First, some definitions:
‘if we have a sense of the uncanny, it is because the barriers between the known and the unknown are teetering on the brink of collapse,’ David Punter.
‘The uncanny has to do with a sense of a secret encounter: it is perhaps inseparable from an apprehension, however fleeting, of something that should have remained secret and hidden but has come to light’, Nicholas Royle.
‘It may be that the uncanny [‘the unhomely’] is something familiar [‘homely,’ ‘homey’] that has been repressed and then reappears, and that everything uncanny satisfies this condition […] Our conclusion could then be stated as follows: the uncanny element we know from experience arises either when repressed childhood complexes are revived by some impression, or when some primitive beliefs that have been surmounted appear to be once again confirmed,’ Sigmund Freud.
Taking Freud’s 1919 essay ‘The Uncanny’ as a starting point, the editors of this new anthology challenged 14 leading authors to write new interpretations of what the uncanny might mean today. I love Freud’s essay and the Hoffman short story, ‘The Sandman’, upon which it is based, and I am very interested in the uncanny as a concept, so I was quite excited about this book.
There’s no ‘new uncanny here’ – it’s the same old uncanny, but updated to contemporary settings. I don’t mind that and I was interested to note that several of the stories (Mathew Holness, Nicholas Royle, Christopher Priest, Alison Macleod) took as their theme the abuse of women and children, suggesting just how much this problem has become a repressed horror at the centre of our culture. Unsurprisingly, fears about technology featured quite highly. Jane Rogers took on an airport foot massager, Adam Marek makes Tamagothci’s seem pretty alarming and Frank Cottrell Boyce succeeded in putting me off the idea of playing SIMs. Meanwhile, A. S Byatt fell back on that old staple of the uncanny – the doll.
I was a little disappointed to find that a lot of these stories felt a bit forced (trying too hard to be uncanny), while other writers seemed to be doing ‘the uncanny by numbers’ and weren’t trying that hard (Ramsey Campbell). The worst story was Ian Duhig’s which I found completely unreadable and the last story by Etgar Keret wasn’t in the slightest bit uncanny.
In my opinion, there are three superb stories in this anthology and they are great because the writers really grasped a sense of the uncanny:
Sara Maitland’s ‘Seeing Double’. This story doesn’t feel new at all. It feels as old as the fears it raises. I think Hoffman would be impressed.
Matthew Holness’s ‘Possum’ is a story so terrifying you really start to wonder about the mind of the writer. Puppets are always nasty, but this puppet is the worst.
Christopher Priest’s ‘The Sorting Out’ is a brilliant best fictional description of what it feels like to be emotionally abused and stalked.
Overall this is quite an entertaining read, but if you really want to experience the uncanny, it doesn’t come near Nicholas Royle’s anthology Narrow Houses, which ostensibly deals with superstition, but contains some of the most uncanny stories I have ever read.