What are we afraid of?
Drawing from Virginia Woolf’s essay on the supernatural in fiction, Marjorie Sandor invites readers to consider this question while reading the 31 stories she selected and edited for The Uncanny Reader.
In her competent introduction, she discusses Sigmund Freud’s classic essay on the genre, reminding us that for Freud, the uncanny is always a return of the repressed, a re-encounter with childhood fears long since buried. Sandor lists some of Freud’s examples of uncanny experiences, which may certainly be found in many of the stories included here. Yet, wisely, she does not limit her choices to those following Freud’s criteria.
“I don’t think of the uncanny as a literary genre so much as a genre buster,” she explains, and this allows for the inclusion of texts that might not ordinarily be associated with the uncanny, such as Anton Chekhov’s “Oysters”, a story about a boy’s hunger-induced hallucination. For Sandor “defamiliarization” became “the aesthetic principle” for choosing stories “set in entirely recognizable, earthly places and whose language undid the ordinary, button by button, then kept on going, until the very last thread of the safe-and-the-known was unraveled.” As a criterion this works well.
In Shirley Jackson’s “Paranoia”, a certain Mr. Beresford is in a cheerful mood when he finishes work and heads home, but a series of minor persecutions set him on edge. At one point he determines to go to the police, but “halfway to the policeman he began to wonder again: what did he have to report? A bus that would not stop when directed to, a clerk in a souvenir shop who cornered customers, a mysterious man in a light hat — and why? Mr. Beresford realized suddenly that there was nothing he could tell the policeman…”. All he had really suffered were the everyday humiliations we all experience, hadn’t he? Then again, maybe there is more to it.
“The Usher”, by Felisberto Hernández, is the story of a young man whose “unknown disease” gives him the power to project light from his eyes. The frightening effect this has upon others, as well as upon himself, tends to overshadow the numerous memento mori which lurk in the background, as when the narrator finds himself unable to fall asleep in his apartment and therefore remains “awake with the light off until the sound of bones being sawed and hacked came in from the window and I heard the butcher cough.” One starts to suspect that the mysterious disease might be a foil for something more threatening.
In all of these tales, the familiar and the homely collapse into the strange and inhospitable. In Robert Aichman’s “The Waiting Room”, the narrator finds himself alone in a dark, frigid train station where he is forced to spend the night awaiting the morning train. He isn’t alone for long, and though he knows none of the others, he is struck by a disturbing affinity for them. “His flooding sensation of identity with them was the most authentic and the most momentous he had ever known. But he was wholly cut off from them; there was, he felt, a bridge they had crossed and he had not.”
It’s also interesting to note how domestic the settings of many of the stories are. Often, the protagonists are not so much individuals as they are roles — husbands, wives, fathers, sons — caught up in mysterious situations that serve to disabuse them of false notions of fidelity, trust, identity, fraternity, love, sexuality.
What makes Joyce Carol Oates’ “The Jesters” such a compelling reading is the absence of a clearly-defined threat. Or rather, the threat is ubiquitous, existential, and no one is better than Oates at turning even the most innocuous gesture or sound or conversation into an ominous hint of something unpredictable and foreboding. There are so many unsettling turns of events in this story, so many opportunities for things to go wrong, that when they do not, the result is not one of relief for the reader, but one of anxiety, because we know that it’s not over.
In Jonathan Carroll’s “The Panic Hand” and Dean Paschal’s “Moriya”, the uncanny is found in the perverse influence that young, Lolita-like female characters exercise over males, and what that power reveals about male erotism, while in Marjorie Bowen’s “Decay” love stinks. Literally. Other stories consciously grapple with philosophical questions. Jean-Christoph Duchon-Doris’ “The Puppets” is a Pirandellian tale that challenges the notion of personal freedom while simultaneously asserting it. The characters’ actions seem determined by some outside force, a puppet master. And yet, as one of the central characters says, “while respecting my script and scrupulously executing my orders, I am only doing exactly as I please.”
For this reader, the greatest surprise in the collection came from Yoko Ogawa, whose novel, The Housekeeper and the Professor, received many positive reviews and was eventually turned into a movie. Frankly, that book disappointed me; I found it to be contrived and utterly forgettable. Not so “Old Mrs. J”, which became one of my favorites in the anthology.
In this story, a young writer takes a quiet apartment that shares a courtyard garden across from her landlady, old Mrs. J, who will sometimes pay her short, not unwelcome visits. They drink tea and chat about Mrs. J’s “pain in her knee, the high price of gas, the terrible heat” and other mundanities. Before long, however, things start to spoil.
First, a package arrives containing putrid, slimy scallops. Then old Mrs. J brings the narrator a gift from the garden: “a carrot in the shape of a hand. It was plump, like a baby’s hand, and perfectly formed: five fingers, with a thick thumb and a longer finger in the middle.” Ominously, we are told that “many more hand-shaped carrots appeared in the days that followed.”
It’s passages like these that provide the best sense of what the uncanny is about.
As with any anthology, the editor’s choices can and will be debated. Steven Stern’s “On Jacob’s Ladder” is more grotesque than uncanny, while Chekhov’s “Oysters” might be better described as psychological realism. Others might ask why certain authors were omitted: Daphne Du Maurier would fit well in this collection, as would the Italian writer Dino Buzzati. But selections must inevitably be made, and indubitably Sandor’s are literary, eclectic (in terms of time period, nationality, authorial gender), and perfectly in keeping with her definition of the uncanny as the defamiliar.
Reading these stories I came to believe, despite Woolf and Freud, that what makes them pleasurable is not what they teach us about our fears, but that they challenge supposed truths and unsettle us with ambiguity, providing a necessary correction to the scientism that we take for granted and that rules our daily lives.
Perhaps what we most need is not the “theory of everything” promised by physics and the natural sciences, but rather a healthy dose of skepticism and doubt. The humanities have always answered that calling, and The Uncanny Reader showcases some of the finest authors, past and present, writing in this tradition.
Short biographies of both the authors and the translators complete the collection, making it one all readers, and especially fans of the genre, will definitely want to own.