A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
In 1919 Sigmund Freud published an essay that delved deep into the tradition of horror writing and claimed to understand one of its darkest tricks. Like a mad scientist, he performed literary vivisection on a still-breathing body of work, exploring its inner anatomy, and pulling out mysterious organs for classification. His aim: to present to the world a complete theory of ‘das unheimliche’, the uncanny. In the spirit of this great experiment, 14 leading authors have here been challenged to write fresh fictional interpretations of what the uncanny might mean in the 21st century, to update Freud’s famous checklist of what gives us the creeps, and to give the hulking canon of uncanny fiction a shot in the arm, a shock to the neck-bolts …
Yes, this blurb wins first prize (by a mighty long way) in the Most Pretentious Literary Blurb Awards and I would recommend you avoid it. Literary horror stories, good ones, need no introduction and I speak as a woman who has thoroughly enjoyed such tales in her youth, so I’d also recommend you avoid the equally pretentious introduction and the first story which is very dull and the second story which is meaningless. Goodness knows why they’re included at all. However, all is not lost as once we get to the always reliable Sarah Maitland, whose tale comes third here, we’re back on track, or rather that’s where the collection really starts. After that, it’s a pretty good compilation of literary horror tales which is, frankly, all the introduction you need to know to this book.
Highlights for me were:
Sarah Maitland’s Seeing Double (as just mentioned, it regained my interest in the collection in abundance), where the subtle build-up to the horror allows much sympathy for the unfortunate protagonist, alongside the mystery of his existence. The ending is bleak and perfect and terrible, all at the same time.
A. S. Byatt’s Doll’s Eyes, which is a masterly telling of what is a deeply satisfying act of vengeance, and also very cleverly keys in to the inherent spookiness of dolls, or is that just me?…
Ian Duhig’s The Un(heim)lich(e) Man(oeuvre), which is quite frankly a work of stream-of-consciousness inspired madness, in the darkest and most horrific sense of that word. This story and the way it was told really excited me, and took horror writing to a whole new level. Though I suspect it most definitely won’t be to everyone’s taste, as it casts aside any literary rule you’ve ever heard of, and still makes it work. Bliss. I loved the protagonist even though he’s utterly unlovable, and I always admire writers who can make me do that. The unresolved ending where less is used to convey more is also, like Maitland’s tale, perfect.
Frank Cottrell Boyce’s Continuous Manipulation, where a simple tale of a family encounter gradually turns both sinister and fascinating, all because of one little girl’s vision of her dream family. Great stuff.
Etgar Keret’s Anette and I Are Fucking in Hell is the final story of the collection and also a piece of flash fiction, which is always a pleasure to see in this environment. For a slice of erotic horror, it’s second to none and I loved it. A fabulous way to end this book.
The rest of the stories are perfectly acceptable in a horror collection, some more so than others, but if you’re into tales of literary unease or just want to be disturbed for a while in an interesting fashion, I can recommend this book to you. Just skip the introduction, start with the Maitland story and you’re home and dry. Or in the case of the last story, possibly not … Enjoy!
The New Uncanny: Tales of Unease, Comma Press 2008 2010 ISBN: 978 1905 583188
[Anne always finds herself strangely attracted to the uncanny but blames it on an Essex upbringing. She’s written plenty of peculiar tales of her own.]