The New Uncanny (Tales of Unease)
  Edited by
Sarah Eyre
& Ra Page

Comma Press
2008
Paperback

Winner:2008 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Anthology







"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 is without, and alerts us to the foreign body within us. Or worse, makes us regard ourselves as a foreign body, a stranger."


Reviewed by Steve Wasserman

There is no royal road to the unconscious, and by extension, the uncanny. Only leaf-obscured footpaths, mud-bogged bridleways, the odd permissive thoroughfare, and more cul-de-sacs than you can shake a Dream Dictionary at. So it is not surprising that the strongest sense of Das Unheimliche (literally: the "unhomely") came for me not at the point of reading this collection in which modern-day writers are asked to utilize Freud's recipes for Anxiety-Inducing Kreplach in their own short stories, but in rather the warm, homely, post-spooked aftermath of the event.

Impressed by Ra Page's astute and beautifully written introduction, I thought I'd track down and re-read some of the primary sources: not just Freud's 1919 progenitive essay ("the reason we're all here", Page allusively reminds us) but also Ernst Jentsch from which Freud borrowed heavily, as well as E T A Hoffman's short story The Sandman which the über cross-disciplinarian Freud subjects to a somewhat clunky analysis, completely missing out on the proto-feminist subtext (very Freud).

I then see that Nicholas Royle, whose short story The Dummy is one of my favourites in this collection, had written a whole book on the subject, and so make my way to the third floor of my university library to hunt the tome down. Do Royle's talents have no bounds? Five novels, over a 100 short stories, the ability to read books whilst perambulating around Manchester without falling over, and now this: a magisterial work of critical and cultural theory, where the writing is as good as the ideas expressed therein. I devour the first two chapters, sitting right there next to the book stacks, and then browse forward through The Death DriveDarknessBuried Alive, until alighting on The Double.

In this chapter, Royle reveals that he has a doppelganger called Nicholas Royle. One of these Nicholas Royles appears to be the writer I follow on Twitter (@nicholasroyle), the other is tweet-autonomous.  Both have written novels about Doubles, both respond to the name Nick, but only one of them (he is very diligent about pointing this out) has won the Literary Review's Bad Sex in Fiction award. Occasionally NR (1957) emails NR (1963) to discuss the comedy of errors that has befallen one or the other. They sometimes do readings together.

It is at this moment that Das Unheimliche, draws an icy finger down the back of my neck. Is this some kind of PoMo joke, I wonder? I look around, as if expecting to see our pop purveyor of the uncanny, Derren Brown, skipping out from behind a shelf of literary criticism in order to reveal that I'd been hypnotised by him into believing I was writing a review about a book which doesn't really exist. "Oh, and if you look down, Steve, you will also discover that you aren't wearing any trousers."

This ability to completely derange the neat and often wholly illusory certainties of the Self is what makes the uncanny such a delicious and fascinating literary and extra-literary phenomenon. Like much great fiction, it is deeply and quite often deviously liminal: existing at that point where the unfamiliar shades into something uncannily familiar, or as Freud put it "developing in the direction of ambivalence, until it finally coincides with its opposite".

The first jolt of the uncanny in Hoffman's tale occurs as the young Nathaniel peeks out from behind some curtains at his father and the demonic Coppelius throwing aside their dressing gowns to reveal "long black frocks". What follows are even stranger exertions around another "black cavity", but it's this initial transition from heimlich to unheimlich that really sets the reader's alarm bell's ringing. Similarly, on the first page of NR-1963's story The Dummy, his narrator, a writer interested in Belgium, and thus already an uncanny version of Royle himself, spots (or perhaps hits?) a motorway maintenance worker in high-visibility clothing. It takes one sentence towards the bottom of the page for Royle to pitch us straight into the uncanny ("The planes of his face seem abnormally severe, his skin unnaturally smooth"). But then, as Hoffman also does, he immediately return us to the "homely" ("Do motorway maintenance workers really shave every morning?"). We feel (almost) "safe", and settle comfortably into further sensual homeliness/canniness: in this case, extra-marital sex with a Belgian journalist. And then he pulls the rug out from under our feet once more.

This see-sawing towards, away, and then back again into the uncanny is further intensified by swapping back and forth between first and second person narrators, enabling Royle to carry off an incredibly sophisticated maneuver whereby the reader experiences the very splitting-off of the psyche that narrator has to achieve in order to commit a heinous act later on in the tale. This  "other" that speaks of "you" is perhaps The Dummy's voice or possibly even NR-1957's voice. The frisson that goes with the reading and re-reading of this story, and others that achieve this delicate balance, is that character motivation is almost wholly obscured. But it feels right not to know. There is no Royle road to the unconscious.

Those stories that are less disturbing are perhaps the ones that attempt to join the dots, trying to explain away the uncanny by making it a post-mortem or post-dump-em event: someone's died, your lover's left you, hello uncanny my old friend.  The logic of the uncanny though is like that of a dream: "meaningful but inconsistent, senseless on the surface, but pointing toward a deeper unconscious order" (Eva-Maria Simms). Like dreams, and sometimes like life, the uncanny is cruel and senseless for no (apparent) reason. A.S Byatt's Doll's Eyes leaves you struggling for breath with its final paragraph, enraged by the folly of human transaction. Sara Maitland's Ultra-Grimm fable Seeing Double holds no prisoners either. The uncanny works as a "reading effect", the other Nicholas Royle (1957) reminds us: allowing brief, unsettling access into our shared Pandora's box of human sexuality, aggression, and loneliness, "it's not simply in the text as a theme".

In a way then, any great short story should be stuffed to the gills with "uncanny startlement" as Harold Bloom puts it, anointing the literature he calls canonical: "a strangeness, a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange". Nevertheless, I welcome the stories in this volume that allow us to be dreamed by them, those transitional objects between abject terror and sweet asylum.


Read an excerpt from one of the stories in this anthology on AdamMarek.co.uk
You can download a story by Nicholas Royle at Solaris
Read E T A Hoffman's The Sandman here.
Read Freud's essay on The Uncanny here.


Steve Wasserman is a psychotherapist and mindfulness trainer living in London. He also teaches Mindfulness Based Writing with Dr Kerry Ryan.
Steve's other Short Reviews: Aleksander Hemon "Best European Fiction 2012"
                     
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Editors Sarah Eyre is Co-Founder of Comma Press, Photographer, Curator, and Former Sales Officer at Carcanet Press.

Ra Page is Co-Founder of Comma Press and General Editor

Authors A.S. Byatt, Christopher Priest, Ramsey Campbell, Etgar Keret, Hanif Kureishi, Sara Maitland, Alison MacLeod, Jane Rogers, Gerard Woodward, Frank Cottrell Boyce, Nicholas Royle, Ian Duhig, Matthew Holness, and Adam Marek.