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THE UNCANNY READER
by Marjorie Sandor, ed.
St. Martin's Griffin, March 2015
561 pages
$21.99
ISBN: 1250041716


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The vashta Nerada, detectible only as the dread doppelganger of one's shadow. The leaden Maltese Falcon, taunting its absent double's coveters on both sides of the grave. The tell-tale heart. These are not merely monsters, motifs and Macguffins, they are uncanny. Strange, eerie, unnerving, and yet quotidian, it's the storytelling that envelops them that creates the sense of unease, the horrific recognition, the solution to the mystery - or its opening salvo.

The uncanny doesn't always permeate the crime genre, but when it does, it takes over: 'a kind of viral strain' more than a 'genre', as Marjorie Sandor, puts it. Sandor's new anthology, THE UNCANNY: STORIES FROM THE SHADOWS, draws together examples of this strain from a variety of genres, ranging from the eighteenth-century European Gothic to nineteenth-century realism, the crime story, and even the postmodern fable. Sandor's global selection of stories will inform, delight, and, yes, unnerve both seasoned aficionados of the uncanny and those who need Sandor's short etymology and history of it.

For the reader new to the uncanny, Sandor provides accessible, engaging translations of seminal works including Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann's 'The Sand-man' (inspiration for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and textbook example of the doppelganger) and Anton Chekhov's 'Oysters'. Classic horror writers such as Poe and Shirley Jackson make appearances, but not with their most canonical works. Instead, we confront Poe's 'Berenice' and Jackson's 'Paranoia', both unjustly neglected by anthologists, as well as H. P. Lovecraft's engaging 'Music of Erich Zann', which shows Lovecraft at perhaps his least misanthropic and xenophobic. (Don't think too hard about Zann's ethnicity.)

A few key authors seem to have been left out. Sandor cites James Hogg (The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, 'The Mysterious Bride') in the introduction, but includes no fiction by him. Mary Shelley is absent. However, several of her most neglected and imaginative short stories fit the bill, among them the doppelganger-fable 'Transformation', the time-travel fragment 'Valerius, the Reanimated Roman', and 'The Mortal Immortal', which squarely confronts, via magic and metaphor, the uncanniness of aging and of the aged woman to the young man. Eerie, succinct Jorge Luis Borges is not there, nor is Victor Séjour, the first African-American to have a short story published. That story, 'Le Mulatre (The Mulatto)' examines in horrific terms the uncanny bond between a slave and master who are, as they all too often were, alienated son and father.

If these are significant omissions, Sandor more than makes up for them by introducing readers to a world of lesser known but mainly brilliant commanders of the uncanny, in intellectually accessible and respectful translations. In general, the translations of this anthology's non-Anglophone writers include few foreign terms and no deliberate exoticism, with the effect that the only alienation involved is the uncanny elements. This is fantastic, because it lets the translated authors shine - arguably, brighter than the Anglophone ones. This reader's favorite discoveries are by the postmodern Egyptian writer Mansoura Ez Eldin. A journalist and novelist, she contributes 'Gothic Night', a tale that's almost a prose poem, told in the very Gothic convention of deliberate fragmentation, which completely belies its apparently self-explanatory title. It's also a fable with more than one interpretation. It rises to mythopoesis, and makes this reader want very much to read Ez Eldin's award-winning novels, not all of which have yet been translated into English. Uruguayan Felisberto Hernández is also helpfully included, not only for the brilliance of his Kafkaesque tale 'The Usher', but because he is, as Sandor points out, a major influence upon writers ranging from Italo Calvino to Gabriel Garcia Márquez. Another highlight, Zambian C. Namwali Serpell's 'Muzungu' critiques the alienation from self, culture, and family of a young African girl raised in her continent by white functionaries. In this story, nothing is more uncanny than colonization and its ghostly aftereffects, and no power is more supernatural than that of language. These are observations that THE UNCANNY READER proves true, over and over.

§ Rebecca Nesvet is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay. She specializes in nineteenth-century literature. https://uwgb.academia.edu/RebeccaNesvet

Reviewed by Rebecca Nesvet, June 2015

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