As All Hallows’ Eve approaches, we continue to examine stories that send chills up our spines. When people talk about scary stories, they often use the word “uncanny,” but what, precisely, does this word mean? Marjorie Sandor, editor of The Uncanny Reader, takes us through the evolution of the word and provides tools that will help you write your own uncanny tales. Dive in.
“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. And what’s exciting about this for writers of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction, is that it invites us to practice uncertainty.”
I’m eight years old, and my parents have gone out for the evening, leaving my older brothers in charge. This explains why I’m parked in front of the television set, watching a movie well beyond my tender years: The Innocents, based on Henry James’ unsettling ghost story, The Turn of the Screw.
A good twenty minutes into the film, the governess is in the garden, all in white and snipping white roses, still aglow with her good fortune in landing this gig at a big country house. The camera comes to rest near her voluminous skirts, on a small garden-statue nestled in the shrubs. It’s a cherub, but it looks deformed somehow, and there’s something hideous about its smile. That’s when, from out of its mouth, there issues a plump black bug. The bug dangles briefly on the cherub’s lip, waves its little legs, and drops out of sight.
A weird, sickish feeling wells up in my chest, both awful and exciting. It’s that insect, coming out of what appeared to be solid plaster. I don’t have words for the way I feel.
There is a word. I just don’t know it yet.
Uncanny. Look it up in a standard collegiate dictionary, and you’ll get a brief, unhelpful definition.
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 found it wobbling from infancy. In fact, 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 “un.” A shadow-word just waiting to emerge.
Maybe it’s that wobble in the parent-word that invites uncertainty into stories of the uncanny. James’ 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, a story of “general uncanny ugliness and horror and pain,” is the pinnacle of a century of great ghost stories in which homely spaces—country houses, city apartments, private gardens and cozy libraries—become sites for the suppressed—and disowned—past to return. Consider the tales of the late 18th 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 hanging endings, a sense of unfinished business both in language and action. They speak to crimes we’ve buried. To the human compulsion to confess—or bear witness.
Around the same time, in Germany, the künstmarchen, or art fairy tale, is coming into being. E.T.A. Hoffmann, Ludwig Tieck, Heinrich 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 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.”
This fundamental shattering of perception is at the heart of the uncanny experience, in everyday life and in art. It’s precisely what Virginia Woolf is talking about in her 1918 essay “On the Supernatural in Literature,” when she describes the unnerving power of James’ novella, The Turn of the Screw. In that essay, she asserts that the most terrifying thing about the novella is not the apparitions themselves but what happens to the Governess’s own mind. She calls it “the sudden extension of her own field of perception.”
Was something in the air? A year later, Sigmund Freud would dig some old papers out of a desk-drawer, and from them compose his essay, Das Unheimliche (The Uncanny). It’s no exaggeration to say that this essay 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 was himself following up on a 1906 essay by psychologist Ernst Jentsch. But Freud’s effort to net as many instances of uncanniness as he can, along with a slightly-out-of-control feeling in the writing itself, makes his essay the definitive introduction to the subject.
In his efforts to get ahold of the slippery idea of the unheimliche, Freud created a mad catalogue of human experiences that might cause the sensation. Here, in paraphrase, are just a handful:
The comingling of the familiar and the strange.
The experience of “a foreign body within oneself, or oneself as a foreign body.
The return of the primitive in an apparently modern and secular context.”
That which was intended to be kept secret, hidden away, and has come into the open.”
Doubt as to whether an apparently animate object is alive and, conversely, whether a lifeless object might not perhaps be animate.”
While any of these circumstances 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. And what’s exciting about this for writers of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction, is that it invites us to practice uncertainty.
Freud’s essay is, among other things, a wistful love letter to the art of imaginative writing. Near its end, 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.”
And so he left the subject to us—and many 20th and 21st century historians, philosophers, cultural observers, architects and designers, artists of all stripe—have taken it up. Here, then, is a question for writers of imaginative literature: how might being aware of this “human sensation” and its bizarre habits have a productive impact on our own writing processes? Surely being aware of it would destroy all hope of strangeness and surprise.
Think again of the governess, innocently snipping roses, when that little bug emerges. What will happen next? I want to be as surprised as she is.
Yep, out here still obsessing about the garden scene in The Innocents. Only now I’m doubly haunted: first by the staying power of that long-ago impression, and second, by the desire to give my reader that same peculiar depth-charge, a moment as unsettling, unstable, and alive as the image of a bug emerging from an apparently solid bit of plaster.
If I go back and look at the whole sequence more closely, I make a few discoveries right off the bat. For one thing, the bug emerging from the statue’s mouth is only the midpoint of a sequence in which all sound—including an insistent, high-pitched chorus of birdsong—abruptly cuts off. And in its wake there is too much sunlight—the Governess finds herself blinking and squinting. We watch as her gaze lifts from the statue to a crenelated tower, where the figure of a man lingers, moving his hands slowly along the stones. Pigeons burst out of the eaves—in absolute silence and slow motion—and only when the Governess drops her scissors in the garden-pond does sound return. A single splash brings her out of her trance, straight into her first rash action. She runs full tilt, in all that crinoline and taffeta, out the garden gate and up to the tower, her roses and garden-shears quite forgotten.
A sudden extension of her own field of perception.
Sudden for the governess, yes, and for the viewer. But now I see just slow and patient the build-up is, and how hearing, as well as sight, is engaged in the preparation. Time, the natural world, sound and sight are all suspended for a long moment—long enough to create a threshold across which we pass. During which the familiar world goes strange by small degrees.
I usually avoid-like-the-plague using film to talk about writing—it’s an utterly different language—but I’m convinced this sequence has something to teach us about how we work with language. Patience, for one thing. And a refreshed awareness of how small, apparently ordinary things can contain and expose the strangeness that hides all around us, and in us. How crucial it is to secretly prepare the reader for that first moment of change: the point at which the Governess sees the apparition on the tower, hears the splash of her own garden-shears in the birdbath, and springs into action.
On a more practical level, thinking about the uncanny, with its weird habits of exposing the hidden and making the familiar strange, might help the writer generate new work, or suggest a different angle of approach. It might overturn familiar ways of thinking about dramatic structure, point of view, space and the handling of time. Last but not least, might this odd angle surprise us at the line level by asking of us a renewed patience, a little reminder to make the familiar strange?
Generating new material: let’s say, for instance, that you’re casting about for a fresh subject, or just looking to reanimate a piece of writing that’s gone dead on you. Look at Freud’s essay and its catalogue of uncanny experiences; then try using one of them as a writing prompt. They are broad enough to leave lots of wiggle-room—and they might just as easily spark a poem as a story or piece of creative nonfiction. Some of them will actually force a dramatic turn: that which should have remained hidden has come out into the open, or when something familiar goes strange. Or you might try writing an update of a Victorian ghost story: set it in a contemporary context, a place you think you know well, and watch what happens.
Narrative Structure: Think like an old German: the art fairy tale must open in a recognizable world. Everything is going along as usual, when an event, unusual, but possible, occurs. It must be an event that looks like chance to everyone except for the protagonist, for whom it feels like fate. And crucially, this event must awaken in the protagonist a long-hidden or latent trait.
Uncanny Spaces: uncanniness has everything to do with the way we experience the physical environment around us. So we might take the occasion to slow down. What if we hold still in a place that seems ‘merely’ a passageway to the important stuff, or one that feels marginal. Particularly rich, I think, are physical spaces that are “thresholds” both spatially and temporally. Such moments might be lodged in “out of the way” or transitional physical spaces: a hallway, a cellar, a neglected median strip, or as in the case of Edith Wharton’s story, “Pomegranate Seed,” the doorstep of the character’s house as she turns the key in the lock. Everything in the story’s first paragraph speaks of an unstable threshold in time, space, and character: it is dusk, and March, and “the grinding rasping street life” of early 20th century New York unnerves our protagonist. It matches an inner uncertainty she has been at pains to suppress by cultivating “a veiled sanctuary” inside the home she shares with her new husband, the melancholy widower Kenneth Ashby. Charlotte’s own desire to get away from the noise and light of the new century will force her into psychological combat not only with the possessive shade of Kenneth’s first wife, but with her own sense of reality.
“Outside . . . skyscrapers, advertisements, telephones, wireless, airplanes, movies, motors, and all the rest of the twentieth century; and on the other side of the door something I can’t explain, can’t relate to them. Something as old as the world, as mysterious as life . . . . Nonsense! What am I worrying about?”
Wharton’s story is a 20th century künstmarchen, in which something extraordinary happens in the familiar world, and brings out into the open a latent trait in the protagonist. And its very language engages us in a very personal uncertainty. “Nonsense” cries Charlotte. We are left in the gap after that word.
The edges of our domestic worlds are potential thresholds into the unknown: how might those marked-off boundaries, in a contemporary landscape of suburban control, exert a suppressed power? In Joyce Carol Oates’ story “The Jesters,” the woods behind one suburban house lead to an ugly ‘median strip,’ on the other side of which is another set of woods and a dopplegänger house on its own mirror-cul-de-sac.
In the land owned by Hecate township there was a median strip kept mowed in the summer, probably no more than fifty feet across, where power lines had been installed.
The husband and the wife had never walked along the median. The wife had a vague recollection of stubbled weeds, marshy soil. Nothing like the fastidiously tended suburban lawns of Merion blue grass, the preferred grass for Crescent Lake Farms. Years ago when they’d walked more frequently, often hand-in-hand, they’d walked in parks, or along hiking trails; they had never explored the area behind their house which did not seem hospitable to strolling couples.
Guess where they’re going to have to go in the course of this story? It seems like a negligible space, but in Oates’s hands it becomes mythical—allegorical:
There were no paths into the woods, that they could discover. No one ever walked here. No children played here. It was not the habit of Crescent Farms children to wander in such places, as the generation of their grandparents had once done.
Thus the language describing a manicured subdivision begins to shimmer, to suggest an older landscape, hidden, sleeping, waiting to play its role once more in a human drama.
Time: in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, time can be as spectacularly unstable as space, creating a sense of a “threshold” or passageway the reader travels through that mimics the time it takes for a shift in perception to believably occur. In Dean Paschal’s “Moriya,” a fifteen-year-old boy falls under the spell of a life-sized 18th century automaton, and the narration repeats key phrases and ‘operates’ with a cool precision that matches the boy’s obsessive focus:
At that moment the doll began to turn. She began to turn toward him, slowly, as he watched, though not so slowly as to be unlifelike. It was as though she had been interrupted in the midst of a daydream. Her brilliant hazel eyes were not fixed, not what they call “doll-like”; they moved independently of her head and slightly in advance of it, giving an effect the realism of which was uncanny. Her hazel-colored eyes were crystalline, maybe literally. There was no movement of her mouth, which, like her face, was ceramic, or ivory, or alabaster, and was doll-like, though the lips were full and there was a feeling and even a glimpse of natural teeth.
The next moment, that doll is going to move—ever so slightly. I’d argue that it’s the meticulous care the writer takes to establish her stillness that creates the jolt in the reader when, in the next moment, she moves. Ever so slightly. It won’t take much to change everything.
Point of view: This is probably the richest frontier of all. 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? 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, and the reader might only faintly feel it, here and there—or it might simply blow the “presumed authority” of the piece wide open. In cases like these, the reader as much as the character is destabilized. For she cannot resolve or trust the very structure in which she’s been dwelling in so cozily—the house of the story. Go to “The Overcoat” by Gogol, for instance, or read John Herdman’s brilliant academic satire, “The Devil and Dr Tuberose” and watch as the narration slowly reveals its secret puppeteer.
Control—it’s what humans so desperately try for—control, perfection. Think of the character so desperate for control that we begin to pay close attention, listening for excesses or gaps in the narration. It cuts across all forms, and creates an extraordinary level of engagement—call it anxiety—in the reader, who senses something faintly cracking, faintly amiss, and waits with a kind of “desirous dread” (Angela Carter’s phrase) for the full break down. This pattern can lead to tragedy and horror, of course, but it can also lead to comedy and wild satire.
Language: in the end, we must go to the level of the sentence, its rhythms, its play of tones and dictions. Where our pulses register everything. Remember that line: “When something strange happens in a familiar context?” Think about this at the level of image, rhythm and diction, and you are in the province of something the early 20th century Russians had a nice name for: ostranenie. In ungainly English, “defamiliarization.” In a nutshell, it’s a reminder that it is our job to make the familiar strange again, word by word, line by line. Viktor Shklovsky’s essay, “Art as Technique,” in which he lays it out, was written around the same time as Freud and Woolf’s inquiries.
Habitualization 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 purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar,” to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object: the object is not important . . .
Chekhov’s short story “Oysters” offers a fine example of defamiliarization. In the story, an adult narrator looks back on a moment in his childhood, when he and his father, impoverished and delirious from hunger, find themselves outside a restaurant on a busy Moscow street. This story, too, begins with a “threshold moment,” in which there is a heightening of the senses: “[t]he rumble of the carriages began to seem like thunder, in the stench of the street I distinguished a thousand smells. The restaurant lights and the lamps dazzled my eyes like lightning.”
Over the course of the story, the child will use all his imaginative resources to envision a mysterious creature “midway between a fish and a crab” and as his hunger mounts, so does his inventiveness. But it isn’t until his father “trembling and shivering with cold” explains that “They are eaten alive . . . They are in shells like tortoises, but . . . in two halves” that the child’s innocent vision is destroyed and replaced with a horror: he pictures a “frog sitting in a shell, peeping out from it with big, glittering eyes, and moving its revolting jaws.”
This is just one example from a story that never stops “making the stone stony” –the oyster will never be the same again. The story makes us see, hear, smell and taste hunger itself—hunger in its most terrifying form.
The uncanny is Chekhov’s oyster: it is that thing old and familiar to someone else, but new and terrifying and alien to you. It lives in the moment of not-yet-knowing, but proliferates once you know what it is. You’ll see, hear, and smell it everywhere. The word begins to appear—or rather, you suddenly find yourself aware of it. It’s always been there, in the little cherub concealed in the shrubberies, a bug just waiting to emerge.
by Marjorie Sandor
Marjorie Sandor is the editor of The Uncanny Reader: Stories from the Shadows. She is also the author of four books of fiction and nonfiction. Her honors include the National Jewish Book Award in Fiction and the Oregon Book Award for literary nonfiction. She lives in Corvallis, Oregon and teaches at Oregon State University.