitive in an apparently modern and secular context.
  • Uncertainty as to whether something that appears to be alive is, in fact, dead, or something that appears to be dead, is, in fact, alive.
  • Uncertainty as to whether one is speaking to a human or an automaton.
  • Something familiar occurring in an unfamiliar context.
  • Something strange occurring in a familiar context.
  • The experience of unintended repetition, which makes us think of our own mortality.
  • The experience of a foreign body inside our own, or ourselves as a foreign body.
  • The fear of being buried alive.
  • The experience of seeing one’s double.
While any of these definitions might make us think of the “seemingly supernatural,” what matters is that they do so in relationship to — and in danger of exposing — something hidden uncomfortably close to home. The sensation of uncanniness is, at its core, an anxiety about the stability of those persons, places, and things in which we have placed our deepest trust, and our own sense of identity and belonging, that which we hold most private, from style to perception to the most hidden unhomelike subjects locked away in our private selves.
Notably, both Jentsch and Freud turned to fiction — and in particular, to E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Sandman,” to try to describe the sensation and how a writer might achieve the “effect” of the uncanny in imaginative writing. Again, what matters, for our purposes, is the sheer fact that these two psychologists turned to a tale — to work of fiction — as a sort of laboratory in which to observe this deep — and in their time — unplumbed psychological sensation.
Freud, near the end of his essay, seems slightly envious of fiction writers. He writes, “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; it embraces the whole of this and something else besides., something that is wanting in real life.” Still later, he tries to get at what the fiction writer does: “In a sense, then, he 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. By the time we become aware of the trickery, it is too late.”
As much as our sense of “what’s uncanny” has changed and grown since Freud wrote his essay, this sensation, both in life and literature, has retained at least one consistent trait: it likes to burrow into domestic spaces. It likes, above all, to remind us that the places we call “home” are profoundly unstable: from the trailer-home to the rental apartment, right on up to the penthouse and the perfectly-kept suburban mansion. Buildings, like official histories, conceal the lost and buried stories of the past in their walls. We are haunted by childhood homes, by ruins and construction sites, by houses we once knew, now revised or demolished by later occupants. We are haunted by the terror of homelessness: in her novel, The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson’s heroine, Eleanor, registers humankind’s condition as “a creation so unfortunate as to not be rooted in the ground, forced to go from one place to another, heartbreakingly mobile.”
Does the lean toward the private and domestic also account for the prevalence of first person narrations in stories which feel uncanny — and if not first person, then its cousin the “limited third” — which burrows into the consciousness of one character and makes the reader go along? As Freud and Jentsch understood, the uncanny is nothing if not personal and idiosyncratic. It happens to one person at a time, and isolates that person, heightening the terror or the exaltation.
What then, of omniscience, a form of narration that might appear, at first, to forbid uncanniness, since the narrator “knows all?” Such voices are full of authority, and you might just want to be aware of tiny cracks and fissures, signs that even this kind of narrator might be concealing an agenda, one that might never fully reveal itself. In cases like these, it is the reader, more than any character, who finds herself destabilized. For she cannot resolve or trust the very structure in which she’s been dwelling in so cozily — the house of the story.
Betrayed to a superstition we thought we had surmounted.
Reminded that we carry inside ourselves a forgotten but not dismantled belief in a world — and forces — far beyond our ken.
The late 20th and early 21st centuries have inspired an ever richer range of artistic expressions of the uncanny, and a parallel movement of inquiry across many disciplines. Anthony Vidler, in The Architectural Uncanny, observes that a new sensibility is emerging, one that “sees the uncanny erupt in empty parking lots around abandoned or run-down shopping malls…in the wasted margins and surface appearances of postindustrial culture.” Nicholas Royle, in The Uncanny, finds the uncanny in everything from a Monty Python comedy sketch to “politics, economics, autobiography and teaching.” The uncanny, he asserts, is “a province still before us, awaiting our examination.” And you’ve no doubt heard of Masahiro Mori’s 1970 theory, the Uncanny Valley. I won’t try to describe it here. Let’s just say that you don’t want your automaton or your computer-generated figure to fall into it.
Consider the speed of globalization, the paradox of technologies designed to improve our communications that, in fact, isolate and alienate us from each other, from language itself, from the act of remembering. Are we in danger of turning our planet unheimlich?
The French philosopher Michael Serres writes that “Every technology is used before it is completely understood. There is always a lag between an innovation and the apprehension of its consequences. We are living in that lag, and it is a right time to keep our heads and reflect.”
The uncanny-in-fiction invites us to pause. If not to “keep our heads,” exactly, then to practice, in the still-private act of reading, a form of free-fall and wonder. The chance to pay close attention to the strangeness of life in our moment. Our lag-time.
The uncanny-in-literature might be a way to reclaim the power of language itself. To occupy it once more.
The early 20th century Russian thinker Victor Shklovsky coined a term for this subversive act: ostranenie. In English, defamiliarization. A long word, yes, but worth slowing down for. It’s what language, reclaimed in art, can do to awaken us from our stupor. “Habitualization,” he wrote, “devours work, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war. ‘If the whole complex lives of many people go on unconsciously, then such lives are as if they had never been.’ And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony.”
The uncanny-in-fiction reawakens us to the strange in the world, the strange in ourselves. It opens a crack in the teacup. It makes the stone stony. Surely this is not a bad thing, to have our perception of a given moment — or our own selves — shocked awake. We are brought back to wonder. How else will we start thinking differently about how we live now, before we go uncanny to ourselves?


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