[REVIEW] The Uncanny Reader, edited by Marjorie Sandor


St Martin’s Griffin
576 pages, $21.99


Review by Dan Bradley



The hardest readers to shock and surprise are, perversely, voracious consumers and lovers of horror; we’ve read it all before. So with this new collection of 31 uncanny tales, refreshingly attentive to international and contemporary voices, can editor Marjorie Sandor revamp the strangeness and power of the uncanny for a new generation of readers?

The collection is inspired by the ‘haunted word’ itself. Sandor introduces the collection by tracking the etymology and semantic shadows cast by ‘uncanny’ and how its broad insinuations snake through languages and cultures, touching upon so many parts of our lives, enabling it to inspire such a wide ranging collection of tales ‘from the darkly obsessive to the subversively political, from the ghostly to the satirical.’ In Sigmund Freud’s 1919 essay ‘Das Unheimlich’, commonly translated as ‘The Uncanny’, his catalogue of experiences capable of creating an uncanny sensation, which ‘speak to the uninvited exposure of something so long repressed… that we hardly recognize it as ours,’ could easily read as a template for the greatest horror art, fiction and cinema of the past century:

When something that should have remained hidden has come out in the open.
When we feel uncertainty as to whether we have encountered a human or an automaton.
When the inanimate appears animate. Or when something animate appears inanimate.
When we see someone who looks like us—that is, our double.
The fear of being buried alive.
When we feel as if there is a foreign body inside our own. When we become foreign to ourselves.

We begin on familiar shifting ground with E.T.A. Hoffman’s classic The Sand-man. The story is a touchstone for the genre; a chimera of hallucinatory horror with an hypersensitive narrator drawn into an unrelenting nightmare of childhood fears, social humiliation and a doomed infatuation with a unnervingly wooden, spiritless young woman. The first third of the anthology dusts off some underappreciated tales from well known literary big-hitters: Poe, Chekhov, Kafka, Maupassant, Lovecraft, as well as treats like a newly discovered short story from Shirley Jackson, uncovered by the Jackson family amongst boxes the author left behind and first published posthumously in The New Yorker in 2013. The Uncanny Reader lurched off to a great start but, as watching a classic horror film after being raised on the innumerable works that it inspired, it was difficult to balance my enjoyment with an odd sense that I’d already seen these ideas played out, both better and worse, many times before.

Sandor notes that ‘as we make our way across the border of the twentieth century, the uncanny burrows deeper into that sacred institution called home.’ And this is where the collection really gathers steam, although it almost didn’t turn out that way. Sandor admitted in a interview with Weird Fiction that her initial dream of an internationally focused anthology ‘composed entirely of reprints… turned out to be almost comically at odds with the reality of rights acquisition on a limited budget.’ However, these constraints, and sacrificing big names and obvious choices, makes space for modern, urgent voices and a spread of authors from Egypt, France, Germany, Japan, Poland, Russia, Scotland, England, Sweden, Uruguay and Zambia.

With the focus on lingering psychic violence, and the fundamental strangeness of ourselves and the ones we love, it should come as no surprise that marriage is a recurring theme. In a sombre portrait of domestic malaise, Edith Wharton’s ‘Pomegranate Seed’ delivers a skin-prickling tale of a new relationship poisoned by the memory of a husband’s dead ex-wife and the arrival of letters written in an all too familiar hand. The horror that emerges is not only the threat of the supernatural. It’s the fear of complete estrangement from the ones we love and depend on; the collapse of a relationship, where each partner becomes so withdrawn and secretive, they become like strangers. Likewise, in Marjorie Bowen’s ‘Decay’ the true nature of a seemingly perfect union is revealed in the stink of decay that overwhelms visitors to their home, while in Joyce Carol Oates’ wonderful ‘The Jesters’, an elderly couple’s brittle performance of happy retirement is tested, taunted even, by the gregarious social lives of the ‘neighbours-through-the-trees’ who they hear but never see.

This collection is full of wicked surprises. There are some technically masterful twists and reveals. Jonathan Carroll’s ‘The Panic Hand’, in particular, involves some thrilling misdirection. But there is also the mischevious satire of Kelly Link’s ‘Stone Animals’, the genre-bending of Kate Bernheimer’s ‘White Work’ or the dazzling beauty of Karen Russell’s tale of childhood guilt and loss, ‘Haunting Olivia.’ One of the strangest, and most astonishing stories in the collection, is ‘Phantoms’ by Steven Millhauser. Here is the opening line: ‘The phantoms of our town do not, as some think, appear only in the dark. Often we come upon them in full sunlight, when shadows lie sharp on the lawns and streets.’

The piece appears to be a matter-of-fact report about the appearance of phantoms in a small town. With headings like ‘Explanation No.1’, ‘How We Know’ and ‘Case Study No.3’, there is no interest in whether they may or may not be real, but instead the mournful reality of visitations from the dead. The story perfectly distils the way that an uncanny experience, and the concomitant fear of loneliness and mortality that trouble our quieter moments, can puncture the seemingly tranquil surface of modern life and uncover things we may not be ready to face:

There are times when we forget our phantoms. On summer afternoons, the telephone wires glow in the sun like fire. Shadows of tree branches lie against our white shingles. Children shout in the street. 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. It’s as though something is about to happen, which we ought to know, if only we could remember.


Dan Bradley is a writer, critic and translator from Japanese. He lives in London.