Marjorie Sandor is the author of four books of fiction and non-fiction, including the recent memoir, The Late Interiors: A Life Under Construction, (2011) and the 2004 Winner of the National Jewish Book Award in Fiction, Portrait of my Mother, Who Posed Nude in Wartime: Stories. Her earlier book of personal essays, The Night Gardener: A Search for Home, won the 2000 Oregon Book Award for Literary Nonfiction. Her work has appeared in such magazines as The Georgia Review, AGNI, and TriQuarterly, as well as in Best American Short Stories 1985 and 1988, The Pushcart Prize XIII, Twenty Under Thirty, and The Best American Spiritual Writing 2000. In February 2015, St. Martins Press will publish her first anthology, The Uncanny Reader: Stories from the Shadows. She teaches creative writing at Oregon State University in Corvallis.
Sandor’s characters—real and imagined–inhabit urban gardens and old houses. They linger on the ever-shifting threshold between home and wilderness, between youth and old age, and most of all between the human quest for adventure, and the desire for refuge. In her stories and essays, she explores family, community life, and the pull of art to expose our darkest and best-kept secrets, our restlessness and comical mistakes and deep regrets; our desire to create a domestic paradise against all odds.
A while back, I embarked on a weird voyage: to create an anthology of short stories, from 1817 to the present, called The Uncanny Reader. I’d lately gotten obsessed with this ancient, shape-shifting word, and found myself altered as a reader. Asking why a story unsettled me was refreshing. It invited me to break open the labeled and sub-labeled boxes cunningly devised for imaginative writing. It gave me a chance to pay homage to something else: the secret alchemy between writer, story, and reader.
In that spirit, I’m here to take my leaky coracle a bit further into uncharted waters. Here’s a question. I invite your reply.
What is the uncanny, and what is its relationship to that vast and varied terrain of imaginative writing called science fiction?
I’ll start by offering up a primitive definition of the uncanny: that it is a sensation, a private and idiosyncratic form of unease that happens when we encounter something (or someone) that seems to come from beyond our ken, yet also feels disturbingly close to home.
Since Freud first tried to catalogue the uncanny (Das Unheimliche) in 1919, it’s fairly exploded as a field of inquiry, not only in the arts, but in architecture, robotics, sociology, medicine—you name it. Cultural critics consider it a distinctly modern phenomenon, one arising in tandem with the rise of great urban centers and the speeding up of technological innovation.
Given all this, surely the uncanny speaks to our fear-and-curiosity about the future possibilities of present technologies—the deep concern at the heart of so much great science fiction. But the uncanny-in-art requires one more thing: that this sensation—of an unsolvable uneasiness, a deep disorientation about ourselves and our world—is left with the reader. It feels a bit like a curse: you can’t shake the feeling after you close the book.
Here, I want to invoke Darko Suvin’s 1972 definition of science fiction: “a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment.”
What I love about this definition is its roominess, and its emphasis on “estrangement and cognition.” That is the very stuff of uncanny effects in art—literary, visual, the works.
And here’s where I need your help. Is it still science fiction if that estrangement takes place slowly, like an I.V. drip, over the course of a story until finally the character’s “empirical environment” is at last upended, and the reader, along with the character, is thrown into a state of profound inner disorientation, a feeling that he no longer recognizes the world—and the self—he thought he knew?
I don’t know the answer. But I’ll offer an example of a story I included in The Uncanny Reader, a story that seriously messed with my assumptions about the author’s empirical environment, and profoundly estranged me from my cognitive processes. It did so, in part, by stealthily touching on my fear of—and curiosity about—future technologies, and my darkest suspicions about the human drive for control and perfection.
It’s a kind of baby Frankenstein.
The story is “The Panic Hand,” by Jonathan Carroll—and don’t worry, no spoilers here. Our narrator is a computer-salesman, and he seems a very honest, forthright fellow as he recalls a chance encounter with a beautiful woman and her daughter on a European train. We share his first impressions, his cautious curiosity, his developing sympathy for the young girl, who has a stutter, and who—uncanny coincidence—is also into computers. At one point, he says to us, “That’s the nice thing about computers: you don’t have to say a word to them and they’ll still do your bidding.” This remark, so casually dropped, strikes a quietly discordant note: it seems to contain another, hidden, unexpressed sentiment. There follows the slow drip of something-not-quite-right with mother-and-daughter, until, two-thirds of the way in, the entire nature of the encounter, of reality itself, is coolly upended.
Something empirically impossible seems to have happened.
But who—or what—made it happen? The story goes on a bit longer, leaving the computer salesman in the dark—and the reader toggling between equally monstrous possibilities.
Carroll slowly builds a sense of unease by holding his reader tight to the protagonist as he slowly experiences the “estrangement” of his cognitive process. Something has been let out of the box here. Or artfully left out.
And the reader? Carroll gives her just a touch more light than he gives the computer salesman. Just exactly enough to keep her peering into the dark of our unacknowledged desires, and their perverse habit of coming to life.