For the past few years I’ve been deeply immersed in all things uncanny; in March of this year I completed a doctoral research project into a contemporary, technological uncanny, a creative writing PhD that explored how uncanny short fiction can illuminate and interrogate contemporary experiences of science and technology. My research took the form of a collection of uncanny short stories exploring areas such as virtual realities, biomedicine, and everyday and near future technologies.
As I embarked on this project, an early question (and one that would return persistently to haunt my research) was: what does it mean to write stories that are uncanny? The uncanny – as a feeling, sensation or experience – is notoriously hard to define. It’s a specific form of unease that has to do with the familiar made unfamiliar, with what ought to have remained hidden but has been brought into the light, with the return of what’s been repressed, buried, forgotten. It has to do with disturbed domesticity, with invasions and hauntings that may be supernatural or psychological in origin – or perhaps, if we’re thinking of a contemporary uncanny, may be technologically generated. It has to do, fundamentally, with uncertainty. While Freud, in his 1919 essay ‘The Uncanny’, categorically but unconvincingly dismisses the role of ‘intellectual uncertainty’ in the creation of uncanny affect, other scholars have tended to agree with Ernst Jentsch, Freud’s predecessor in writing about the uncanny, in recognising intellectual uncertainty – or what Jentsch refers to as ‘cognitive uncertainty’, which for me better captures the notion of the uncanny as something that is sensed as much as intellectually perceived (Falkenberg, 2005: 20) – as being central to experiences of uncanniness.
Not only is the uncanny hard to define, it’s highly subjective: what provokes uncanny affect for me isn’t necessarily uncanny for you (Jentsch, 1995: 8). And as well as varying from person to person, the uncanny often shifts within an individual, so that a story I find deeply unsettling on first reading is likely, on repeated readings, to lose its capacity to unsettle – or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that, through overfamiliarity with a text, I wear out my capacity to respond to its uncanniness.
As a writer setting out to create uncanny affect in my stories, I found the only possible approach was to acknowledge and work with my subjective sense of the uncanny – and this is a suggestion I’d make to anyone setting out to write uncanny material: to explore their own subjective sense of the uncanny, through extensive reading as well as writing. Samuel Weber describes the uncanny as an in-between feeling that sits ‘between dread, terror and panic on the one side, and uneasiness and anticipation on the other’ (Weber, 1973: 1131-2). My uncanny is closer to unease and anticipation than to panic and dread, and is intimately bound up with what Nicholas Royle describes as a productive, generative uncertainty, ‘the trembling of what remains undecidable’ (Royle, 2003: 52) – so these were the qualities I began to pursue in my short stories.
My research also explored questions about the uncanny as either a trans-historical or historically-situated concept: how does a contemporary, technological uncanny relate to the uncanny as conceptualised by Freud 100 years ago? Has it become overfamiliar to us and thus worn-out (Botting, 2008: 11)? Does the trope of confusion between animate and inanimate, human and machine, still unsettle us when we’re all so accustomed to walking round with artificially intelligent personal assistants in our pockets? Is the uncanny located somewhere different from where Freud found it, or is it essentially the same experience – provoked, perhaps, by different means?
More practically, something that quickly became apparent to me – through stories I was reading and those I was writing – was that deploying the uncanny tropes listed by Freud (e.g. doubles; returns from the dead; confusions between human and machine, animate and inanimate, real and not-real; telepathy; blindness) doesn’t necessarily result in a story that creates uncanny affect. These tropes can so easily become formulaic and predictable, and predictability is the enemy of uncanny affect, for how can we be unsettled by what we’ve come to expect? That’s not say that uncanny tropes can’t be recontextualised, defamiliarised or used in a fresh way – simply that they’re not the reliable building blocks of an uncanny piece of fiction.
I found that, rather than thinking in terms of the tropes that might feature in a piece of uncanny fiction, it was more useful for me to consider what it is that uncanny short stories do. As my project progressed, I developed a kind of checklist for the creation of uncanny affect in short fiction (a list which, again, is necessarily subjective):
1) The story should destabilise assumptions of identity, or of the nature of what is being experienced.
‘The uncanny involves feelings of uncertainty, in particular regarding the reality of who one is and what is being experienced. Suddenly one’s sense of oneself … seems strangely questionable’ (Royle, 2003: 1).
2) The story should unsettle distinctions between the familiar and the strange.
The familiar made strange is that specific form of unease associated with the uncanny. It encompasses Freud’s return of the repressed, experiences of disturbed domesticity, psychological invasions, and Friedrich Schelling’s notion of the uncanny as ‘everything that was meant to remain secret and hidden and has come into the open’ (Freud, 2003: 132).
3) The story should create cognitive uncertainty for the reader.
‘The uncanny is “disquieting” only to the extent that it entails “uncertainty”’ (Royle, 2003: 34 n62) – but what’s critical here is that the uncertainty in an uncanny text is a phenomenon that affects not just a story’s protagonist, but its reader. In order for the reader to experience, not just recognise, the unease associated with the uncanny, they should be in uncertainties; for instance, hesitating as to whether a haunting should be explained as a supernatural or psychological event.
To a greater or lesser extent, I intended that these functions should be present in each of my stories – including ‘Candlemaker Row’ (2015), the first story I wrote during my PhD research and one that brings together a technological uncanny and the uncanniness of the city of Edinburgh. This was a piece that I initially wrote for a University of Edinburgh project called Lit:Long, which aims to map the city through its literature. But when I first tried to write about Edinburgh, I found that the ghosts of so many literary Edinburghs created a very specific anxiety of influence: it’s a city so thoroughly explored in literature, that to write about it is to enter unavoidably into a dialogue with a lineage of authors from James Hogg, Robert Fergusson, Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson, through Muriel Spark and Norman McCaig, all the way up to the present day and Ian Rankin, Candia McWilliam, Irvine Welsh and Alexander McCall Smith. It seemed there was no part of Edinburgh that hadn’t been imaginatively claimed; literally, no space for a fresh response. I realised I would need to find a way to create this space, if I was to write a story that offered anything unexpected, any kind of new perspective.
My solution was to destroy the city in an unspecified disaster, in order to clear the ground and allow me to imaginatively reconstruct the city afresh. The story that then emerged was of a specialist in the technology of virtual smells, working on a project to recreate the lost city as a virtual reality. When the narrator enters the VR version of the part of the city where she used to live, and where her partner was killed in the disaster that destroyed the city, she finds it familiar and unfamiliar, a real / unreal city risen from the dead (the return of what should remain hidden) and – possibly – haunted by her dead lover.
So this is a story that’s deeply layered with hauntings, repressions, confusions of real and not-real; one that explores a specifically contemporary uncanniness to do with the experience of the body in VR as simultaneously present and absent, familiar and strange: but what’s fascinating to me is that, in writing this story, I thought I was sneaking time away from my PhD research. I didn’t realise I was writing an uncanny story until it was finished – at which point I was able to recognise its uncanniness and, during the rewriting and editing processes, make subtle changes to maximise its uneasy, unsettling qualities.
And this is another suggestion for anyone aiming to write uncanny fiction: to come at it slantwise, rather than straight on. To follow an image, a character, a feeling – and trust that uncanniness will emerge, pushing up from underneath. That, after all, is what the uncanny does.
Alexander, Jane (2015) ‘Candlemaker Row’ in Askew, Claire and Jones, Russell (eds.) Umbrellas of Edinburgh. Glasgow: Freight, pp. 148-156.
Botting, Fred (2008) Limits of Horror: Technology, Bodies, Gothic. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Falkenberg, Marc (2005) Rethinking the Uncanny in Hoffmann and Tieck. Oxford: Peter Lang.
Freud, Sigmund (2003 ) ‘The Uncanny’ in The Uncanny. Translated by David McLintock. London: Penguin, pp.121-161.
Jentsch, Ernst (1995 ) ‘On the Psychology of the Uncanny’. Translated by Roy Sellars, in Angelaki 2(1), pp7-16.
Royle, Nicholas (b. 1957) (2003) The Uncanny. Manchester/New York: Manchester University Press/Routledge.
Weber, Samuel (1973) ‘The Sideshow, or: Remarks on a Canny Moment’ in Modern Language Notes 88(6), pp. 1102-1133.