9 Short Story Collections About the Uncanny
Joanna Pearson, author of "Now You Know It All," recommends books about that creeping dread when something feels off
As a child, the worst mean-big-sister trick I ever played on my little brother was to convince him that I could transform at will into an evil entity named Madame Ruby. The most insidious aspect of this transformation is that I would look exactly the same, sound exactly the same—would, in fact, in every way still resemble his sister—but within, I would be someone unknown with vast, dark powers. I later learned in my training as a psychiatrist that there’s a term for the belief that someone you know has been replaced by an imposter: Capgras syndrome. I find that this is more often the stuff of novels (see Rivka Galchen’s Atmospheric Disturbances) than of my day-to-day clinical practice, but it’s an idea—a fear—that illustrates the uncanny, a concept I find fascinating. In his 1919 essay on the subject, Freud attempts to explicate the uncanny, or unheimlich, meaning literally not homey, strange, or unfamiliar.
It’s this space of the uncanny that most interests me as a writer. In my new collection of short stories, Now You Know It All, I explore that sense of dislocation in the quotidian, the creeping dread that arises when something feels just a hair off. Whether it’s the story of a troubled boy attempting to unleash the villain from an internet hoax onto his party guests, or a smitten student finding more than she bargained for hidden in her favorite teacher’s attic, the stories in my collection often teeter in the place between the natural and the supernatural, belief and disbelief, what we think we know for sure and what gives us a pang of doubt.
Uncanny Lit is decidedly not horror, nor is it exactly magical realism or gothic literature (although obviously, to some extent the edges of these categories blur). It shares with its sister genres a certain breath-holding build-up of suspense along with intrusions of the strange, but I’d argue that Uncanny Lit operates more slyly, through suggestion, and tends to start solidly in the mundane. Each of the collections below offers a taste of this subgenre.
Likes by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum
Rooted in the humdrum of jobs and parenting, Bynum’s work still shimmers with eeriness in the periphery. Take for example the wonderful first story, “The Erkling” which takes place at a children’s fair at a school. The setting is both mysterious and not, vaguely threatening and not, while the perspective glides between the mother, with her parental anxieties, and the child, who seems to see a strange, beckoning figure at the edge of the crowd. (An erkling, by the way, is a sinister elf who preys upon children…) If ever a writer knew how to chill without overplaying her hand, it’s Bynum.
The Dark Dark by Samantha Hunt
What else but pregnancy and motherhood can be simultaneously so utterly familiar and yet so strange? Hunt mines this fertile subject matter in her stunning and spooky collection. In one of my favorite stories, “A Love Story,” the classic it’s-coming-from-inside-the-house trope gets inverted. The main character hears someone lurking outside at night and sends her husband out to check, only to discover the intruder, the one she fears, is a person she’s known all along—and the most frightening thing, “the biggest experiment,” is one she’s already willingly signed up for.
The Love of a Good Woman by Alice Munro
While no one could argue that Alice Munro is underappreciated, I would argue that she might be underappreciated as a practitioner of the uncanny. Once you start looking, you notice it playing a role in lots of her stories. This particular collection includes one of my all-time uncanny favorites, “Save the Reaper,” which operates as a kind of homage to Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Eve (a grandmother, as it happens) thinks she’s following a road she recognizes, searching for a spot she recalls from childhood, only to find herself at an unrecognized house, surrounded by a group of menacing characters, one of whom manages to tag along for the ride when she leaves. As always, Munro’s moves are subtle, but this story leaves the reader with a real shiver.
What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah
Lesley Nneka Arimah’s wonderful debut collection presses up against the borders of Uncanny Lit from a more decidedly magical realist or surreal direction—something that’s true for a couple other favorite collections that I’m not including on this list (see Kelly Link’s Get In Trouble or Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties. Yes, the categories blur!!!). But what strikes me as uncanny in Arimah’s work is the way the strange seems to arrive in the ordinary world with so little fanfare. Take “Who Will Greet You at Home,” in which the fact of women animating babies made out of yarn or raffia or mud is almost unremarkable against the complexities of class and privilege and longing or the symbolic weight of women’s hair. (This one was read and discussed by ZZ Packer on a New Yorker fiction podcast not long ago, if you want to check it out.)
The Wrong Heaven by Amy Bonnaffons
Amy Bonnaffons’ striking first collection is another that abuts the surreal or fantastical, but it’s her deep acknowledgment of uncertainty and her grounding in the material world that makes me include her in the Uncanny Lit camp. Take for example the title story, in which an elementary school teacher purchases a lawn ornament Jesus and Mary who come to life. The protagonist of the story says:
“I believe the world is malleable, that our understanding of it is provisional, improvised, subject to a change of rules at any time; that sometimes the magician pulls out the tablecloth and the dishes all stay in place, and sometimes the magician pulls out the tablecloth and everything is gone, including the table.”
Tender by Sofia Samatar
Sofia Samatar’s wildly imaginative collection also straddles several genre categories, but she definitely makes the Uncanny Lit cut. Most notably, you’ll find her story, “Olimpia’s Ghost,” which is a spin on the story of The Sandman by ETA Hoffman, famously interpreted by Freud when he attempted to define the uncanny. (But if that’s not enough to draw you, there are also stories of selkie, witches, alien babies, and more.)
After the Quake by Haruki Murakami
This slim collection of six stories set just after the 1995 Kobe earthquake is nothing if not uncanny. In one of my favorites, “UFO in Kushiro,” a man rocked by the sudden departure of his wife is asked to deliver a mysterious box to a bleak location in the north. This story is a master class on the power of withholding. (If you’re interested, it was read and discussed by Bryan Washington in a recent episode of the New Yorker fiction podcast.)
We Show What We Have Learned & Other Stories by Clare Beams
Clare Beams’ marvelous and unsettling debut collection epitomizes Uncanny Lit. Take the opening story, “Hourglass,” in which schoolgirl narrator Melody arrives at a boarding school that promises “a transformational education.” The headmaster, preoccupied with his quest to shape his young charges, is both beguiling and sinister, and by the time his “special project” is revealed, you’ll be left with a pit in your stomach. Beams picks up where Shirley Jackson left off in these nine weird yet weirdly moving stories.
Bobcat And Other Stories by Rebecca Lee
I love Rebecca Lee’s collection so much partly because, much like Alice Munro noted above, she taps into the uncanny through a staunchly realist angle. Despite this realism, there’s still the looming feeling of threat in the shape of all the difficult human unknowns, all the reversals that can affect us. In the title story, for example, the question of whether a woman has survived an attack by an actual or metaphorical bobcat is muted by the late-night arrival of a strange woman at the door—like the answer to a question the narrator was not yet prepared to ask.