Monday, 23 May 2011

The New Uncanny, Edited by Sarah Eyre & Ra Page, Comma Press

The adjective ‘uncanny’ isn’t heard much nowadays.  Scouting round for a single definition, the reason is made instantly clear.
  The OED offers six entries: from ‘mischievous, malicious’ to ‘dangerous, unsafe.’  The Free Online offers five: from ‘peculiarly unsettling…of supernatural origin’ to ‘so keen and perceptive to seem preternatural.’  The Cambridge is happy with just the one, theirs ending almost in apology; ‘strange or mysterious; difficult or impossible to explain.’
  This collection from Comma reflects what is as seemingly indefinable as the term’s true meaning.  Still, the OED also adds, in definition 4b. – ‘partaking of a supernatural character; mysterious, weird, uncomfortably strange or unfamiliar’ – as being ‘common from c.1850.’  Popular Gothic fiction of what might be termed ‘uncanny’ peaked at this time, pointing to this literary usage as likely the most influential.  It is also, probably, the most recognisable today.
  So, any of these being the likely parameter, it is puzzling why so few of the stories here succeed.  Matthew Holness’s ‘Possum’ is pure horror, in its depiction from the outset of an animal’s corpse used as a medico-psychopath’s toy.  In Gerard Woodward’s ‘The Underhouse,’ a man meticulously reconstructs a childhood kink by recreating the world he saw when he first stood on his head.  Ian Duhig’s awkwardly titled ‘The Un(heim)lich(e) Man(oeuvre)’ is self-regarding, clever and funny, but far too knowing and information-heavy to leave the uncanny space necessary for building tension or mood.
  This doesn’t mean these tales aren’t good.  The singular originality of each harbours its own strength.  But in no way can they be considered ‘uncanny.’  This requires subtlety, and communicating a covert, rather than overt, sense of fear; a point Ra Page herself alludes to in the Introduction.
  Perhaps, inevitably, the more seasoned writers here translate the term better in their linear contributions, understanding how less is more.  Ramsey Campbell’s ‘Double Room’ foregrounds the growing obsession of a hotel resident who believes his neighbour copies exactly every sound he makes.  Christopher Priest’s ‘The Sorting Out’ follows a woman who believes herself stalked by an absent former boyfriend who won’t let go.  A.S. Byatt’s ‘Dolls’ Eyes’ evokes Angela Carter in less fantastical mood, about a strange, unspoken relationship between another single woman and her ‘reluctant’ collection.
  Each succeeds in continuing the uncanny tradition.  Although, since the back cover proclaims its authors as having been set a challenge to ‘write fresh interpretations of what (it) might mean in the 21st century…’ their success can also be considered only partial.
  A final word on the penultimate entry; Hanif Kureishi’s ‘Long Ago, Yesterday’; I’d never read him before, but this perfectly pitched tale on encountering his late parents at a particular time in his youth and rediscovering, in adulthood, what he’d left behind, touched a nerve that left me on the point of tears.  Beautiful and life-affirming, and proof - if it were needed – how the uncanny, whatever its true concern, is rarely ever about guts and graves.

Monday, 9 May 2011


The lurid retro cover of three cowl-clad spectres surrounding a woman they have swathed in rope before a dominating pair of White Zombie-style eyes ensured this 2004 American release acquired its liberation from among the spines of a local charity bookshop.
  Far from being obscure, it seems U.S. cult magazine McSweeney’s has attracted the biggest names in fantasy fiction in recent years, of which this anthology is one of several.
  Yet, it is likely these stories comprise a mix of entries first considered, then dropped, from short story collections, with others, submitted freelance, turned down by their publishers.  Does this mean they are second rate?
I would say not, though the quality can be uneven.
  The welcome inclusion of talented unknowns and lesser knowns’ certainly give the bigger names a run for their money.  Aylet Waldman’s ‘Minnow’ is stunning in its original take on a couple who have lost their child, only for the mother to believe she hears it still on a neighbour’s monitor.  Steve Erickson’s ‘Zeroville’ takes film obsession to an OCD degree, while Heidi Julavits’s ‘The Miniaturist’ traps us in a strange house with a strange woman who silently invokes an ever-repeating spell.
  Of the bigger names, Margaret Atwood surprises, opening this collection with a neat, understated vampire tale, (‘Lusus Naturae’).  Poppy Z. Brite’s ‘The Devil of Delery Street’ updates the setting and mood music of Catholic guilt, while Joyce Carol Oates’ contribution is surprisingly traditional in a Poe-inspired tale of descending madness spawned of isolation in ‘The Fabled Light-House of Vina Del Mar.’
  Almost inevitably, the longest entry is Stephen King’s (‘Lisey and The Madman’), bearing his usual, strung out emphasis on dull minutiae, quickly sapping the attention.  While China Mieville’s ‘Reports of Certain Events in London’ is certainly original with its unresolved, cut n’ paste mock-up, its very inconclusiveness left me cold.
    Also available from McSweeney’s– if you look hard enough – are their Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, Created in Darkness by Troubled Americans, Quarterly Concern and The Believers.  Surely worth checking out for the titles alone.
  At the back of this one you will see that its sales benefit ‘a writing lab disguised as a pirate-supply store, dedicated to helping students with their writing skills.’  I suppose the charity shop I purchased this copy from can at least salve my conscience as the second-best option.

Visit for more information.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

An Idea for Readers and Writers

An old mate, William Baggs, has asked if I'd post the notice below on his behalf.  
It's kosher no hard sell - but could be worth consideration if your life's getting just too hectic.


I am organising a weekend workshop called ‘Skills for Living’ in London this September and as a close friend, family member or colleague, I would value your support in attending or helping me to promote the event.

‘Skills for Living’ incorporates exercises designed to improve health and general wellbeing, all the stuff I’ve been learning over the past 2 years that has helped me with depression and low energy levels. Basically, it works!

There are two exercises that are particularly beneficial and you will learn and practise these over the weekend:

1. The ‘inner smile’ is a simple but profound exercise for relaxing the heart and opening us up to deeper connection with ourselves and relationship to others. This is used to support general well being and can be particularly helpful with depressionanger and improved relations with others.

2. The 'Circulation of the Light' balance which supports and strengthens the natural flow of energy around the body. It is particularly beneficial in our fight against illness as it's the basis of the energy in the immune system. So if you want to avoid getting sick this is great. But better still if you are frequently have low energy and are run down then this will get your energy moving again. So you can see why it's also good for coldsjet lag and supporting women’s cycles.

There will also be a lot of fun energy practices that deepen understanding of how our minds influence the health of our body’s.

So, I am glad to be sharing this with you and hope that it will be of interest. ANd any support with promotion will be gratefully received. 

For more information on the processes you can check 

Fri 9th September 1900 til 2130
Sat 10th September 0930 til 1900
Sun 11th September 1000 til 1700
£220 if paid before July 31st
£270 if paid before August 31st
£320 thereafter and on the day

£37 of your fee goes to acuenergetics to register you as a student. There is also a very insightful booklet and DVD for each participant.

venue: Acton, West London 

Contact; Email is best at this stage as I am in Sydney til June 8th.

In gratitude,

William Baggs"