Last year’s Shirley Jackson Award winner for “Best Anthology” — The New Uncanny: Tales of Unease, edited by Sarah Eyre and Rah Page (Comma Press, 2008) — is a knockout example of genre renewal. The book features some of the best British horror authors alive, including Ramsey Campbell, Nicholas Royle, A.S. Byatt, Christopher Priest and many more…even Matthew Holness (whose comedic double from the BBC, Garth Merenghi, is echoed here). The book definitely deserved the Jackson Award for its ambition, because it makes for an interesting literary experiment.
The book, essentially, was an assignment. All its contributors were challenged to read Sigmund Freud’s seminal essay on horror aesthetics called “The Uncanny,” and then write a fresh fictional interpretation of the ideas within it, in order to explore what the Uncanny might mean 100 years later, in the 21st century. The goal: “to update Freud’s famous checklist of what gives us the creeps.”
If you’re not familiar with Freud’s “Uncanny,” the introduction by Ra Page is an excellent survey of its key components in its own right, discussing how Freud provided a “literary template…a shopping list of shivers” that horror writers have managed to return to again and again over the past century. That template includes such icons as “the double” (aka doppelganger), living dolls, evil robots, recurring numbers, dismembered limbs that move on their own accord, animals that speak, the living dead, and more. Page explains the meaning of Freud’s essay in one of the most clear and careful ways I’ve ever seen in print. Thus, the introduction is a must-read, and it establishes the premise of the book perfectly.
What happens, though, is that the reader is put into an evaluative frame-of-mind, constantly asking themselves “How is this writer working with the source material?” and “Have they contributed something original to the concept?” This almost lowers the book to the status of a writing contest, of sorts, as the reader will inevitably begin to compare each author’s treatment side by side, looking for the best interpretation. This is fine, but it also makes us less susceptible to the emotional impact of the stories, since we’re inherently put into this judgmental distance from the worlds imagined by the authors. The best writers, however, thoroughly succeed in pulling us into their haunted characters’ worlds, forgetting about the “uncanny” altogether so we can experience the tale in an immediate fashion.
When discussing the tales in The New Uncanny, Page interestingly notes that the majority of the stories feature either the double or the doll most often. This is true, but it does not diminish the quality of the writing. There are “playful” types of dolls chosen, like Adam Marek’s “Tamaogotchi” or Nicholas Royle’s “The Dummy” — but even A.S. Byatt’s more traditional children doll story is thoroughly enjoyable as a work of terror. One of my favorite tales in the collection, however, transcends the usage of dolls AND doubles, and manages to be a gritty little gross-out number, to boot: Matthew Holness‘ “Possum” is a thoroughly raw and psychologically scarring story about a puppeteer who uses an animal head to scare children (among other things) — it is unsettling because it uses an unreliable narrator in an unstable manner, and the icing on the cake is that you can never quite tell if Holness is earnest in his narration or if he is playing the role of Garth Merenghi writing parodic horror fiction — which would be laughably outrageous if the writing weren’t this talented. I loved it.
Another quirky original is Jane Rogers’ “Ped-o-Matique” — about a foot massaging device that seems to have a mind of its own — and the story gives us a great psychological portrait of a woman “frozen” in place. To say much more about any of these stories would give too much away. (Though this particular story is online here!).
Because writers are all offering variation on a theme, without knowing what each other are up to, there is some redundancy among the stories. Gerard Woodward‘s “The Underhouse” — about a man who constructs an uncanny “mirror image” room in his basement, for example, is an ingenious story, told well. But it echoes Ramsey Campbell‘s opening tale, “Double Room,” in which a hotel guest discovers that his every action is echoed by identical sounds in a neighboring room, but with a hostile intent. These “mirror room” stories feel “strangely familiar” in their own right. But the redundancy isn’t too worrisome; the latter shows why Campbell is a master of psychological suspense, and while the idea is a little too similar to Woodward’s, it is more chilling, while Woodward’s is a wee bit more clever and whimsical in its conception. Drawing comparisons like these is part of that “distance” I was talking about in the outset of this review: the structure of the book both enables and gets in the way of its enjoyment. But on the whole, it is an excellent study in the Uncanny, and a fun — albeit disturbing — read of new British horror fiction. Compared to many anthologies in the horror genre, this one has a very clear literary purpose, and I recommend it very highly.
In fact, if you’re a teacher of literature, this would make for an excellent textbook/course. I actually assigned this book in a recent course I taught in Psychological Horror fiction at Seton Hill University. I asked students to review a story from the book on my other blog, The Popular Uncanny, so read that for a ‘double’ review! (These include MANY spoilers, however, so read the book before you read their thoughts).