A Conversation about the Uncanny

Marjorie Sandor talks about her new anthology The Uncanny Reader

Majorie SandorI’ve always thought of weird fiction and uncanny literature as being one and the same. It was only until recently when I read an anthology called The Uncanny Reader: Stories from the Shadows that I realized that while there are many commonalities and similarities, the uncanny and the weird aren’t exactly synonymous. In The Uncanny Reader, the editor, Marjorie Sandor, opens with an incredible essay on the word uncanny: what it means, its history in literature, and her own personal account of how she became interested in it. From there the anthology goes on a whirlwind tour of the uncanny from the diverse areas of modern international literature to centuries old tales about ghosts and strange occurrences. Sandor does a fantastic job of balancing out newer, diverse names like Yoko Ogawa and Mansoura Ez-Eldin with established classics like E.T.A. Hoffmann and Edgar Allan Poe.

In short, this anthology is bound to put uncanny fiction on the map for modern audiences and the only thing I think that matches its excellence is Sandor’s enthusiasm for the subject which she was happy to speak to us about. Be sure to stick around this week as we’ll also be featuring an exclusive essay on the uncanny based on the anthology’s introduction that Sandor has generously adapted for us to feature at Weird Fiction Review. Also, we’ll be posting the same translation of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Sand-man” that is included in The Uncanny Reader.

Weird Fiction Review: Why do you think the uncanny has been around for so long and pervaded so many cultures and countries? 

Marjorie Sandor: You probably already know the wonderful opening salvo of Lovecraft’s Horror in Supernatural Literature: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” If we think about this in terms of what art has always done for humankind, it’s always hovering in this intersection between the known and unknown — between the “official story” and the obliterated history that is not really gone, but suppressed or forgotten. We’ve been using this word, uncanny for hundreds of years, to describe the way we feel when something utterly mysterious happens close by—in the neighborhood, in the house-and-family, in our own bodies and sense of self. It might be supernatural. It might not. It might be fate. Or it might be chance. The crucial thing is that we can’t resolve it. The uncertainty — and what it makes us do and say — makes us uncanny to ourselves.

One cool thing to add here: the really old Scots/Gaelic word, “canny,” and its German equivalent, “heimlich,” originally meant not only safe and cozy but also private, hidden, and in old Scots, possessed of supernatural knowledge.” You might, for instance, go to a “canny man” to lay a curse on someone who’d pissed you off. This means that canny, as a word, has already secretly given birth to its eventual opposite, uncanny. That’s creepy, no?

But to go back to your question: we’ve always told ourselves stories after meeting with something inexplicable. The more we try to light up all the corners and rid ourselves of dangers, the more this primitive sensation takes root — like a seed of anxiety that will find a home wherever it can. The harder we try to expel it, the more it wants in. You can see why this is so rich and complex and unnerving when it comes to the art of storytelling, and all art forms, for that matter.

WFR: This anthology seems to be quite different from the rest of your work in that you’re the editor (not the writer) and also in terms of subject matter. Why the change?

MS: I’m so glad you used the word “seems.” I used to think of myself as a writer of more-or-less realistic stories, but there’s always been another current running beneath — in fact, I turned in a fairy-tale when I applied to MFA programs in the 1980s. Terrific timing. But now, having taught “the uncanny-in-literature” to my own MFA students for the last decade, I can see it secretly pervading everything I’ve written, fiction or creative nonfiction. For instance, in Portrait of My Mother, Who Posed Nude in Wartime, a young woman is forever trying to dig up family secrets that should have remained hidden. The final story contains the most well-guarded family secret of all: she receives an incomplete sketch of it from her father on his deathbed, and the key figure from his past might be an apparition, an invention — we never know. In an earlier story, “The Gittel,” a child on the brink of Holocaust-Germany dreams of being stuffed into a black grand piano by his mother. Wouldn’t Freud have loved that? In my recent nonfiction, The Late Interiors, weird dreams, hauntings, and strange coincidences abound. Why is this? I don’t know: I come from a family of Russian-and-Hungarian Jewish immigrants, and I think we dragged a great mystical and folkloric tradition with us to Ellis Island without quite realizing it. Add to this the fabulous ghost stories I was told as a child growing up in the San Gabriel Valley of Southern California — those suburbs are miles-deep with repressed histories going back to the first inhabitants of the place.

WFR: Do you view uncanny fiction as a distinct sub-genre or more of a tradition or narrative element?

MS: What a great question. In fact, I don’t think it’s a genre or sub-genre at all — it won’t stay pinned-down. In life, it’s a sensation; so, in literature (or in any art, really), it’s an effect, and finally, it’s one that morphs from reader to reader. In fact, I think it defies genre. You might experience it in a work of total realism about an impoverished and hungry child confronting, for the first time, the foreignness that is the oyster (Chekhov, “Oysters”), or during the slow transformation of an English train-station waiting room on a dark winter’s night, as a whole ghostly world reasserts itself (Aickman, “The Waiting Room”). I titled the anthology The Uncanny Reader to put the emphasis on the reader rather than the writer: to invite other readers into this weird (and yes, idiosyncratic) library. The sensation of the uncanny is so individual, so variable from reader to reader, that there’s no telling who will be unsettled by what. It’s kind of subversive that way, and it lets us, as readers, discover just how peculiar we are.

The Uncanny ReaderWFR: Were there any stories you wanted to include but weren’t able to due to copyrights? 

MS: Big time. I envisioned an anthology composed almost entirely of reprints, and I also wanted it to have an international scope. And, alas, I was the greenest of greenhorns when I began the process. My vision turned out to be almost comically at odds with the reality of rights acquisition on a limited budget. I was, early on, a bit like Dorothy at the great doors of Oz, confronted by the guard who yells, “Go Away! The great Oz cannot see you now — or ever!” Early on, I longed for Kawabata’s “The Arm” and Julio Cortázar’s “Bestiary.” I probably could have gotten them; I just didn’t know how, at the early stage, to pull it off without spending my whole advance. Then, too, I wrote heartfelt letters to a few very famous contemporary writers and/or their editors, and was greeted with silence — I shan’t name them here; they actually don’t know who they are. So, let’s just say that financially and spiritually, I had to let go of a few. But a lot of people in the business turned out to be angelically kind, and some of them saved me from bankruptcy.

WFR: What other works would recommend to those who’ve enjoyed The Uncanny Reader in terms of books and perhaps other media like film and art?

MS: Films: The Babadook (2014); The Spirit of the Beehive (1973). The Innocents (1961); The Haunting of Hill House (1963). The Quay Brothers’ animation of Schulz’s stories, watchable on Youtube.

Humor — in the sense of the uncanny feeling caused by “unintended repetition.” Watch youtubes of “The Great Flydini” routine by Steve Martin, and “No One Expects the Spanish Inquisition,” Monty Python (with great thanks to the British literary and cultural critic Nicholas Royle for pointing that out.)

Visual Art: most recently, this very exciting art installation of gigantic self-propelled creatures made of PVC pipe and fabric, by Theo Jansen. As I write this, his Strandbeests are moving along Miami Beach. Going back a century, you might check out the work of the symbolist painter Odilon Redon, especially his series of “noirs” based on the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. If you look at just one, make it “The Teeth,” based on his story “Berenice” (which is in the anthology).

More very early short fiction: the late 18th century Scottish writer James Hogg—I didn’t include him here because I ran out of room and was dedicated to Hoffmann’s “The Sandman” above all. But Hogg’s Country Dreams and Apparitions are a delight, as is Margaret Oliphant’s late 19th c. novella, “The Library Window.” And The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James — uncanniest novella of all time. To leap forward to the 1970s: Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip (a great example of uncanniness in photography-and-writing.

Nonfiction: Start with Freud’s very strange essay, “The Uncanny,” then follow it up with a dip into Nicholas Royle’s The Uncanny, Anthony Vidler’s The Architectural Uncanny, and Lawrence Weschler’s essays in Uncanny Valley. Puppet, by Kenneth Gross, is also a dream.

WFR: Have you found other works outside of the uncanny that have been influenced by uncanny fiction in some way?

MS: Ah, yes. That way lies madness — in a good way. You’ll find it in studies of architecture, medicine, robotics design, war, race relations. Nicholas Royle, says in his book The Uncanny, “the world is uncanny.” Why is this? Because it provides an incredibly valuable — and ever surprising — lens through which to look at the way we live now. I’ve discovered that if I reconsider an unsettling encounter, a disturbing work of art, or something as potentially mundane and depressing as an abandoned shopping mall, I don’t look away quite as quickly. Thinking about the uncanny forces us to slow down and consider the nature of our own “first reading” of a moment, person, or place. This could have profound implications in our political and cultural life.

WFR: What are your plans for the future? Do you plan to return to the uncanny again sometime or somehow reuse things you’ve learned while editing this anthology?

MS: I’ve been infected for life. I’ve got a novel-in-progress and new stories and I can feel them edging, of their own accord, deeper into ghostly territory. My most recently published short story is about a haunting: it’s an update of “Pomegranate Seed,” the Edith Wharton story in this anthology. As I wrote it, I found myself confronting my fear of contemporary technology — the story is called “Darkfruit.com.” What a surprising title, given that I’m practically allergic to the world of devices and the Internet. I’m also at work on a novel set in Inquisition Spain: it opens with an old man sitting in an empty palace, holding an obsolete musical instrument and invoking the shade of his dead lover. I think that “knowing” about the uncanny has heightened my sense of just how storied and haunted all our spaces and bodies are. I don’t think my material has changed. But my view of it absolutely has. There’s no going back.