“What is the uncanny?”
This is the question that greets us as we begin to read Uncanny Bodies – the anthology edited by Pippa Goldschmidt, Gill Haddow, and Fadhila Mazanderani. It is also what we may perhaps term “the” question; the question to which the entire anthology is dedicated to exploring (if not quite answering).
Of course, we are given – in an excellent introductory essay from the three editors – an overview of how the term ‘Uncanny’ (or “unheimlich”) has been used by Freud and others. Yet even here, the editors note a difficulty in providing the uncanny with “any straightforward genealogy or definition”. While Freud may have popularised the term in his seminal 1919 essay; it was used by another psychologist, Ernst Jentsch, some 13 years previously; but of course the word itself originates in 16th Century Scots dialect. This difficulty in defining the true meaning of the word at the core of this anthology feels – perhaps – uncanny in itself. As readers, we are placed in a position of unfamiliarity and uncertainty, as though we are always at the edge of true understanding.
Few tools, of course, are better at helping us explore the meaning of the world, of reality, and our own understanding of it, than writing. And so a written anthology dedicated to the uncanny feels well warranted. What is perhaps most interesting about the anthology is that it brings together creative writers with academics and social scientists – and thus the writing within the anthology draws from a variety of writing mediums. Within these pages, we have classic short fiction and poetry, but also experimental, modernist and surrealist creative writing, placed alongside long-form journalism and academic essay. It is a veritable menagerie of creative writing, brought together in a unique – though of course, uncanny – literary zoo that explores the central question (“what is the uncanny?”) from every conceivable angle.
It makes for quite the surprising and engaging literary ride. Occasionally it can get exceedingly meta, as lines from Freud’s essay are turned into poems, which are in turn remixed and subject to intense academic reflection and study. Sometimes, the shift in styles and tones from short fiction to minimalist poetry via academic essay can jolt the reader and prevent them from settling into the book or getting too comfortable. But perhaps this is the point; a collection of only short stories or poetry or essays may lull readers into that dreaded sense of familiarity which is so lost in encounters with the uncanny. Indeed, Freud’s own definition of the uncanny, as the moment when “the familiar become strange” feels pertinent here: we pick up a book expecting some familiar course charted through familiar styles, only to encounter such vibrant originality springing from each page.
Because – and this is key – the stories, poems, and essays in this collection are precisely that: original. The writing is unique and each writer brings their own voice, their own interpretation, to the core subject/question at hand. We explore the uncanny from the point of view of human biology; of physical pain, tumours, body dysmorphia (two pieces, ‘Bunting’ by Neil Williamson, and ‘Skin Sisters’ by Bridget Bradley follow characters diagnosed with dermatillomania: the urge to pick and pull at your own skin). But we also explore the uncanny from the perspective of our own world in which we live. In Alice Tarbuck’s excellent poem, ‘Alexa’, for example, we explore the relationship between human and virtual ‘Assistant’, which leaves us with the sinister final stanza:
She plays my favourite songs, suggests
My favourite recipes, and I sing back,
Unbutton my dress, turn on the taps, still
Unaware that her price is perched
On the periphery, like a single black bird on a wire
Like a single eye at the keyhole
Where no eye was before.
These are the moments that truly bring into sharp focus the reason why we need further awareness and consideration of ‘The Uncanny’. We live in a world in which so many things that seemed strange (robots in our homes, in our pockets) are now familiar – strangely so. And we simultaneously live in a world where things that seemed familiar (human contact, for instance) now feel strange.
This is not to say that every written piece in Uncanny Bodies will be to each reader’s personal tastes; but rather that there is something in this collection for everybody. People often speak about the way books seem able to reach out a familiar hand to grasp your own; an acknowledgement that what you felt inside yourself your entire life is not strange. With this collection, dozens of hands reach out towards us; but in this instance offer both strangeness and peculiar familiarity.
‘Uncanny Bodies’, edited by Pippa Goldschmidt, Gill Haddow, and Fadhila Mazanderani, is published by Luna Press Publishing – https://www.lunapresspublishing.com/product-page/uncanny-bodies