When we use the term "uncanny" in casual conversation we are most often referring to a strange coincidence or a remarkable resemblance. The word seems to apply to some extraordinary replication in the world around us. But when we use it casually, the word is not commonly associated with a frisson of fear, perhaps because, outside of fiction, existential dread is not something that most of us experience, or expect to experience.
Within fiction, however, "uncanny" invariably means horror, though generally elicited by that same sense of replication in the world.
In 1906, Ernst Jentsch published "Zur Psychologie des Unheimlichen" ("On the Psychology of the Uncanny"—the German word commonly translated as "uncanny" is "unheimlich," which literally means "unhomely," a sense I will come back to later), which centres on E. T. A. Hoffman's story "The Sandman" (1816). For Jentsch, what made Hoffman's story uncanny were the intrusions into the reality, the unfamiliarity that one felt. Thirteen years later, however, Sigmund Freud turned to the same story and the same effect ("Das Unheimliche," 1919), and concluded Jentsch's definition of "uncanny" was incomplete. As Ra Page interprets it, in her introduction to The New Uncanny, Freud laid down eight tropes which are characteristic of the uncanny: i) inanimate objects behaving as if animate; ii) animate objects behaving as if inanimate; iii) being blinded; iv) the double; v) coincidences; vi) being buried alive; vii) some all-controlling evil genius; viii) confusions between the real and the unreal. Of these, five (i, ii, iv, v, viii) display some element of replication that we refer to in casual use of the word, and it is interesting that these are the forms of the uncanny picked up by all of the authors invited to produce new versions of the uncanny (Page interprets Christopher Priest's tale of a stalker, "The Sorting Out," as employing the all-controlling evil genius, though the stalker can also be another form of doppelganger). Of the other tropes, being blinded or buried alive seem more characteristic of the macabre tales of Edgar Allen Poe than they do of the uncanny, while the evil genius is a science fictional motif, unless we take the controller as being in some way a double of the controlled.
Freud's essay, one of the most important contributions to aesthetics that he produced, is hardly the last word on the nature of the uncanny. The structuralist critic Tzvetan Todorov incorporated it into his analysis of fantasy (The Fantastic, 1970), while Nicholas Royle (the academic) produced the book-length study of the uncanny as an aspect of cultural theory I've already mentioned (The Uncanny, 2003); but Freud's essay is still the starting point for any consideration of the uncanny in literature, psychology, cultural studies, or what have you. It is, therefore, a fascinating exercise to send a copy of Freud's essay to 14 contemporary writers, and ask them to use it as the basis for new fiction exploring and reinterpreting the uncanny. Of the contributors, only one, Ramsey Campbell, is unequivocally associated with horror, and only Christopher Priest can be identified as a science fiction author, but most of them seem to have used some aspect of the fantastic in their work before now.
One interesting thing, looking at this collection as a whole, is how many devices or aspects of the modern world lend themselves to being incorporated into the uncanny. Here we will find tamagotchi ("Tamagotchi" by Adam Marek), an automatic massage device ("Ped-o-Matique" by Jane Rogers), a traffic control device ("The Dummy" by Nicholas Royle) and the Sims ("Continuous Manipulation" by Frank Cottrell Boyce); though more traditional devices are also well represented, such as dolls ("Dolls' Eyes" by A. S. Byatt) and a ventriloquist's dummy ("Possum" by Matthew Holness). Yet, given how readily the uncanny seems to accommodate itself to the modern world, the most striking thing about this collection is how few of the authors use it to generate unease, still less outright horror. Quite the contrary, in fact, there are several stories here where the uncanny seems to lead to a comforting resolution.
In "Ped-o-Matique," a young academic on her way to a conference overseas has her foot trapped in the automatic massage device of the title, but rather than generate any sense of helplessness, the incident means that she misses her flight and so gets out of something she didn't want to do, forcing her in effect to take the easy option for her life. In "Long Ago, Yesterday" by Hanif Kureishi, a gay theatrical producer travels back in time to revisit his parents, an encounter that proves to be both comforting and affirming. Even Christopher Priest's "The Sorting Out," one of the two or three best stories in the collection, turns into something positive, although it does at least generate a sense of unease along the way. A young woman returns home late from a business trip to find her home has been broken into. At first she calls her former boyfriend for support, but as she discovers that nothing has been taken but her books have been disturbed, her shelves re-ordered, she realises that the ex-boyfriend was the person responsible, a realisation that prompts her to take control of things. The ending is clearly earned from what has gone before, but it resists any identification of the uncanny with horror.
At least these are actually stories. A number of the contributors seem to see the uncanny as establishing atmosphere, but don't really know what to do with it beyond that point. Gerard Woodward creates an intriguing situation—a man turns his cellar into an exact replica of the living room above it, but with the furniture hanging from the ceiling, the light fittings reaching up from the floor; but having laid out this idea has no plot to develop, so his contribution consists entirely of set-up but no story. Sara Maitland goes a little further in "Seeing Double." A boy is born with another, female, face on the back of his head. Maitland is good at establishing the dis-ease this creates, and the boy's own gradual discovery of his dual nature, but having got this far she fails to find any way of resolving the story, and so has a simple brutal last paragraph that is completely at odds with what has gone before. Etgar Keret ignores the precept of the collection completely in "Anette and I are Fucking in Hell," which consists of an account of what the title tells us and nothing more.
There is rather more to "The Un(heim)lich(e) Man(oeuvre)" by Ian Duhig (a title that has, I think, rather too many parentheses to be quite as clever as he wants it to be), but by the end I was rather wishing it had been shorter. It reads, to be honest, like an exercise in cramming as many literary references as possible into one piece while telling the story of a student who becomes increasingly unhinged, and since it is impossible to tell whether any of the characters our narrator comes into contact with are real or not, so it is impossible to tell whether any of this is real, or whether we should care. "Possum" by Matthew Holness is a much more coherent story, but it is similarly over-stuffed with references, so much so that virtually every major piece of information needed to understand what is going on comes to us by implication rather than statement. It generates an authentically creepy and unsavoury atmosphere, but would probably have been better if it had been allowed to be a bit clearer.
"Possum" involves (if I interpret it correctly, which is not at all certain) a return home, as do Priest's and Kureishi's stories, and "Continuous Manipulation" by Frank Cottrell Boyce, in which the Sims become a model for a young girl's sinister manipulation of her family (a story that reminded me, irresistibly, of "It's a Good Life" by Jerome Bixby). The stories by Maitland, Woodward, Byatt (a doll is an instrument of revenge on an unscrupulous lodger), and Marek (a tamagotchi contracts an AIDS-like sickness which goes on to infect the toys of other children) are all set at home. If the uncanny is really "unhomely," in other words, that which makes the familiar feel strange, then home seems to be the best setting, the place where we are most open to the disconnect and uncertainty of things not appearing as they should. Yet this is a tricky balancing act to pull off successfully, because home is also the place of reassurance, and in the Kureishi, Byatt, and Marek stories home is not the place of disturbance but the place of comfort that defuses the threat of the strange. In fact only Priest and, to a lesser extent, Boyce make home the point of disturbance, make home truly unhomely.
It is perhaps no coincidence, therefore, that the two stories that, alongside the Priest, work best in this collection take their characters into the unhomely homeliness of a hotel. In "Double Room" by Ramsey Campbell a recently widowed man hears noises from the room alongside his own that echo every noise he makes, a chilling haunting that comes to encapsulate his own feelings of guilt. There's guilt also at the root of "Family Motel" by Alison MacLeod, in which an English family stay at a small New England motel where their young son's fascination with the odd, robotic, and intrusive hotelier produces an increasing sense of alienation and menace.
This sense of alienation and menace generated by the familiar seems to me to be what is at the heart of the idea of the uncanny, and is what works most powerfully in the best stories in this collection, by Priest, Campbell, MacLeod, and Boyce. What this anthology seems to suggest is that however much the furniture of the uncanny might be updated, the idea itself and its literary effects haven't changed much since Freud formulated them nearly a century ago.