October Essay – Something’s Wrong in the Garden: the Uncanny and the Art of Writing by Marjorie Sandor
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.