Shirley Jackson, The Lottery and Other Stories (1948)

Ever since I finished reading the stories in this collection, I’ve been trying to articulate the effect they’ve had on me. It’s easy enough to appreciate Shirley Jackson as a superb writer who had absolute control of her material, but when it comes to discussing the content of the stories, I find myself struggling because they seem to say so much and I always end up with more questions than answers.  If I had to try and sum it up, I suppose I’d say these stories explore the high price attached to the modern western construction the “self” as something that must be constantly defended against the “others” it attempts to exclude and deny.

Jackson is very much a gothic writer and one trope that appears in a lot of the stories, and is often associated with the gothic, is that of “the double”.  Her use of doubling produces a sense of what Sigmund Freud would call “the uncanny”, that is, the deeply unsettling feeling that something which should have remained secret and hidden has come to light. Like seeing oneself reflected in a distorted mirror, the uncanny double makes the familiar world appear disturbingly strange. In ‘The Renegade’, we find a middle-class housewife doubled with her “chicken killing” dog. The doubling of woman and dog reflects her position in the family in a very unsettling light, but in so doing makes the horror of that position finally visible. Meanwhile, in the story ‘Charles’, the doubling of a supposedly perfect child with his monstrous other shatters his parents’ illusions. Adult denial about the nature of children is a theme in several of the stories. My favourite use of doubling occurs in the chilling story ‘Of Course’ in which a family is confronted with some alarming new neighbours. But this new family is (of course), an uncanny mirror held up to the supposedly “normal” family, the flipside of the deadly, conventional, suburban lifestyle that the story’s protagonist is herself living. The neighbours are horrifying because they are not really so very different.

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The New Uncanny: Tales of Unease (2008)

 

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.

The Best Literary Theory I read in 2008

Nicholas Royle, The Uncanny

As a lover of Gothic Horror, I have an interest in the uncanny, what Freud described as the haunting sense that something which ought to be repressed is coming to light. Royle’s highly theoretical, imaginative and ambitious book works with Freud but isn’t overwhelmed by him:

The uncanny entails another thinking of beginning: the beginning is already haunted. The uncanny is ghostly. It is concerned with the strange, weird and mysterious, with a flickering sense (but not conviction) of something supernatural. The uncanny involves feelings of uncertainty, in particular regarding the reality of who one is and what is being experienced. Suddenly one’s sense of oneself (of one’s so-called ‘personality’ or ‘sexuality’, for example) seems strangely questionable.  The uncanny is a crisis of the proper […] It is a crisis of the natural, touching upon everything that one might have thought was ‘part of nature’ : one’s own nature, human nature, the nature of reality and the world (p. 1)

It’s also a good read for anyone interested in Derridean deconstruction.

 

Helene Cixous, ‘Fiction and its Phantoms: A Reading of Freud’s Das Unheimliche (The “Uncanny”)’

In which Cixous analyses Freud, unravelling his own essay about the uncanny and reading it against itself.  This is a challenging piece (from which it’s all but impossible to pull a representative quote) but an important exploration of the relationship between literature and psychoanalysis. Cixous effectively draws out the uncanniness underlying Freud’s own text and by implication all fiction.

Thank you to the kind person who sent me this essay when I couldn’t manage to wrest it from JSTOR.