The Uncanny Reader: Stories from the Shadows

The Uncanny Reader: Stories from the Shadows

by Marjorie Sandor (Editor)


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250041715
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 02/24/2015
Pages: 576
Sales rank: 1,318,924
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.70(d)

About the Author

Marjorie Sandor is the author of four books, including The Late Interiors: A Life Under Construction. Her story collection, Portrait of my Mother, Who Posed Nude in Wartime, won the 2004 National Jewish Book Award in Fiction, and an essay collection, The Night Gardener: A Search for Home won the 2000 Oregon Book Award for literary non-fiction. Her work has appeared in The Georgia Review, AGNI, The Hopkins Review and The Harvard Review among others. She lives in Corvallis, Oregon.

Read an Excerpt


An Introduction

A few years ago, a friend and I stayed the night in an English farm house

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 house maid 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, seemingly. 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- fi reside 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, fi lm, 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 heimlich, 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 heimlich 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


When the inanimate appears animate. Or when something animate appears


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


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.”

The story Freud chose as his focus is Ernst Theodor Amadeus

Hoff mann’s 1817 tale “The Sand- man,” which you will find at the beginning

of this anthology. Every reader— Freud included— will be distressed

by something slightly different in it. But perhaps its most universal feature

is the childhood fear of the legendary figure gone real. The terrifying

Sand- man is at first the boy’s proudly imagined creation and, in that

way, stands in for creativity itself. It’s when the real Sand- man shows

up— the advocate Coppelius, a friend of young Nathanael’s father, with

his creepy hair- bag and habit of touching the children’s favorite foods

with his hairy hands— that the real terror sets in. A terror entirely

earthly and one that threatens to foul childhood’s last pure sanctuary:

the creative imagination itself, that place from which we learn to perceive

the world.

E. T. A. Hoff mann and his contemporaries (among them Heinrich von

Kleist, Jean Paul, and Ludwig Tieck) called their stories Kunstmärchen—

art fairy tales— and revolutionized literary fiction by setting their tales

in the market squares and coffee houses, at the homely firesides and sleeping

alcoves of their own towns and cities, and then, like crazed chemists,

injecting a trace of the extraordinary into those known places, sending

their heroes and the reading public on a journey into the unmapped terrains

of our own minds. A new sort of fictional hero emerges: a flawed,

rather sensitive figure— often an artist or student— a young idealist, a

morose dreamer. The grown- up Nathanael, the student- poet at the

heart of “The Sand- man,” cannot reconcile his inner vision with that of

the world. His vulnerability— however foolishly he behaves— is heartbreaking

and spookily contemporary.

It is that irreconcilable feeling, as it expresses itself from 1817 to the

present, that binds these thirty- one stories together. As I followed the

trail of authors chronologically from Hoff mann to the most recently

born, I tried to honor the tradition of the Kunstmärchen and, whenever

possible, listened for the expression of something from Freud’s catalogue.

As a result, most of the stories you’ll find here take place in a

recognizable world, in which something, or someone, begins to go unfamiliar.

And because the German word unheimlich and the Scots word

“uncanny” come from far away, I aimed for as international— and geographically diverse—

an atmosphere as I could. So you will find here

writers 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.

From E. T. A. Hoff mann we move on to Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose

Bierce, and Guy de Maupassant, all of whom were in some way influenced

by the writers of Kunstmärchen and all of whom have their own

distinctive ways of showing us just how unknown we are to ourselves.

The narrator of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Berenice” has, like Nathanael, a rising

terror of his own slipping consciousness as he sits in his library,

wondering how that “little box . . . of no remarkable character” made it

to his lamp table. In “One of Twins,” Ambrose Bierce takes us to the

night streets of San Francisco and into our fear of doppelgängers and

their sinister acts. Acts that might— or might not— be attributed to us.

Or are they ours? In Guy de Maupassant’s “On the Water,” a local fisherman

finds his beloved home river transformed overnight as he sits

trapped in his boat, its anchor held fast by a mysterious weight from


And because 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. The

Russians— through early- twentieth- century critic Viktor Shklovsky—

have a word for what Chekhov does in “Oysters”—ostranenie, “to make

strange,” to defamiliarize. This aesthetic principle lies at the heart of

this anthology: Every writer in this collection strips away the armor of

familiar, overused language. They pass through walls; they silence the

numbing din out there; they make us see and hear anew.

As we make our way across the border of the twentieth century, the

uncanny burrows deeper into that sacred institution called home. Edith

Wharton traces the fragile path of a new marriage haunted by an old

one, just as the new century roars in with its telephones and motorcars,

its “devouring blaze of lights.” The perfect marriage and the perfect

house go suspect in Marjorie Bowen’s “Decay.” H. P. Lovecraft leads us

into a warren of old Paris and up under the eaves of an ancient apartment

house; only then can an impossible music begin to haunt the listener.

Our megalomania and our dreams of safe escape play themselves

out on increasingly dream- like stages: in the Schulzian universe a father

is slowly turning the family home into an aviary, while Kafka tugs us,

along with his adolescent hero, ever deeper into “the uncertain hold of a

ship moored to the coast of an unknown continent.”

It’s been said that what is frightening to one generation will not be to

the next. Virginia Woolf put it thus in her essay “The Supernatural in

Fiction.” “If you wish to guess what our ancestors felt when they read

The Mystery of Udolpho, you cannot do better than read The Turn of the Screw.”

So it’s no wonder that the nearer we get to our own age, the more the

shapes and shadows of uncanniness reflect our contemporary fears. It

gets harder to locate the source of the disturbance. Who is our “Sandman”?

and where is he hiding? For like Nathanael, we still feel watched

by a force much larger than ourselves and we still ask, Did I have something

to do with its dark making? That feeling— of being watched, listened

in on, followed all the way home— is timelessly rendered in

Shirley Jackson’s “Paranoia,” while Joan Aiken’s “The Helper” takes us

into the haunted space of a grief shadowed by an unshakable sense of

deliberate menace. Our bodies go uncanny to us as we discover, with

Felisberto Hernández’s lonely young theater usher, a disturbing physical

power over which we have no control. Robert Aickman’s northern train

station— a place we hope will provide a moment’s rest and haven from

the chaos without— is only waiting until the deep solitude of a winter’s

night, and a solitary, undefended guest, to bring a warm hearth glow

and a forgotten horror back to life.

By Virginia Woolf ’s time we were no longer afraid of “ruins, or moonlight,

or ghosts,” and her question “But what is it we are afraid of?” is

one that shifts with every hour in the twenty- first century. Let’s just say

that the uncanny- in- literature has the power to reflect— and allow us to

reflect on— our increasingly unstable sense of home. How do we cope

with the contradiction of technologies designed to improve our communications,

but which seem to isolate and alienate us further, technologies

that proliferate beyond our control? Are we fracking ourselves

to pieces, turning our planet unheimlich?

The late- twentieth- century stories included here speak to our new

anxieties in a variety of forms and in a variety of voices. Dwelling places

continue to seduce us with their promises of safety, then begin to show

how fragile they are, how haunted by the histories repressed by their

inhabitants— by us, with our unrelenting drive to contain, improve, and

control. The foundations of apartment buildings whisper of state-sanctioned

horrors more vast and more thoroughly concealed than those

beneath Aickman’s waiting room, and we must strain all the harder to

catch the past trapped in the groomed and genteel borderlands between

twin suburban mansions. And strain we do: we listen to our town’s

phantoms until they are more alive than we are. Grief and loss send us

back to old childhood places— to islands and underwater caves and the

edges of legendary mountains— but what we find there speaks more to

the present and the future than the past. And sometimes, the terrain in

which we grope and search to find ourselves is a place purely of the

mind: no less real— and no less labyrinthine— than the passages of a

ship’s hold or the lost streets of Paris.

Train compartments reveal us to ourselves, as do streets slated for

demolition. The uncanny takes us into the tightest of spots, both metaphorically

and physically; thus you may find yourself negotiating the

terrifying darkness of a death camp chimney. Travel to postcolonial

Zambia, where a child witnesses the ghostliness of race and class in her

own family.

And if earthly places go unfamiliar here, so do voices. Think of “The

Sand- man” as a Pandora’s box of voices, out from which has emerged a

mad host of urgent storytellers, from the voice of a whole town gradually

revealing its secret self to a handful of desperate letter writers, one

of whom is a little marionette. Obsessed narrators abound: Some confess;

some bear witness. Some are secret puppeteers themselves, concealing

their subversive intent in playful satire, in acts of ventriloquism, and

by hiding inside the very language of institutions.

We go uncanny to each other, breathtakingly so, in adolescence and

adulthood; public spaces go unnervingly intimate, and our bodies cry

out when they should have remained silent. Keep a wary eye on fathers—

and the friends of fathers. Beware the aged advocate, the optician with

too many coat pockets. Beware uncommonly beautiful women who

seem eager to know you; beware their daughters. The odd policeman,

the stranger who looks oddly familiar. The spectacular antique automaton

placed just so on a couch. Beware the carrot shaped like a hand; beware

the stone rabbits by the front door. Worry about the mysterious

self- destructive behavior of tigers in the forest. Come home again and

ask yourself, Am I trying too hard to create a perfect body, a perfect

home? A perfect world?

We turn to stories to slow ourselves down, to experience the thrill

and dislocation of our world transformed. To experience, if only for an

instant, what Bruno Schulz meant when he described his work as an

expression of rebellion “against the kingdom of the quotidian, that fixing

and delimiting of all possibilities, the guarantee of secure borders.”

Therefore, dear reader, get out your flashlight and read in the dark.

Read and, for a little time, let those borders dissolve.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Unraveling: An Introduction,
The Sand-man / Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann,
Berenice / Edgar Allan Poe,
One of Twins / Ambrose Bierce,
On the Water / Guy de Maupassant,
Oysters / Anton Chekhov,
Pomegranate Seed / Edith Wharton,
The Stoker / Franz Kafka,
Decay / Marjorie Bowen,
The Music of Erich Zann / H. P. Lovecraft,
The Birds / Bruno Schulz,
The Usher / Felisberto Hernández,
The Waiting Room / Robert Aickman,
Paranoia / Shirley Jackson,
The Helper / Joan Aiken,
The Jesters / Joyce Carol Oates,
The Devil and Dr. Tuberose / John Herdman,
Phantoms / Steven Millhauser,
On Jacob's Ladder / Steve Stern,
The Panic Hand / Jonathan Carroll,
Moriya / Dean Paschal,
The Puppets / Jean-Christophe Duchon-Doris,
Old Mrs. J / Yoko Ogawa,
Whitework / Kate Bernheimer,
Stone Animals / Kelly Link,
Tiger Mending / Aimee Bender,
The Black Square / Chris Adrian,
Foundation / China Miéville,
Gothic Night / Mansoura Ez Eldin,
Reindeer Mountain / Karin Tidbeck,
Muzungu / C. Namwali Serpell,
Haunting Olivia / Karen Russell,
Copyright Acknowledgments,
About the Authors,
About the Translators,
About the Editor,
Also by Marjorie Sandor,

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