by Brian J. Showers, August 2016
Uncertainties is an anthology of new writing — featuring contributions from Irish, British, and American authors — each exploring the idea of increasingly fragmented senses of reality. These types of short stories were termed “strange tales” by Robert Aickman, called “tales of the unexpected” by Roald Dahl, and known to Shakespeare’s ill-fated Prince Mamillius as “winter’s tales”. But these are no mere ghost stories. These tales of the uncanny grapple with existential epiphanies of the modern day, and when otherwise familiar landscapes become sinister and something decidedly less than certain . . .
We think we know the world we live in, but we don’t — we very much don’t — and stories of the supernatural and strange, of the weird and the uncanny serve as a reminder of that.
Let’s talk about uncertainties.
Many years ago, before I moved to Dublin, I lived in one of those turn-of-the-century wooden houses that still line the streets of downtown Madison, Wisconsin. That’s where I’m from originally, you see. The house was large with clapboard siding and two broad and spacious front porches, one upstairs and one downstairs. Perfect for the barbecue, which during the summer months always seemed to be smouldering and ready to go. There was hardly an evening when someone’s friends weren’t over, because back then we knew just about everyone. If you’ve been to Madison you’ll know the sort of house I mean, and if you attended university there — which is what the eight of us were partly occupied with all those years back — you’ll no doubt share with me some level of nostalgia.
Anyway, the house was shabby when we moved in: cracks in the plaster, weird stains on the carpet, gouges in the front hall banister, and a kitchen floor that sloped gently to the south-east. Proper student digs, like. It had certainly housed generations of undergrads before us, and probably a good few families before that.
I knew every inch of that creaky old house. Going down the basement steps you had to duck your head to avoid the overhang — or risk concussion. The house’s foundation was limestone, the basement walls were exposed; bare lightbulbs hung in each of the three dank rooms. This is where Mike and Ben’s band practiced, no doubt the bane of all the mice living down there. At the front of the house was Jeff and Max’s room, which I suspect at one time served as the parlour but now contained a bunk bed. John had his own small space off the living-room, while my room was at the rear of the house with a second door to the back staircase. Upstairs was another kitchen and hidden in a sort of walk-in closet off the second-floor sitting room was a small stained-glass window. Kurt, Erika, and Mike had rooms up there as well. And above them was the attic.
The attic was empty and unfinished with a slanted ceiling; if you weren’t careful you’d get a good scratch from one of the nails poking through from the tar-paper shingles nailed to the roof. All manner of late night madness went on under that roof. On certain nights, and after enough drink, we’d sometimes illuminate the attic with candles and get the Ouija board out. It was never me moving the planchette, I swear, but I’m still certain we never once pierced the veil of the other world. We all loved that stuff, by the way. Urban legends, bad television, good science fiction, and cheap beer.
So one day in the late spring I was sat there studying at the desk in my room, when I was interrupted by Max calling for me to join him outside. Out the door I went, down the front steps, and around the corner to the narrow gravel drive-way that ran between our house and the neighbours’. That’s where I found Max, arms folded, head tilted back, scrutinising the upper-storey. He didn’t say anything at first, so I took a step back to get a better view of what he was looking at. It was just the side of the house, nothing odd that I could see.
“What’s that window?” Max finally said.
“That one up there,” he pointed. “The one there on the left is the kitchen. And those two on the right are for the upstairs dining room. But what’s that one there?”
I looked up to the window he was pointing at. I didn’t see what he was talking about so much as felt it. That window. There was no room up there that either of us could account for; the windows simply did not tally with our intimate recollections of the space in which we dwelt. I knew the house same as Max, and now we shared that same sense of uncertainty.
We rushed inside and up the staircase to the second floor. We both counted the windows and then dashed back to the drive-way to count them again from the outside. The discrepancy remained and neither of us had the answer. What had once been a familiar space was now suddenly quite strange. Our home had become, in the truest definition of the word, unheimlich. However, there was one thing we were absolutely sure of: we were less certain about our house than we were before. And that’s essentially what this anthology is about, that occasional shift in perception that can leave us with an overwhelming sense of the incredible. Uncertainties is, to be exact, a volume of uncanny tales.
* * *
The uncanny often gets lumped into the broader genre that is horror, but perhaps does not entirely belong there. While I admit there is much overlap, I see the traditional horror story as primarily seeking to elicit from the reader a sense of revulsion or shock or fear, whereas tales of the uncanny attempt to disrupt one’s innate understanding of the natural order. Sometimes the result instils a sense of horror, as in Lovecraft, but this is not always the case. This is a crude argument, I know, but I hope you understand my meaning anyway.
Take for instance Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood, two authors regularly claimed by the horror camp. While no one would argue that they both wrote superb tales of horror, their respective bodies of work also segue into more subtle examinations of ontological disruption, often eschewing horror entirely. If you want examples, read Machen’s ‘N’ or Blackwood’s The Centaur, both of which survey preternatural shifts in world-view.
In some ways the uncanny tale is the antithesis to the classic detective story, which relies on a mystery that usually is solved by the end of the narrative. What begins as a tale of the unknown is inevitably explained; there’s a satisfying catharsis when you find out whodunit. On the contrary, the uncanny tale revels in the mystery itself. These stories start out in the recognisable world, the every-day, and slowly move into less familiar terrain. And instead of requiring the satisfaction of a solution, the connoisseur of the uncanny tale appreciates that lingering sense of wonderment, awe, and, yes, sometimes dread. Explanation is anathema and the preservation of the unknown is paramount for such a story’s success. It ignites the imagination. The stories gathered in this volume (and its predecessor) celebrate this notion.
I suppose you’re still wondering what that window in my old house was. A secret room of which Max and I were unaware? An alternate space with its own curious laws and secrets? Had we finally pierced the veil to other world? You might like to know, but to be overly concerned with the answer is to miss the point — what mattered in that moment was the mystery. And sometimes it’s far more interesting to let uncertainties linger.
Brian J. Showers
4 July 2016
Brian J. Showers has written short stories, articles, interviews, and reviews for magazines such as Rue Morgue, Supernatural Tales, Ghosts & Scholars, and Wormwood. His collection The Bleeding Horse won the Children of the Night Award in 2008. He is also the author of Literary Walking Tours of Gothic Dublin; and, with Gary W. Crawford and Jim Rockhill, he co-edited the Stoker Award-nominated Reflections in a Glass Darkly: Essays on J. Sheridan Le Fanu. The anthology Dreams of Shadow and Smoke, co-edited with Jim Rockhill, won the Ghost Story Award for best book in 2014. He also edits The Green Book, a journal devoted to Irish writers of the fantastic.