MARCH 13, 2015
SOMETIMES I THINK there are two kinds of readers: readers for whom books are bread and coffee, and readers for whom books are magic mushrooms. The bread-and-coffee people prefer to read about real life (marriage and parenthood, vocations and vacations, adultery and war), while the magic mushroom readers live for the shadow in the corner, the mysterious figure on the train, and the eerie music floating over the darkened lake. For these people, Marjorie Sandor’s new anthology, The Uncanny Reader: Stories from the Shadows, offers an abundance of delights. Even better, many bread-and-coffee people, should they take the plunge, may find themselves under the spell of the kind of story to which they believed themselves immune.
Though containing fewer than three dozen pieces, The Uncanny Reader feels remarkably generous and comprehensive. Casting a wide net chronologically and geographically — and, more important, stylistically — Sandor grounds this collection with E.T.A. Hoffman’s classic tale “The Sand-Man” (1816) and Edgar Allan Poe’s creepy “Berenice” (1835); moves forward through de Maupassant, Wharton, and Chekhov; touches essential 20th century masters from Shirley Jackson to H.P. Lovecraft; then finishes up by devoting a fair amount of space to contemporary writers both well-known and otherwise, including Kelly Link, Karen Russell, and China Miéville. She samples works from all over the world, including Egypt, France, Japan, Russia, Sweden, Uruguay, and Zambia, as well as many from the United States.
Did you stumble over Chekhov’s name in the previous paragraph, wondering what his fiction is doing in an anthology of the uncanny? It’s a good question, and the answer sheds light on what Sandor is up to here. In her smart and engaging introduction she writes, “[B]ecause 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.” “Oysters,” one of Chekhov’s brief slices of life, concerns a hungry boy standing on the street with his unemployed father. The boy is so famished that his mind takes an unfamiliar word — oysters — and spins strange fantasies around it. Informed that an oyster is “an animal… that lives in the sea,” he imagines a “creature in a shell with claws, glittering eyes, and a slimy skin… The grown-ups would take it and eat it, eat it alive with its eyes, its teeth, its legs!” Who knew Chekhov could sound so much like Poe? A story like this suggests how the uncanny may wriggle up from the sea — or out of the mind — onto a prosaic Moscow street; onto any street.
This is exactly what interests Sandor. Citing Russian critic Viktor Shklovsky’s concept of “ostranenie,” or defamiliarization — the way literature makes the world seem strange and new — she writes, “This aesthetic principle is at the heart of this anthology: Every writer in this collection strips away the armor of familiar, overused language…they make us see and hear anew.” It is this conceit that makes room under one sprawling mansard roof for a horror story like Poe’s “Berenice,” in which a crazed lover disinters his beloved in order to rip her teeth out of her head (“…and still the phantasma of the teeth maintained its terrible ascendancy”); a surrealist story like Bruno Schultz’s “The Birds,” in which the narrator’s father turns the family home into an incubator for exotic eggs (“Characteristically, both the condor and my father used the same chamber pot”); and a fantastical story like Karen Russell’s “Haunting Olivia” in which two brothers use a pair of magic pink underwater goggles to hunt for their dead sister’s ghost (“There are ghost fish swimming all around me. My hands pass right through their dead bodies”).
Sandor traces the word uncanny back to 16th-century Scotland, and she usefully unfolds its relationship with the German word unheimlich, about which Sigmund Freud wrote an influential essay. “Heimlich,” which may mean “private,” “secret,” or “belonging to the house,” is related to our word “haunt” — it’s no coincidence, it seems, that houses are so often haunted. Sandor also passes along a partial catalog of the disparate experiences Freud collected under the unheimlich umbrella, which include:
When something that should have remained hidden comes out into the open.
When we feel uncertainty as to whether we have encountered a human or an automaton.
When we see someone who looks like us — that is, our double.
The fear of being buried alive.
There are stories in this anthology for each of those categories. One of the strengths of this collection is how broadly women writers are represented, beginning with Edith Wharton. Like Henry James, Wharton wrote many ghost stories, and though Sandor doesn’t include my favorite (“Kerfol,” about a house haunted by ghost dogs), the story she has chosen is a gem. “The Pomegranate Seed” is told from the point of view of the young bride of a man whose first wife has died. No sooner does the happy couple return from their honeymoon when mysterious letters begin to arrive for the husband. You can doubtless guess who they’re from, but what I love about the story is that the psychological realism here is as acute as in any of Wharton’s more thoroughly realistic works. Her skillful portrait of a sensible young woman racked by jealousy reminds us that characters in uncanny fiction can — and should — be as fully developed as any others in literature. If fantasy or horror fiction has a bad name in some quarters, it is perhaps because some writers don’t expend as much effort on this aspect of their craft as we might wish, apparently feeling that dark surprises or shivery effects are sufficient. Not every writer in this collection has Wharton’s literary chops, but the overall quality of the work— the complexity of the characters, the satisfying unfolding of action, the compression and force of the prose — is largely outstanding.
One surprise: how many of the stories involve a sex doll (or puppet). Sandor gives us three in a row starting on page 310 — all, unsurprisingly, written by men.
A notable omission in the collection is Henry James, close contemporary and correspondent of Wharton, but of course you can’t include everybody. Sandor does, however, discuss James in her introduction, explaining something that has always puzzled me: Why is the tale of the governess in James’s classic ghost story The Turn of the Screw read out loud from a manuscript written by someone long dead? Why does the manuscript have to be sent for? What’s the point of interposing all those layers between the reader and the tale? I have always vaguely speculated that James wanted to build our anticipation, and perhaps make the story feel more precious, or more authentic; but Sandor argues convincingly that what James has his finger on here is our modern impulse to distance ourselves from the uncanny: “We want the story, and we will pay for it,” she writes. “But it is not ‘ours,’ we tell ourselves. Our hands are clean.”
There are advantages and disadvantages to collecting so many stories in a single category. Should you read too many at once, a certain sameness sets in, Sandor’s wide net notwithstanding. Over and over in these pages those distant voices, or that music, or the anachronistically dressed figure, or the faint spidery handwriting on an envelope, turns out to belong to the dead. If we guess a story’s twist in its opening pages, what is the point of reading on? Certainly one can appreciate the endless variations on the theme, admire the different textures of the language, or measure the varying lengths of the shadows; still, I found that I was relieved when stories took place in mid-afternoon instead of in the dark, just for the change of pace.
One of my favorites, Steven Millhauser’s “Phantoms,” doesn’t save up the fact that we’re dealing with ghosts as a final twist but adroitly gets it out of the way in the very first sentence: “The phantoms of our town do not, as some think, appear only in the dark.” This story of a haunted town is told through short sections called “The Phenomenon,” “Explanation #1,” “Case Study #1,” “Fear,” “Photographic Evidence,” and so on. In Millhauser’s hands, the elemental relationship between phantoms and death, worn thin thanks to centuries of ghost stories, becomes new again. Death is no longer a rabbit pulled out of a narrative hat, but a shocking hole at the center of life. In a section called “Forgetfulness,” the narrator explains,
There are times when we forget our phantoms. On summer afternoons… [s]hadows of tree branches lie against our white shingles… The air is warm, the grass is green, we will never die. Then an uneasiness comes, in the blue air. Between shouts, we hear a silence.
Other standouts: Shirley Jackson’s energetic and urban “Paranoia”; Chris Adrian’s surprising suicide-on-Nantucket story, “The Black Square”; and Kelly Link’s haunted and haunting tale of domestic life, “Stone Animals.” (I have been hearing Kelly Link’s name for so long and spoken so reverentially that I confess I have resisted reading her until now. I have been missing out.)
In “Stone Animals” a family moves out of an apartment in New York City and into a big house in the country that turns out to be haunted. The little boy, Carleton, knows something’s wrong right away: “I don’t like this staircase. It’s too big,” he says as the real estate agent shows them around. “I don’t like the house,” he insists. “I don’t like houses. I don’t want to live in a house.” His parents think he’s just being difficult, as usual. “[W]e’ll build you a tepee out on the lawn,” his mother offers. But the lawn, it transpires, is overrun with creepy haunted rabbits.
The unexpected and poignantly human way in which this house turns out to be haunted is one of Link’s great achievements. Basically, in this story, being haunted means that people find themselves suddenly and unaccountably uncomfortable using or touching a thing. This isn’t such a big problem when the thing in question is only a toothbrush, but pretty soon the contagion spreads to the alarm clock, the dishwasher, the downstairs bathroom, and the cat. The bathroom haunting is very inconvenient for heavily pregnant Catherine, and things only get worse from there.
Like the baby Catherine is expecting, the new house is part of a plan to save this couple’s marriage, and as the pages go by it becomes clear that it’s the marriage, not the haunting, at the center of the story. Or rather, the house is haunted because the marriage is unraveling. It’s not that haunting is a metaphor exactly — that would be too easy; it’s more like a sad, quotidian condition of these people’s lives. “We have to get a new dishwasher before I have this baby,” Catherine tells Henry. “You can’t have a baby and not have a dishwasher.” And then, a little later, when he reaches for her, “You can’t touch that breast… It’s haunted.” It’s Link’s understanding of the uncanny supernatural horror of daily life that makes me love this story so much:
When Carleton was three months old, Henry had realized that they’d misunderstood something. Babies weren’t babies — they were land mines, bear traps, wasp nests. They were a noise, which was sometimes even not a noise but merely a listening for a noise; they were a damp, chalky smell; they were the heaving, jerky, sticky manifestation of not-sleep.
And wait till you get to the killer last line.
Who or what is an anthology for? You might want to keep this volume on your shelf and dip into it now and then, rather than read it straight through. And I imagine many college English classes will find it a valuable resource — maybe particularly undergraduate fiction writing classes. When I have taught such classes, I have sometimes been made weary by the number of students — bright, hard-working, often extremely well read — who want only to write about zombies, aliens, and ghosts. This anthology might persuade such students to push themselves in new directions, revealing that the universe of the uncanny is bigger and stranger than they suspected. It will certainly remind them that good fantasy (or horror, or SF) writing is, at its core, good writing, period. And that, seen from the proper perspective, all of our houses are haunted.