When I was little—just at that age when you can read books all on your own, but you still beg for them to be read to you—I had a favorite book. My mom thought this book was weird and creepy and should find a forever home on the quiet barely-ever-read top shelf. I thought this book was great; I loved the mystery, the inexplicable, the way the story made me feel uneasy and uncertain.
The book was Dear Mili, the long lost Grimm story found hidden in a letter Wilhelm Grimm wrote to a young girl in 1816, this edition made all the better by Maurice Sendak’s vivid fairytale illustrations. To escape the destruction of war, a mother sends her young daughter into the woods. The girl meets an old man who promises to let her stay in his cottage if she helps him. She serves him for what appears to be three days, but those three days end up being thirty years. Back home, the war is over and the little girl’s mom is an old woman. The man sends her back into the woods to return home before her mother dies. Another little girl, who looks just like her, guides her home, through the dark and difficult woods.
As a child, this book made me feel something I couldn’t properly explain at the time; it wasn’t like any other story I had read. It had magic like other fairytales—the sudden slip in time, the woodland guardian angel—but this magic was different, it was strange and unfamiliar, it had a hint of darkness to it, as though it could just as easily be sinister instead of helpful. Just as the magic seemed unfamiliar, the rest of the story felt so realistic, almost bleakly so; war driving a mother to send her daughter away, alone, to the forest.
It wasn’t until college, in a class on literary theory, that I found a word for those feelings, an interpretation for why I was so drawn to this story: the uncanny. We read Freud’s essay, The Uncanny, and I was pleasantly surprised to find myself intrigued by an interpretation under the heading of psychoanalysis. Freud begins with the word uncanny itself, unheimlich (unhomely) in German, and the way that it is defined by what it is not, not homely, not familiar, and yet it is not a perfect antonym because not all new, unfamiliar things are uncanny. Freud goes on to analyze instances that evoke the uncanny, making a distinction between the uncanny in real life and the uncanny in fiction. Sorry for the drop quote, but here is a taste of some of his ideas:
If psychoanalytic theory is right in asserting that every affect arising from an emotional impulse—of whatever kind—is converted into fear by being repressed, it follows that among those things that are felt to be frightening there must be one group in which it can be shown that the frightening element is something that has been repressed and now returns. This species of the frightening would then constitute the uncanny…if this really is the secret nature of the uncanny, we can understand why German usage allows the familiar (das Heimliche, the ‘homely’) to switch to its opposite, the uncanny (das Unheimliche, the ‘unhomely’), for this uncanny element is actually nothing new or strange, but something that was long familiar to the psyche and was estranged from it only through being repressed.
Now, as a writer, I know how difficult it can be to create the feeling of the uncanny in a story, how difficult it is to incite subtle, questionable feelings in your reader. As a writer, how do you build suspense, how do you make the reader feel uneasy and unsure? It’s especially difficult to do so when you already know the ending, already have the mystery unveiled. Somehow, it is our task to recreate the mystery for our readers and force them to do the work of figuring the story out, pinpointing what makes it so uncanny, deciphering the hidden meanings.
For Freud this difficulty lies in the relationship between the real and the fantastical: “…many things that would be uncanny if they occurred in real life are not uncanny in literature… in literature there are many opportunities to achieve the uncanny effects that are absent in real life. Among the many liberties that the creative writer can allow himself is that of choosing whether to present a world that conforms with the reader’s familiar reality or one that in some way deviates from it”.
What better time to consider the interplay between what is real and what is fantasy, than Halloween! For one day, the two are interchangeable in the most uncanny of ways. Traditionally, Halloween glorifies the obvious, the outright scary and gory and gruesome, it sets free all the things lurking in the shadow, but personally I’m a fan of the understated, the subtle things that scare you without explaining exactly how or why, the uncanny. If you need a break from the outright terrifying, check out my list of stories that are ambiguously unsettling, that straddle the lines of what is real and what is make-believe, that delve into the recesses of our collective unconscious and make familiar again, what was hidden for so long.
“Dear Mili” by Wilhelm Grimm, illustrated by Maurice Sendak
Dear Mili was my very first unsettling story. Five-year-old me says it should be read by all and right before bed.
“Haunting Olivia” from St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell
Karen Russell loves to set her reader’s expectations on end. Her language is as surprising and weird as her stories and Haunting Olivia is no exception. Two young boys discover a pair of magical goggles and set off into the grotto to search for their sister, Olivia.
“Incarnations of Burned Children” by David Foster Wallace
The subject matter of this story is gripping and horrifying, but it is the perspective and point of view—as if a child were watching from above as the events unfold—that makes the story truly unsettling.
“Happy Autumn Fields” by Elizabeth Bowen
In Happy Autumn Fields Bowen capitalizes on the way that doubling or twinning can make us uneasy (something that Freud discusses further in his essay). The lives of two girls, living very different lives in different times are in some way connected in this story, but the nature and reason of that connection remains a mystery.
“Night at the Fiestas” from Night at the Fiestas by Kristin Valdez Quade
This story is wrought with a prickling uncertainty. It seems so normal at first—Frances is riding her father’s bus into Santa Fe to attend the Fiestas—but Quade is the master at building subtle suspense, leaving the reader wondering what will go wrong.
“Two Houses” from Get in Trouble by Kelly Link
Kelly Link’s stories are so weird and strange. She creates unsettling and uncanny feelings with her specificity of detail.
The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan
Travel stories are the perfect medium for the uncanny. They provide so many opportunities for the new and the strange to overlap with the familiar—when we travel we seek out both in equal measure. Throughout this novella, I kept convincing myself that it was strange, that nothing was wrong until that act of convincing became unsettling in itself.
“The River” by Flannery O’Connor
Flannery O’Connor is the queen of unsettling. All of her stories beg to be read, but I chose The River because the image of the enticing yet secretly sinister river has stuck with me so long.
* Note: If you liked this post, then check out The Uncanny Reader: Stories from the Shadows, edited by Marjorie Sandor; it includes some of the stories listed above plus many, many more.