The Uncanny Reader – A Book Review

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Anyone who knows me well, knows that reading is my form of therapy. I have never been able to get enough of it during my lifetime and I have always carted a huge library around with me. Some books I read over and over… The Uncanny Reader is one such book. I have an inherent love of the supernatural and I am fascinated by science fiction and horror that is well-written. Thus, my devotion to Dean Koontz, who is simply the master of such works. Marjorie Sandor has written an anthology of ghost stories, fairy tales, science fiction and fantasy that is just addictive.

Here is a synopsis of the work:

From the deeply unsettling to the possibly supernatural, these thirty-one border-crossing stories from around the world explore the uncanny in literature, and delve into our increasingly unstable sense of self, home, and planet. The Uncanny Reader: Stories from the Shadows opens with “The Sand-man,” E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1817 tale of doppelgangers and automatons–a tale that inspired generations of writers and thinkers to come. Stories by 19th and 20th century masters of the uncanny–including Edgar Allan Poe, Franz Kafka, and Shirley Jackson–form a foundation for sixteen award-winning contemporary authors, established and new, whose work blurs the boundaries between the familiar and the unknown. These writers come from Egypt, France, Germany, Japan, Poland, Russia, Scotland, England, Sweden, the United States, Uruguay, and Zambia–although their birthplaces are not always the terrains they plumb in their stories, nor do they confine themselves to their own eras. Contemporary authors include: Chris Adrian, Aimee Bender, Kate Bernheimer, Jean-Christophe Duchon-Doris, Mansoura Ez-Eldin, Jonathon Carroll, John Herdman, Kelly Link, Steven Millhauser, Joyce Carol Oates, Yoko Ogawa, Dean Paschal, Karen Russell, Namwali Serpell, Steve Stern and Karen Tidbeck.

I recognize many of those authors and adore their works. Sandor opens her works with an essay dedicated to explaining the differences between the uncanny and the weird. She dissects the word ‘uncanny’ and defines it for her readers. Then she delves into its historical significance and what it means to her personally.

From Weird Fiction Review:

Weird Fiction Review: Why do you think the uncanny has been around for so long and pervaded so many cultures and countries?

Marjorie Sandor: You probably already know the wonderful opening salvo of Lovecraft’s Horror in Supernatural Literature: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” If we think about this in terms of what art has always done for humankind, it’s always hovering in this intersection between the known and unknown — between the “official story” and the obliterated history that is not really gone, but suppressed or forgotten. We’ve been using this word, uncanny for hundreds of years, to describe the way we feel when something utterly mysterious happens close by—in the neighborhood, in the house-and-family, in our own bodies and sense of self. It might be supernatural. It might not. It might be fate. Or it might be chance. The crucial thing is that we can’t resolve it. The uncertainty — and what it makes us do and say — makes us uncanny to ourselves.

One cool thing to add here: the really old Scots/Gaelic word, “canny,” and its German equivalent, “heimlich,” originally meant not only safe and cozy but also private, hidden, and in old Scots, possessed of supernatural knowledge.” You might, for instance, go to a “canny man” to lay a curse on someone who’d pissed you off. This means that canny, as a word, has already secretly given birth to its eventual opposite, uncanny. That’s creepy, no?

But to go back to your question: we’ve always told ourselves stories after meeting with something inexplicable. The more we try to light up all the corners and rid ourselves of dangers, the more this primitive sensation takes root — like a seed of anxiety that will find a home wherever it can. The harder we try to expel it, the more it wants in. You can see why this is so rich and complex and unnerving when it comes to the art of storytelling, and all art forms, for that matter.

These stories are a great read for those who like the uncanny, the strange, the weird, the unexplained, as I do. The stories are just long enough to enthrall the reader and short enough to complete and then come back to the next one for more nourishment and delight. Pick up a copy of The Uncanny Reader – leave the light on and read all night. It’s just that good.

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