If somebody recommends The New Uncanny to you in the next few months, they’ll most likely mention Matthew Holness’s story “Possum” (soon to be a major film) – and with good reason. “Possum” is an amazing piece of work, a story about a puppeteer and his vile, deformed companion that is simply sentence after sentence of steadily escalating dread. It’s bleak and disturbing, its conclusion underpinned by an emotional weight that means it stays with you long after reading. It’s also shot through with brilliant images, like Possum’s flypaper tongue:
Over the previous summer the mouth had accrued a large cluster of dead insects that dropped abruptly into view whenever the puppet licked or swallowed, usually scattering one or two dried bluebottles into my spellbound and horrified audience.
Possum is the emblem of chaos, “devouring other characters without warning… bursting through concealed walls or destroying with unrestrained violence my neat but tedious endings.” He’s the troll from fairytale (literally, at one point), and it’s no surprise the narrator says “Possum’s soundless, sudden presence held sway over my young audiences like no other puppet I’d ever built”: he, and the story around him, are mesmerising, with the air of a horror classic.
The danger of a story that’s so impressive, though, is that its reputation can threaten to eclipse the others around it, and as strong as Holness’s story is, there’s other equally powerful work in here. A.S. Byatt’s “Dolls’ Eyes”, which is about Fliss and her numerous dolls, is every bit as impressive – both in its description of the narrator, who is somehow ‘off’ (“she knew she was nice,” Byatt writes, “but she knew she was pretending to be nice”), and in the escalating horror of the plot.
Byatt’s got an eye for the coolly disturbing: a dollmaker’s “tiny cavern” has, hanging from the ceiling “like sausages in a butcher’s shop… arms, legs, torsos, wigs, the cages of crinolines,” and on the glass counter are “bowls of eyeballs, blue, black, brown, green, paperweight eyes, eyes without whites, all iris.” Nor is this limited to the mise en scene – Fliss’s interactions with her lodger turned lover Carole are all oddly disquieting, especially when it comes to Carol’s dog. The sustained tension throughout is verging on unbearable, and the mark of a master craftsman.
Not everything is so overtly horrifying as the two I’ve alluded to. Gerard Woodward’s magnificent story “The Underhouse”, where a man builds an exact replica of his lounge in the cellar beneath it – only with the furniture attached to the ceiling – and then uses it to terrify the young men he brings home drunk, is an unusual idea carried through with a brilliant, manic glee. It was a joy: hilarious, uneasy and unpredictable. Jane Rogers’s “Ped-o-Matique” takes a while to get to its uncanny content, and is all the stronger for it: building up an emotional capital before traumatising a woman with an inescapable foot massage machine. Both stories show the broad range available in uncanny fiction – for my money one of the most fertile grounds writers can write in at present – and their inclusion is a welcome decision by editors Sarah Eyre and Ra Page, keeping the collection from feeling ‘one note’ (Page’s opening essay on the uncanny is also especially good).
Adam Marek’s “Tamagotchi”, another piece about malfunctioning technology, is a superb extended metaphor about familial loyalty whose central motif is a diseased Tamagotchi. It’s written with real flair, and is surprisingly horrifying – so too is Frank Cottrell Boyce’s “Continuous Manipulation”, which envisions the real-life horrors of being forced to live as a participant in computer game The Sims. I’ve always thought of Cottrell Boyce as something of a comic genius, especially when writing dialogue (on which he cut his teeth), and this was every bit as good as his other work.
There’s more to say about Alison MacLeod’s “Family Motel”, with its magnificent description of a strange, glass-eyed motel owner (“Mr Earl”), or Nicholas Royle’s “The Dummy”, about the disquieting events of a rain-slicked night after the breakdown of a relationship, but truthfully I’d rather make a plea for why you should buy this now. Comma Press have made the choice to reissue this anthology in 2018, and that feels like particularly pertinent timing – as, when the world lurches in absurd directions and things that were previously unthinkable become part of mainstream political discussion, or when the United States listens to its President swearing that he didn’t say something that he’s literally on the record saying, the Uncanny is where literature can turn.
The New Uncanny pinpoints the way writing can capture the truth of an insane world, the way it can be an indirect tool for resistance. Stories like these highlight the disquiet in everyday life, make the normal strange and unfamiliar, and learning to listen to that voice of disquiet is profoundly important. You can expect to see a lot more like them in the coming years, especially given the success of Stephen King’s The Outsider, a novel which leans heavily into the uncanny.
Comma Press are, as ever, ahead of the curve with The New Uncanny. This is a terrifically enjoyable collection of stories, and an important one – get yourself a copy before everyone’s talking about it.
The New Uncanny is published by Comma Press. You can find it online at Amazon here, but to do so will mean Comma Press make considerably less money – better yet, buy it directly from them for £8.75 here.
Thanks to Comma Press for providing a free review copy of this book.
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