Friday, 17 July 2015

The Uncanny Reader (Stories from the Shadows), Edited by Marjorie Sandor, St. Martin's Griffin, New York

Defining the term 'uncanny' with any real precision is an occupational hazard. Defining what it isn't – through a process of elimination – is very much simpler. This has been considered both on these pages and elsewhere. The latest attempted definition, here in Editor Marjorie Sandor's choice of gems old and new, highlights the challenge.
  What is 'uncanny' may be whatever the author's narrator leaves out in terms of explanation. Its very appeal is its lack of objective conclusion. The uncertain, then, is in the eye of the deceiver. In the case of this 'deceiver,' I believe the best examples eschew the usual tropes of eliciting 'horror,' in favour of a percolating sense in the reader that something undefinable is in the process of going wrong. It is that coolly sophisticated, indefinable sense – found in the best examples – that, for me, defines the term.

“(The uncanny) seeks out a recollected or half-neglected physical place to inhabit: childhood houses, houses under construction, houses revised by later occupants.”

Really? Unlike Marjorie Sandor's personal perceptions from childhood (here referred to in her introduction) for me it avoids the literal walls of the Gothic edifice. Instead, it hides in the mind – of both author and reader; its clammy darkness emanating from somewhere more psychologically internal. Sandor ensures kicking off with the safest bet by another reprint for Hoffmann's 'Sand-man.' What follows it is a chequerboard of those that justify inclusion - and those that do not.
  Those that succeed in this curious genre include Maupassant's meditation on subjective isolation 'On the Water,' Marjorie Bowen's 'Decay,' Aickman's 'Waiting Room,' Shirley Jackson's 'Paranoia,' Kate Bernheimer's 'Whitework' and – ironically – Mansoura Ez Eldin's 'Gothic Night' (again, used in the psychological sense), all using its more subtle, metaphysical language. ­
  I welcomed the chance to belatedly catch-up on a couple of authors long known about but never read - Jonathan Carroll ('The Panic Hand,'), Shirley Jackson and China Mieville ('Foundation') – alongside new discoveries such as Chris Adrian ('The Black Square'), Kate Bernheimer and Yoko Ogawa ('Old Mrs J.'). Then, I am a writer-reader; it's by no means clear how this anthology might appeal to an audience less committed.
  Certain entries here flirt too closely to horror to be true arbiters. Where climactic explanation may be rightfully vague, the Grand Guignol depiction en route is overt in earlier classics. e.g. Lovecraft's 'Music of Eric Zann,' Chekov's 'Oysters' and Bruno Schulz's 'The Birds' step beyond the mere uncanny into horror's more visceral description. Their individual excellence isn't compromised placed in this context. Neither does putting this anthology's title to one side alter the fact of this being a collection of superb tales; just not a superb collection of uncanny tales.

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