Editor’s Note: Frontiers for writing.
Marjorie Sandor, writing for Mastersreview, explores the ‘uncanny’ and what writers can do with it.
I’m eight years old, and my parents have gone out for the evening, leaving my older brothers in charge. This explains why I’m parked in front of the television set, watching a movie well beyond my tender years: The Innocents, based on Henry James’ unsettling ghost story, The Turn of the Screw.
A good twenty minutes into the film, the governess is in the garden, all in white and snipping white roses, still aglow with her good fortune in landing this gig at a big country house. The camera comes to rest near her voluminous skirts, on a small garden-statue nestled in the shrubs. It’s a cherub, but it looks deformed somehow, and there’s something hideous about its smile. That’s when, from out of its mouth, there issues a plump black bug. The bug dangles briefly on the cherub’s lip, waves its little legs, and drops out of sight.
A weird, sickish feeling wells up in my chest, both awful and exciting. It’s that insect, coming out of what appeared to be solid plaster. I don’t have words for the way I feel.
There is a word. I just don’t know it yet.
Uncanny. Look it up in a standard collegiate dictionary, and you’ll get a brief, unhelpful definition.
Seemingly supernatural. Mysterious. [orig. Sc & N. Engl.].
But the slippage has already begun. Seemingly.
Scholars have traced the word back as far as 1593, and found it wobbling from infancy. In fact, the Scots/Gaelic word from which it emerges, canny, meant not only what you’d think—“safe” and “cozy” and “prudent”—but also “sly of humor,” and “having supernatural knowledge.” You might go to “a canny man” to have a spell cast on an enemy, or to have one reversed. So you might say that from early-on, “canny” secretly contained the seed of its own “un.” A shadow-word just waiting to emerge.
Maybe it’s that wobble in the parent-word that invites uncertainty into stories of the uncanny. James’ 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, a story of “general uncanny ugliness and horror and pain,” is the pinnacle of a century of great ghost stories in which homely spaces—country houses, city apartments, private gardens and cozy libraries—become sites for the suppressed—and disowned—past to return. Consider the tales of the late 18th century Scottish writer James Hogg. His Country Dreams and Apparitions are set in country villages and croft-houses, and are full of the homely dialect of his time and place. Ghost stories, yes, but with hanging endings, a sense of unfinished business both in language and action. They speak to crimes we’ve buried. To the human compulsion to confess—or bear witness.
Around the same time, in Germany, the künstmarchen, or art fairy tale, is coming into being. E.T.A. Hoffmann, Ludwig Tieck, Heinrich von Kleist and others are writing long tales in which something extraordinary happens in a familiar world. The locales are usually urban—the coffee houses and market squares of university towns and cities—and rich with recognizable place-names, known figures, and scrupulous attention to domestic detail. Then something strange happens to the protagonist. Something seemingly supernatural. From that moment forward, his perception—and ours—is fundamentally, violently, shattered. The experience of seeing differently isolates him from his oh-so-rational friends. Neither he nor the reader can fully resolve whether he has imagined all of it, or it’s simply that no one else is “aware.”