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.

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