Consider your last encounter with the uncanny.
Ir probably wasn't that long ago. It doesn’t have to be anything overt — we’re not necessarily talking about hauntings or anything like that. It’s just that feeling that something is a little … off. Something strange happening, in a familiar context. Something familiar happening in a strange setting. An unexpected repetition — say, for example, the number 17 showing up with alarming frequency during the course of a single day.
Something that pokes a few holes in your sense of certainty.
That sense is at the heart of Corvallis writer Marjorie Sandor’s new anthology of stories, “The Uncanny Reader,” published just this week by St. Martin’s Press. A reading of selections from the anthology is scheduled for tonight at the Odd Fellows Hall in downtown Corvallis. (See the “Check It Out” box for details.)
Sandor scoured work from around the globe over the last two centuries to find the 31 stories included in “The Uncanny Reader.” Authors include writers you’ve likely heard of — Edgar Allen Poe, Anton Chekhov, Franz Kafka, Joyce Carol Oates — and writers you’re likely to hear a lot more of in the future: Karen Russell, China Mieville, Kelly Link, Jonathan Carroll.
It is not, Sandor emphasizes, a collection of all ghost stories or horror yarns. The stories in “The Uncanny Reader” bounce from genre to genre, but all of them have at their core a sense of something unexpected or uncertain — as Sandor puts it in her introduction, a feeling that something familiar is unraveling, “the uninvited exposure of something so long repressed.”
For Sandor, that creepy feeling started taking shape about a decade ago, and it starts with an old-fashioned haunting. In an interview this week with The E, she recalled the origins of “The Uncanny Reader.”
Sandor was teaching with a friend in a 1,000-year-old house in England.
“The minute we got there, the host walked us around and told us five ghost stories that were associated with this place. … My friend was haunted that night, and I was not. She experienced something extremely peculiar in her bedroom, and I experienced nothing.”
That is, not until four days later, when she attended a stage adaptation of the novel “The Woman in Black.” There, on stage, was the same image — a lit cross — that her friend had experienced in her bedroom.
“I just absolutely got chills down my spine,” Sandor said.
She went back and read the novel. That led her back to the old Henry James novella “The Turn of the Screw” and, in true uncanny fashion, she started running across that word “uncanny” again and again.
“And I looked up the word and realized there was a universe of stuff going on.”
That universe included an early (and highly influential) essay by Sigmund Freud, which Sandor cites in her introduction.
Eventually, the idea of the uncanny turned out to be a useful part of some of the classes she teaches at Oregon State University, to both undergraduates and grad students. Students at every level lapped it up: “It’s been maybe eight years of teaching this at various levels, and then I sometimes sort of subversively drag it into my other classes, and it always lights everything up,” she said.
In fact, it was her graduate students who suggested she create an anthology of stories with a touch of the uncanny at their hearts.
“And I said, ‘So what stories do you think should be in it?’ and we would talk about which stories. And of course, I almost got none of those.”
But she did end up with 31 stories that stretch over two centuries, from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Sand-man,” from 1816, to a story by rising star Russell (whose novel “Swamplandia!” was a Pulitzer finalist). But even the oldest stories have a modern flavor to them, thanks to the idea of the uncanny at their core.
Reading the stories allows us to hold that sense of discomfort at arm’s length, Sandor said. Literature, she said, allows us to have “a really uncomfortable experience with just that little bit of distance to keep us from actually sort of freaking out.”
Which brings us to tonight’s reading.
Sandor is reluctant to reveal too many details, saying cryptically that there will be a series of readings, “rendered by myself and a few others in such a way as to not strictly be a reading.”
And this she promises: “It won’t be like any reading you’ve been at in this town.”