The Big Uneasy

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In his essay "The Uncanny," Sigmund Freud discusses specific things that terrify us.  The uncanny, he argues, marks a specific sub-genre of horror literature.  He goes on to say it's not that these things are unfamiliar to us, but rather that these are things we've repressed. Not everything that's unfamiliar or new is frightening, but certain things are--because they represent the return of those things we've repressed, and the return of those thoughts and feelings is dreadful.  Freud lists a number of specific tropes that are uncanny: inanimate objects (such as dolls), doubles (twins or doppelgangers), being buried alive, déjà vu, and more. 

For The New Uncanny, editors Sarah Eyre and Ra Page challenged contemporary writers to read Freud's essay and write their own takes on one of his ideas.  The result is an interesting collection of short stories.  They're all being reviewed over at Dr. Arnzen's blog, so for this post I'm going to focus on the two that I found most remarkable.

"The Dummy" by Nicholas Royle deals with the double.  What I really liked about this story was the style Royle used to communicate that old uneasy feeling.  He switches back and forth from second person to first person, using this technique to induce dread in the reader as we realize what is happening in the story.  Royle showed how using literary technique can refresh a standard trope of the genre, making it uncanny all over again.

"The Sorting Out" by Christopher Priest had the most emotional impact for me.  While I enjoyed all the stories in the book, this one really gave me the creeps.  Priest deals with Freud's idea of confusion between reality and imagination.  It's a fairly straightforward tale of a woman who comes home to find that her house has been broken into, but nothing is missing--just slightly rearranged.  It's possible that her ex-boyfriend is responsible, or that it's all in her mind.  That ambiguity is what resonated most with me as a reader.

This entire collection is a great one for today's horror writers to read (can The Sims video game be uncanny?).  It points back to the roots of modern psychological horror, while showing how to make those ideas fresh again.  Ultimately, it makes us ask ourselves if Freudian psychology is still relevant to today's horror scene, and whether there are universal fears that work no matter what era we're writing in.


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