Present Perfect: Time and the Uncanny in American Science and Horror Fiction of the 1970s


by Fabio Camilletti

  This essay analyses the relationship between the uncanny and time by focusing on the notion of ‘time-slip’ as reflected in three American novels of the 1970s: Jack Finney’s Time and Again, Richard Matheson’s Bid Time Return and Stephen King’s The Shining. Through a comparative analysis of these texts, the essay inquires into the relationship of modernity with time and the past, as well as into modern paradigms of continuity and influence, and the image of the nineteenth century as divulged in popular culture. 

Ain’t nothing but a stranger in this world. 

 – Van Morrison, Astral Weeks (1968)  

Quantum foam makes me roam 

To the place I belong. 

 -Michael Crichton, Timeline (1999) 

In Le XIXe siècle à travers les âges, first published in 1984, Philippe Muray wonders if the nineteenth century is perhaps not only “the subterranean net, perpetually underlying our adventures of the twentieth” (1999, 10, my translation). The nineteenth century, he writes, keeps haunting us, so that we write nineteenth century. We love nineteenth century. We vote nineteenth century. We film, we paint, we write nineteenth century. We are afraid of being nineteenth century. We rejoice if others are. We have nineteenth-century references. nineteenth-century taste, nineteenth-century aesthetics. We hope, sing, torment and despair nineteenth century. (9) 

Muray locates the beginning of this haunting presence in a very precise moment. On 7 April 1786, the Parisian Cemetery of the Innocents are reclaimed for sanitary reasons, and the bones transferred to the so-called “Catacombs”. The operation thus gives birth to the spatial organisation of death later fulfilled by the Saint Cloud edict of 1804. With such an inaugural act, Muray argues, the post-Enlightenment age symbolically locks death out, at the same time incorporating it in a scientific and bio-political discourse. Still, while dislocating the alterity represented by dead bodies from the space of the familiar, between aseptic sanitarian structures and the discretion of burial niches, such a clarification ultimately casts a penumbra. On the one hand, the corpse is made the object of a medical-scientific analysis, eventually crossing the border of enchantment: “We have bewitched corpses”, writes Muray in evoking Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” (57). 

Harry Clarke, 1919  

On the other hand, such a discourse reverberates in a contamination between medicine and literature, thus making literature a “branch of medical discourse” (59). Eventually, the nineteenth century itself, being at once adjective, quality and mode of being, is entrapped within its own metaphor: just like Valdemar, dead and undead at the same time, the long-dead nineteenth century has become an occult influence, impalpably and obsessively haunting the present as a corpse mesmerically preserved in a non-living state. 

From a completely different perspective, and from the other side of the English Channel, Robert Douglas-Fairhurst remarks likewise, that “the current of Victorian thinking remains alive” (2002, 345). In the same way, Douglas-Fairhurst’s question is double. In Victorian Afterlives, the analysis focuses on the problems of influence and of the persistence of the past, so crucial for Victorian sensibility and ultimately directed against the Victorian age itself, generating questions concerning the limits of its survival and of its slow agony. As early as 1919, Edmund Gosse had observed that 

Ages so multiform and redundant and full of blood as the Victorian take a long time to die; they have their surprising recoveries and their uncovenanted convalescences. But even they give up the ghost at length, and are buried hastily with scant reverence(quoted in Douglas-Fairhurst 2002, 344). 

Two burial metaphors were then independently adopted in order to evoke the idea of a nineteenth century influencing the present like a spectral anxiety. The image works on a double level. If, on the one hand, cemeteries are a fully nineteenth-century invention, on the other hand nineteenth-century cemeteries, from Père Lachaise (established in 1804) to Highgate (1839), from Staglieno (1851) to the Zentralfriedhof Friedrichsfelde (1881), are now encompassed within modern urban spaces, as timeless cities peacefully cohabiting with those of the living. The relationship between the nineteenth century and the present is therefore one of proximity-distance, that of an oblique and discreet presence: in other words, the same tension between familiarity and otherness (das Heimliche/das Unheimliche) that Sigmund Freud singled out as the crucial articulation of the uncanny. Besides, the image of a pacific and yet subtly disconcerting cohabitation between the living and the dead is itself definitely “nineteenth-century”. While nineteenth-century society expels the dead into the “other space” of monumental cemeteries (Foucault 1967), spiritualism conjures their wraith-like presences within the familiar space of the house, where their tangible traces are equally multiplied: photos, locks of hair, phonograph-recorded voices, or vestiges retraced in ground noises, fluxes, radio waves and unperceivable buzzes. 

The ghost of the nineteenth century is therefore, to speak in Lacan’s terms, something that has not been properly buried, the “sign of a disturbance in the symbolic rite”, because of which the dead cannot be “inscribed in the text of symbolic tradition” (Zizek 1992, 23). The slow-to-die Victorians haunt us not only through their conception of death, but also by their visible and theoretical presence, the persistence of their architectures and of their metaphorical constructions, of their visual codes and of their objects, as tangible presences which it is still possible to touch and to use. Borrowing a definition from grammar, the past of the nineteenth century is a haunting past because it is a “present perfect”: namely, the tense used for an event which, although situated in the past, retains influence on the present. Between past and present, between the other and the familiar, the uncanny appears, then, to be the ghostly feature of something that is “distant but not too much”, heimlich/unheimlich, perceived as being behind a veil that it is sporadically possible to push away. 

Christopher Reeve as Richard Collier and Jane Seymour as Elise McKenna in Somewhere in Time

I will now evoke another concept, this time borrowed from the nineteenth-century pseudo-science known as parapsychology: that of the “time-slip”. As a form of time-travel, the time-slip has some specific elements. Primarily, it needs no time machine: the subject is projected into another time in an almost automatic and unperceivable way, sometimes acknowledging it only when the phenomenon has ceased. A well-known example is the Moberly-Jourdain incident. In Image & Narrative, Vol 11, No 3 (2010) 28 1911, two Oxford ladies, Charlotte Anne Moberly and Eleanor Jourdain, published a book titled An Adventure, in which they related how, ten years before, they had suddenly slipped into 1789 while walking in the Trianon gardens at Versailles. Moberly and Jourdain had seen strange but not surprising events, and only afterwards, on the train back to Paris, had agreed that the Trianon must necessarily be “haunted”. Second, the time-slip usually takes place for a short period of time, and it tends to be a non-repeatable experience. The English tourists who, in 1979, spent a night in a French hotel of the nineteenth century, came back to their own time without noticing anything at all, and were later unable to find the hotel. Third, and more important, the time-slip brings the subject, in most cases, to a “present perfect”, as is the case of Bold Street, a corner of Liverpool where many of the subjects referred to have slipped, usually for a few minutes, into the 1960s. 

The naiveté of such cases is almost amusing: there is no reason, for example, why the Trianon should bring the subject back to 1789 (and to meet Marie Antoinette, as Moberly and Jourdain related), or a Liverpool street to the time of the Beatles. Still, the time-slip is, from a cultural point of view, an extremely interesting phenomenon, insofar as it presupposes an a-linear cohabitation of the past along with the present: from this angle, the notion of the time-slip crosses the progressive relativity of time in twentieth-century thinking, locating the possibility of passing into another era in an empathic dimension, in the sudden irruption, in temporal continuity, of an instability. In this essay, I will analyse three novels, connected by a geographical, chronological and thematic affinity. Written by three American authors in the 1970s, Jack Finney’s Time and Again (1970), Richard Matheson’s Bid Time Return (1975, later reprinted as Somewhere in Time) and Stephen King’s The Shining (1977) variously elaborate the idea of slipping into another time, be it 1881 (Finney), 1896 (Matheson) or the first decades of the twentieth century (King). In all three novels, the past is always a “present perfect”, accessed by characters not by technical devices, but rather through imagination, autohypnosis or, as in King’s novel, via a perhaps supernatural insanity. 

The proximity of such a past is even more evident if we do not consider the age of the characters, but rather that of authors: Finney was born in 1911, Matheson in 1926 and King in 1947, which shows how the age accessed by their characters is abstractly identifiable with that of the author’s grandparents, or of their parents’ infancy.  I will also analyse a short story by Jack Finney, “The Love-Letter”, which – although published in 1959 and later reprinted in the 1960s in the book I Love Galesburg in Springtime – can be included in our corpus of texts as being in many ways a precursor to Time and Again, as well as a cornerstone in the genre of the American fantastic tale. As Stephen King pointed out in Danse Macabre, Jack Finney was precisely, together with Ray Bradbury, the writer who had refined the idea of the “extraordinary-in-the-ordinary”, making such a notion as that of Rod Serling’s “Twilight Zone” possible: “in many ways it was Finney’s concept that made Serling’s concept possible. One of Finney’s great abilities as a writer”, writes King, “has been his talent for allowing his stories to slip unobtrusively, almost casually, across the line and into another world” (1982, 245-46). The operation undertaken by Finney and Bradbury was, then, an answer to Lovecraft, which opened new perspectives for American fantastic literature by going back to the very roots of the uncanny, as “putting the ordinary and the horrible cheek-by-jowl” (245). 

These texts also share uniformity in terms of sources. The main inspiration for Matheson’s novel is J.B. Priestley’s essay Man and Time, explicitly quoted in the book, and which, though undeclared, is also arguably a source for Finney’s work. Inspired by Einstein’s theories, as well as by J.W. Dunne’s An Experiment with Time (1927), Priestley proposes a notion of time anchored in subjectivity. Priestley referred widely to Jungian psychoanalysis and to Jung’s theories on synchronicity and the collective unconscious, lamenting that “if Jung had given as much of himself to Time as he did to alchemy, I am certain that this book, if still necessary at all, would have been much easier to write” (1964, 290). Priestley asserted the existence of three temporal lines, identifiable with as many forms of consciousness: “the ego and its field of consciousness belong to time One, the unconscious to time Two, the superconscious to time Three”; however, “there are no separate compartments and exact divisions, and […] we live, even here and now, in all three times” (1964, 300). Through autohypnosis (as Finney’s and Matheson’s characters experience) or via psychical alterations determined by alcohol or by mental disturbance (as with King’s Jack Torrance), people can free themselves from their condition of “time One slaves and automata” (300). As Matheson’s first-person narrator, Richard Collier, puts it, “it is my consciousness of now which keeps me rooted here”: 

Time 1 is the time into which we are born, grow old, and die; the practical and economic time, the brain and body time. 

Time 2 leaves this simple track. Its scope includes coexistent past, present, and future. No clocks and calendars determine its existence. Entering it, we stand apart from chronological time and observe it as a fixed oneness rather than as a moving array of moments. 

Time 3 is that zone where “the power to connect or disconnect potential and actual” exists. 

Time 2 might be afterlife, claims Priestley. Time 3 might be eternity. (1998, 73) 

Through Priestley’s theories, the “twilight zone” is therefore interiorised as a personal and subjective experience: time-travel is also a form of self-analysis, while the uncanny perception of time is a sort of disorientation produced by reminiscence. In the notion of the time-slip, then, we witness the convergence of history and archaeology as cultural constructions of the past, and of the archaeology of subjectivity invented by the nineteenth century as psychoanalytical science. The time-slip is a sudden and subjective realisation of the past, a switch in perception that determines the uncanny feeling of the proximity of an otherness. The time-slip is, then, from this perspective, an eloquent object of analysis for exploring the relationship established by modernity with the past. 

The Dakota Building

In Time and Again, the protagonist Simon Morley is involved in a secret project of the U.S. government, conceived by a Harvard theoretical physician named Danziger. Danziger’s idea is to verify a possibility of time-travel based on Einstein’s theories, according to which the notions of past, present and future exist only on a perceptual basis. As Danziger explains, “we’re like people in a boat without oars drifting along a winding river”, and, even if the past remains invisible, “back in the bends and curves behind us […] it’s there” (1970, 52). In other words, time is conceived in topological terms: out there, Danziger argues, there is New York, but also “today”, “filled with the inescapable facts that make it today” (55) and therefore unavoidably different from “yesterday” or “tomorrow”. A series of imperceptible metamorphoses slowly separate our world from the “time when what you’d have seen down there instead of traffic lights and hooting fire engines, was farmland, treetops, and streams; cows at pasture, men in tricornered hats; and British sailing ships” (55-56). 

Equally, time-travel is also a spatial displacement. If, as Danziger notes, there exist “single buildings […] several together […] entire city blocks that have been where they still stand for fifty, seventy, even eighty and ninety years”, they stand as “fragments” of their own time, a time that, according to Einstein, also exists, behind the glaze commonly known as “present” (56). In Finney’s novel, places are therefore temporal vectors, “fragments still remaining […] of days which once lay out there as real as the day lying out there now: still surviving fragments of a clear April morning of 1871, a gray winter afternoon of 1840, a rainy dawn of 1793. […] One of those survivals […] is close to be a kind of miracle” (56). 

At this point in the novel, Danziger shows Morley the Dakota Building, “a magnificent survival of another time” (57). Built at the beginning of the 1880s, the Dakota, like many other New York buildings, has remained unaltered: it is still a unique place, since, looking out onto Central Park, while “everything you see outside the window is also unchanged” (63). And since it is a complex of rentable apartments, it is possible to know when they were vacant and for how long. As Danziger says, 

Picture one of those upper apartments standing empty for two months in the summer of 1894. As it did. Picture our arranging – as we are – to sublet that very apartment for those identical months during the coming summer. […] If Albert Einstein is right once again – as he is – then hard as it may be to comprehend, the summer of 1894 still exists. That silent empty apartment exists back in that summer precisely as it exists in the summer that is coming. Unaltered and unchanged, identical in each, and existing in each. I believe it may be possible this summer, just barely possible, you understand, for a man to walk out of that unchanged apartment and into that other summer. (63)  

What then makes the Dakota the most suitable place for the experiment? The fact of having stayed unchanged, of course, but most of all, I think, its impersonal nature. The Dakota is a residential hotel, whose apartments can be vacant, and in which it is possible to get in and out without being noticed: it is a transitory dimension, a non-place, thereby allowing it to individuate open interstices between dimensions. 

This transitory nature of time-slip places is also evident in the other texts analysed here. In both Bid Time Return and The Shining, the setting is a hotel: in Matheson’s novel it is The Coronado, a California hotel where the protagonist Richard Collier arrives by chance, while rambling through the states after having been diagnosed with a brain tumour. In King’s text it is the Overlook Hotel, where Jack Torrance accepts a position as a winter watchman in order to have time to write his novel. The impersonality and anonymity of the hotel makes it the ideal setting for the uncanny experience. As a silent witness of numerous existences crossing it for more or less short periods, leaving imperceptible traces as signatures on registers or album photos, the hotel stands as a metaphor for history and for time. Researching in the hotel’s archive is a gradual descent into the depths of history: it is in this way that Richard Collier finds his own signature in a register of 1896, and Jack Torrance likewise finds newspaper clippings concerning the hotel’s past, feeling “fascinated by that commonplace sense of history that anyone can feel glancing through the fresh news of ten or twenty years ago” (1992, 114). 

The public place embodies, then, in its familiar alterity, the uncanny feeling of history, the conscience that the very same places have been inhabited or passed through by unknown and long dead people. In The Love Letter, the main character, Jake Belknap, heads out in the middle of the night to a post office, built immediately after the Civil War: “I knew”, he says, “I was seeing […] precisely what Brooklynites had seen for no telling how many generations long dead”. It is such a setting that allows the supernatural event to take place: two letters, written by Belknap on nineteenth-century paper and sent with nineteenth-century stamps, mysteriously reach a girl who had lived in Brooklyn more than sixty years before. 

The time-slip uncanny is thus situated within the institutions of modernity, the hotel and the street, the park and the post office, the residential hotel or – as is the case of Moberly and Jourdain – the tourist site: in other words, in the spaces defined by Marc Augé as “Non-Places” (1995). Invented by nineteenth-century mass society, they are the places in which such a new and elusive entity known as the “crowd” first appears. The time-traveller himself appears as a man of the crowd (as a hotel customer or passer-by); his relationship with the past is characterised by the tension between the impersonality of the metropolis and the specific individuals he encounters. As Finney writes, 

A man climbed in, dropped his fare in the tin box, and sat down across the aisle with a casual uninterested glance at us. […] And I sat watching him from the corner of my eye, tense, excited, almost frightened at my first really close look at a living human being of the year 1882. In some way the sight of that ordinary man whom I never saw again is the most intensely felt experience of my life. (119-20) 

Situated in the impersonal dimension of modernity, the time-slip is however, by contrast, a radically subjective phenomenon: it is not by chance that all the material analysed here (with the exception of The Shining, where King nevertheless often has recourse to the technique of internal monologue) is written in the first-person narrative mode. This is particularly evident in the technique allowing characters to pass from one era to the next: the subject creates a personal space abstracted from the outer world (the room at the Dakota or at the Coronado, streets at night, the Overlook Hotel cellar), where he founds an empathic relationship with the past, via autohypnosis (Time and Again, Bid Time Return), through an isolation leading to romantic speculations (Love-Letter) or a psychotic delirium (Shining). The protagonists of these texts are often misfits, characterised by a deep discomfort with regard to their own time: such unease is often caused by frustrated expectations, or by a feeling of inadequacy in relation to the ideological fetishes of modernity (talent, career, family). 

Simon Morley leads a monotonous existence: “there wasn’t anything really wrong with my life. Except that […] it had a big gaping hole in it, an enormous emptiness, and I didn’t know how to fill it or even know what belonged there” (1970, 17). Jake Belknap has moved to New York from Florida, and after work he spends nights at home without seeing anybody. Jack Torrance is a frustrated writer, suspended from teaching after having beaten a student. Eventually, Richard Collier realises he has only a few months left to live: “Figured there was a lot of time to get married, have a family; never panicked even though I never seemed to meet The One. Now it’s done. X rays, spinal taps, the works confirm it. Collier kaput” (1998, 31). 

Somehow, then, the time-slip arises from the experience of alienation, from the disorientation caused by confrontation with modernity. Such a feeling makes the subject develop an empathy with the past, meant as a fetishist attention to places and objects that embody it. As Terry Castle suggests, Moberly and Jourdain’s experience is connected with their more or less latent homosexuality: time-travel is an answer to the disorientation experienced by the two women with regard to the social conventions of the Edwardian age, a coincidence which sounds particularly interesting if we consider that Mary Antoinette’s lesbianism, as created by Jacobinic propaganda, had become a veritable myth in the nineteenth century (Castle 1995, 190-214). In Time and Again, Simon Morley learns thus to perceive nineteenth-century objects not as “relics”, but as objects “a living person could own”: “in my mind the eighties beg[an] to stir a little with life”, the same vitality he cannot perceive in the world surrounding him (1970, 78-79). While looking at a photo, Jake Belknap experiences the sensation of “walk[ing] off, past the edges of the scene on the printed page before me, into the old and beautiful Brooklyn of long ago”: the same street, Belknap notices, has now become a “wasteland”. 

The time-slip arises then from an inner, elective experience, a capacity of visualisation allowing the past’s vitality to emerge under the surface of the present: the past is primarily felt rather than seen, situating the slippage on the side of emotion and of the irrational, and emerging through autohypnosis (Time and Again), hallucinations (Bid Time Return) or psychosis (Shining). Francesco Erspamer recalls Proust’s “madeleine effect”, showing how Proust “mentions the Celtic beliefs in the possibility of freeing the souls of the dead when one happens to pass, by chance, by the object imprisoning them”: it is a “proximity, a spatial contiguity”, allowing him to conjure a time which is not “an extinguished past, an otherness”, but rather a past-presence, a “persistence” (2009, 66, my translation). The past invented by modernity persists as a phantasmagoria of anaemic shadows, which can live again only through a momentary and fleeting conjuration: Friedrich Schlegel maintained that “antiquity as a whole [had] declined for good”, and that “it could, more feebly, come to live again only in the heart of a few chosen spirits”, thereby constructing a perspective that, as Erspamer argues, replaced “the impossible reconstruction of that past” with the “intuition of its persistence in the present” (68). 

Such persistence is what allows the time-slip to come into being. In Time and Again, Simon finds himself in the past almost without acknowledging it: the familiar elements in his Dakota room are surrounded by an impalpable je ne sais quoi, testifying that the slippage has taken place. 

One afternoon I was reading in the living room, and around four o’clock […] I looked up from my book; something in the room had changed. I glanced around, but everything seemed the same. Then I looked up, and the ceiling was brighter; the light from outside had altered. […] The silence was absolute. Then, far away, a child shouted for joy. (1970, 94) 

Equally, in Matheson, the slippage takes place in an imperceptible way, revealed by details and aural sensations. 

Nine forty-seven p.m. It happened. 

I don’t recall exactly when. I was writing. It is now November 19, 1896. My wrist and arm were aching. I seemed to be in a fog. I mean literally. A mist appeared to be gathering around of me. […] I could see the pencil moving on the paper. It seemed to be writing by itself. The connection between myself and it had vanished. I stared at its movement, mesmerized. 

Then it happened. A flicker. I can think of no better word. My eyes were open but I was asleep. No, not asleep. Gone somewhere. […] for an instant […] I was there. In 1896. (1998, 100) 

When it happened, the conviction came first. […] My eyes were closed but I was awake and knew I was in 1896. Perhaps I “felt” it around me; I don’t know. There was no doubt in my mind at any rate. (108) 

In Shining, “around him [Jack Torrance] could hear the Overlook Hotel coming to life” (1992, 242). The slippage does not bring the subject to a specific age, but the hotel’s entire history converges in a single instant, between hallucination, demoniac presence and haunting. What Torrance experiences is the destabilisation determined by the sudden synchronicity of multiple times, something analogous to the aesthetic figure defined as “Plötzlichkeit” (“suddenness”) by Karl-Heinz Bohrer (1981).  

It wasn’t a perception of sight or sound […]. It was as if another Overlook now lay scant inches beyond this one, separated from the real world (if there is such a thing as a “real world”, Jack thought) […]. 

All the hotel’s eras were together now, all but this current one […]. 

He could almost hear the self-important ding!ding! of the silver-plated bell on the registration desk, summoning bellboys to the front as men in the fashionable flannels of the 1920s checked in and men in fashionable 1940s double-breasted pinstripes checked out. […] There was a costume ball going on. […] Men talking about Neville Chamberlain and the Archduke of Austria. Music. Laughter. Drunkenness. Hysteria. Little love, not here, but a steady undercurrent of sensuousness. […] [Jack] could almost… no, strike the almost. He could hear them, faintly as yet, but clearly – the way one can hear thunder miles off on a hot summer’s day. He could hear all of them, the beautiful strangers. He was becoming aware of them as they must have been aware of him from the very start. (242-43) 

Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance in The Shining 

The public place, as a sediment of memory, is therefore enlightened in the subject’s gaze by all its past glow: the time-slip experience is inner and subjective. It arises from a tension between the subject and the impersonal alterity of the place. In the same way, Moberly and Jourdain had identified the slipping moment in an uncanny feeling, when the Trianon landscape had seemed to be animated by a troubling otherness: “everything suddenly looked unnatural, therefore unpleasant; even the trees seemed to become flat and lifeless, like wood worked in tapestry. There were no effects of light and shade, and no wind stirred the trees” (quoted in Castle 1995, 194). 

For Moberly and Jourdain, as we have said, time-travel was a sublimation of a homoerotic, and therefore anti-generative desire (the “lifeless” nature), reversing the illusion of the linearity of historical time. In the same way, in the novels that we are analysing, the time-slip becomes an emblem of an uneasiness that is also sexual, finding its answer in the love for a woman from another time. The results can be radically different: in Time and Again there is a happy ending, whereas The Love Letter ends melancholically and Bid Time Return has an undeniably tragic conclusion. In The Shining, as King lucidly acknowledges, there is no love, but rather “a steady undercurrent of sensuousness”: Jack Torrance experiences in the past the sexual tension that has disappeared years ago from his marriage. In any case, characters feel uneasy with the women of their own time. Simon Morley has a monotonous and cold relationship; Jake Belknap feels that Helen Worley’s solitude in the nineteenth century is the same as that which he feels, many decades after, in the very same city; Jack Torrance has a complex and troubled relationship with his wife. Matheson’s Richard Collier is, however, the most explicit: 

And in one of the cases is a program for a play performed in the hotel theater […] on November 1896; The Little Minister by J.M. Barrie, starring an actress named Elise McKenna. Next to the program is a photograph of her face; the most gloriously lovely face I’ve ever seen in my life. 

I’ve fallen in love with her. 

Typical of me. Thirty-six years old, a crush here and a crush there, a random scattering of affairs that mimicked love. But nothing real, nothing that endured. Then, having reached a terminal condition, I proceed to lose my heart, at long last, to a woman who’s been dead for at least twenty years. 

Good show, Collier. (1998. 37) 

Illustration by Jillian Tamaki 

Love for a woman of the past is hence the answer to a sentimental and existential dissatisfaction: it is difficult not to relate these novels, all written in the 1970s, with the growing feminist movement, as if feminine emancipation produced as its repercussion such fantasising about women from another time. From this point of view, time-travel is an answer articulated, in Lacanian terms, in the domain of the Symbolic, namely in that virtual dimension of the “Other”, defining the subject’s relationships with the surrounding world. The situation delineated by Finney in The Love-Letter is clearly Lacanian in sublimating in the object-letter the de-familiarisation experienced with regard to one’s own time. The letters, entrusted by Helen to a desk’s drawer, and by Jake to a post box in the uncanny time of night (“the night is a strange time when you’re alone in it, the rest of your world asleep”), are, following Lacan’s seminar on Poe’s Purloined Letter, letters addressed to the Other and meant to excite the Other’s desire (“You are as I wish you to be — for you exist only in my mind”; “I live, I exist, seventy-seven years after you read this; and with the feeling that I have fallen in love with you”). “The only letter which fully and effectively arrives at its destination”, comments Zizek, “is the unsent letter – its true addressees are not flesh-and-blood others, but the big Other itself” (2009, 10). The woman of the past is, therefore, the figure embodying the Other, both as a feminine body (“culturally constructed as the superlative site of alterity”, Bronfen 1992, xi) and as a past woman, “other” precisely insofar as she is dead. It is through movement that such otherness is revealed: just as in the Aeneid Venus had shown herself to be a goddess by the way she walked (“vera incessu patuit dea”), in Time and Again Julie Charbonneau’s pace evokes in Simon Morley the uncanny feeling of paradox. 

I followed her up the carpeted stairs at the end of the hall. In order to climb them, she gathered her skirts at the knees, raising them to the ankles, and I saw that she wore black button shoes with slightly rundown heels, and thick cotton stockings striped blue and white. […] She’s dead, you know- the thought spoke itself in my mind. Dead and gone for decades past. I shook my head hard, trying to force the thought away. (1970, 147-48) 

In many respects, Finney and Matheson do nothing other than reactivate a romantic theme. Love for a woman from another time is a common nineteenth-century cliché, whose first example might arguably be found in the episode of the “Richmond gentleman” referred to by Stendhal in De l’Amour. Having heard of a woman recently dead, the man had fallen in love without having ever seen her: the episode was a modern and American reactivation of the medieval legend of the troubadour Jaufre Rudel, in which the distance of time and death replaced the geographical distance of “love from afar” (Camilletti 2009). The theme of the woman of the past reverberates widely in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literature, in the form of the ghost (Maupassant’s Apparition, 1883), archaic demon (Théophile Gautier’s Arria Marcella, 1852), nymph (Aby Warburg’s and André Jolles’s exchange of letters on the Ghirlandaio “nymph”, 1900), symbol of the impossibility of love (Carlo Dossi’s Amori, 1887; Guido Gozzano’s L’amica di nonna Speranza, 1906), or infantile memory, as in Giacomo Leopardi’s Le ricordanze (1828) or Wilhelm Jensen’s Gradiva (1907). This last text, together with its reading by Freud, suggests that time-travel is simply a journey into one’s own past, a process of anamnesis in which the “woman of the past” is an object of love individuated in one’s own infancy. In his essay on The Uncanny (1919), Freud had argued moreover that the 

Unheimlich place […] is the entrance to the former Heim of all human beings, to the place where each one of us lived once upon a time and in the beginning. There is a joking saying that “Love is home-sickness”; and whenever a man dreams of a place or a country and says to himself, while he is still dreaming: “this place is familiar to me, I’ve been here before”, we may interpret the place as being his mother’s genitals or her body. (Freud, 245) 

From this perspective, the idea of the woman of the past as “the One” shows, on the one hand, a split of love as theorised by Romantic reflection: love is possible only through an image or a “shadow” (Agamben 1977, 97, my translation), the object of love is always situated in a beyond (spatial, temporal, metaphysical), love is merely a solipsistic speculation. On the other hand, the woman of the past shows a longing for an origin. The unease of Finney’s, Matheson’s and King’s characters can be read as an allegory of the disillusion experienced with objects of love that are, by necessity, never the original one. By subverting all chronological linearity, the nineteenth-century New York, the Art Nouveau Coronado or the Overlook Hotel all represent the desire to turn back time, arising from an unresolved relationship with the social domain of the Symbolic. 

The texts analysed here reveal such a tension in a manner which is clearly anti-modern, albeit in a somewhat patent fashion, and they are not without reactionary allusions, as the novels themselves declare: these range from the idealisation of nineteenth-century “simplicity” and “spontaneity” made by Simon Morley in Time and Again to the barely latent machismo of Bid Time Return and the ideal of the mononuclear family presupposed by The Shining. Nevertheless, if it is true that Finney flirted with McCarthyism, depicting one of its most powerful allegories in The Body Snatchers (1955), it is equally true that, when Simon Morley is asked to alter the past in order to make Cuba the fifty-first state of the Union since the 1880s, thereby preventing Castro’s revolution from the beginning, he refuses to collaborate with the government. In the case of Matheson, the strong ideological implications of such a text as I Am Legend of 1954 are indisputable, and it is hardly necessary to mention the clearly progressive position assumed by King over the years. 

At the same time, as a form of time-travel, the time-slip is an allegory of a specific way of relating with the past, subverting any historical linearity of time. The “behind the corner” past of the time-slip appears to be a “signifier of synchrony”, like the “larva […] threateningly showing itself in the world of the living […], which can assume the diachronic meaning of a perpetual wandering”: “the Greeks”, Agamben adds, “called the ghost of the unburied alástor, or the wanderer” (Agamben 2001, 87, my translation). 

It is perhaps not by chance that these narrative experiments take place concurrently with critical experiences which aimed to give account of equally impalpable presences from the past. In 1973, Harold Bloom published The Anxiety of Influence. The book’s main assumption is notorious: the anxiety of influence is the uncanny experience of the poet when he acknowledges in his own writing the precursor’s trace, with whom he engenders an Oedipal and agonic relationship. The precursor is hence alive and dead at the same time, familiar and unfamiliar, close and distant: the precursor’s dimension is that of an uncanny present perfect, still capable of producing influence through its subtle intrusion in the younger poet’s work, until the final stage of synchronicity called “Apophrades, or the return of the dead” (Bloom 1973, 15). And even if Bloom is one of those critics who, as Robert Douglas-Fairhurst notes, made of the Victorians something “troublingly at odds with what the Victorians made of themselves” (2002, 28), the ultimate root of such a definition remains definitively Victorian: “detecting another hand in one’s writing raises awkward questions about what it means for one’s self to be influenced”, engendering “a set of opportunities to think about possible relations of “mind” and “work” which reach beyond the afterlife of an utterance, and into the empirical afterlife of its author” (5). The 1970s also engendered the work of the psychoanalysts Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, was carried out, which later influenced Derrida’s Spectres de Marx (1993). As Colin Davis explains, “Abraham and Torok had become interested in transgenerational communication, particularly the way in which the undisclosed traumas of previous generations might disturb the lives of their descendants even and especially if they know nothing about their distant causes” (Davis 2007, 9-10). 

Even in psychoanalysis and literary criticism, then, the past is somehow “there”, “back in the bends and curves behind us” (Finney 1970, 52). Colin Davis observes that “the relation to the dead has become an important trend in critical and psychoanalytical work”: the appeal of so-called “hauntology for deconstructive-minded critics arises”, he writes, “from the link between a theme (haunting, ghosts, the supernatural) and the processes of literature and textuality in general” (Davis 2007, 9). Counter to this view, literary criticism has been understood as a form of ghost-hunting and exorcism, intended to trace spectral vestiges within the texts and fixing them in the Elysium of canonisation. Through this historical-critical operation, the haunting is transferred from the domain of synchronicity to the reassuring, diachronic dimension of history. 

We can therefore see the time-slip as an allegory of the intermediate state between “haunting” and “exorcism”, a practice arising from the acknowledgment of history and then from its subsequent oblivion: the time-slipper accepts being haunted, and forgets the present in order to accept the uncanny synchronicity of times. In this respect, the time-slipper is the perfect allegory of the nineteenth-century literary scholar. “The current of Victorian thinking”, writes Douglas-Fairhurst, “remains alive” (2002, 345). This is all the more so for nineteenth-century literary scholars, whose work represents a continuous plumbing of the depths of a “present perfect”, even in its most tactile residues, from book bindings to buildings, from clothes to calligraphies. The image itself of the nineteenth-century literary scholar as constructed by fiction emblematises such a role as an archaeologist of a “present perfect”: both in Antonia Byatt’s Possession (1990) and in Fiona Mountain’s Pale as the Dead (2002), the inquiry into two Victorian authors’ private writings, the fictitious Randolph Ash and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, leads to the discovery of a living posterity of theirs, a veritable persistence of the past hidden in their heiresses’ features. Moreover, time-travel, spiritualism and literary theory in its modern form are nineteenth-century inventions: “Making history is a travel into the world of the dead”, warned Carlo Ginzburg (1998, xxxviii), but what is at stake here is a far more contiguous afterlife than that of the rural societies that Ginzburg analysed. It is a “present perfect” that one can perceive indistinctly, and which sometimes evokes a homesickness, that of a lost mother-land. As Finney puts it, in concluding his authorial note to Time and Again (and we might project the same remark onto the whole decade in which he was writing), “before 1900 things didn’t change so fast as now – one more reason why Si so wisely decided to stay back there” (1970, 399).

Piece originally published at Image and Narrative |   


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About the Author:

Fabio Camilletti is Assistant Professor in Italian at the University of Warwick. He has worked extensively on nineteenth-century literature and culture, on problems of literary and cultural theory and on the relationship between images, time and the uncanny.