Progressing from Definition to Heuristic: The Uncanny and the Abcanny
by Alexander Stachniak
Hold it tightly by its little tentacle, don’t let the Freudians coax it away
—Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49
What happens when I introduce a ghost or monster into my fiction? What options open up to me? Is there an established convention? Am I bound to it? The majority of literary theory regarding the Uncanny and the Abcanny is near useless in answering any of these questions. Concerned with defining terminology, these theories only help in identifying instances as either/or. From the perspective of a writer, the ability to recognize the Uncanny or Abcanny is also near useless when attempting to apply one or both concepts to an original work of fiction. We can, however, create a useful heuristic for each term by tracing the effect of inserting an Uncanny ghost or an Abcanny monster into a story.
By defining the Uncanny and the Abcanny based on their effect, we can make claims as to the efficacy of each term, and in the process, create heuristics. The creation of heuristic conventions is meant to be a descriptive act, rather than prescriptive one. The most barebones definitions would describe the Uncanny as “something repressed which recurs” (Freud), and the Abcanny as the “nihilist novum” (Quantum Vampire). Even in the simplest of definitions, an antagonistic distinction arises. The Uncanny, requiring a recurrence, is, by definition, reliant on the past. Repression suggests that meaning can ultimately be found within the individual. The Abcanny, on the other hand, is “without mythic resonance”, without a past; “fundamentally it does not ‘mean’ at all”.
The Uncanny and Abcanny are typically defined in opposition to one another, the terms themselves being distinctions “within the boundaries of what is ‘fearful’” (Freud). According to China Miéville, they “may imply one another but are resistant to syncrex” (Quantum Vampire).
Perhaps the easiest way to spot the Uncanny in fiction is to find an echo. An echo is a thing or event (a ghost, for example) which seems to reverberate out from the past. As the term implies, an echo has an original which it recalls (the ghost was once a living person) – the return object.
The most basic effect of echoes and return objects is that of circularity. If the echo lives in the present, and the return object in the past, then there is a necessary circularity in the back-and-forth movement between them. Brian Evenson’s short story, “Desire with Digressions,” is an excellent example of this contained motion. The narrator, who has left his significant other (the story’s return object), travels in “a slow arc, an orbit with her at its center” (Fugue State). On his journey, there are many echoes, for example, ghosts, inhuman others, confused identity, even Freudian castration (his fingers and toes are removed). The circularity is so complete that the narrator even leaves the second car that he steals in place of the first. A different make and model, we presume; but an echo sounds almost exactly like its original.
When the narrator of the story finally returns to his significant other, she is found to have always been dead. Instead of closing the cycle, however, Evenson suggests that it will never truly end. The reader should be aware that Evenson here refers to both time and motion together, and the Uncanny heuristic assumes a dependent relationship between the two concepts. Jiddu Krishnamurti aptly describes time as “a movement from one point to another point, both physically and psychologically”. As we will see in further examples, there is a clear, physical distance between the echo and the return object. There is circularity, but with change – like a spiral. Evenson’s story closes with the narrator moving through both time and space, trying to “fling [himself] free of her gravitation and, this time, never, never come back”. The ending goes past showing a simple, closed circularity and makes implicit the assumption of internal meaning by reminding the reader that the narrator will be haunted by his past forever.
Although “Desire with Digressions” works well as an example of the basic effects of the Uncanny within a story, its simplicity is evident. The dead significant other, the thing which is repressed and then returned to, the return object, is presented so early and so obviously that the story is shackled from the outset. Because the ending is evident in the beginning, there is little room for surprise, growth, catharsis, or other evolution. As an alternative and less constrained model, consider Aimee Bender’s short story, “Dearth.” The seven potato babies which keep reappearing (echoes), are presented long before the return object makes an appearance. Even then, Bender disguises the return object as an afterthought to descriptions of both a hauntingly lonely sexual encounter and the drudgery of daily life (Willful Creatures). Not only do these two images disguise the return object, but they enhance the significant themes of procreation, loneliness and the circularity of life. The revelation that the point-of-view character’s whole family is dead comes as an unassuming and unimportant detail when compared to the preceding paragraphs. When, at the story’s end, the reader is made to understand that the dead mother was the return object, that the potato babies “were that memory, created”, the reader experiences a déjà vu moment. The mother’s death at the start is illustrated in a subtle way, and then unintentionally forgotten, but now she returns, as potato babies. The heightened effect is a direct result of the reader sharing ownership of the return object with the point-of-view character. Bender’s shared responsibility model has the reader experiencing déjà vu and learning of the relationship between echo and return object at the same time as the point-of-view character.
It is further possible for the reader to hold responsibility for the return object entirely. However, this requires a set of psychological gymnastics which robs the narrator or point-of-view character of any agency. Ryan Call’s “My Scattering” features a narrator whose multiple encounters with high-voltage electricity leave him without long-term memory. The narrator continually wakes up to scenes of carnage but has no memory of being responsible (Call). The dead or maimed bodies can only function as echoes for the reader, because the narrator is unaware of whom they were as living objects. An echo is not the same as the return object, but slightly different. Nor is it a symbol, but an independent vocalization which seeks out a return object, whether or not one exists. To the narrator, then, there is no past that is repressed; it simply is not there. That this is possible calls into question the implicit assumption of the Uncanny: that meaning is to be found within the psyche of the narrator or point-of-view character. The narrator’s lack of memory (or, more broadly, history) is directly related to his flatness as a character. He does not change, learn, or grow throughout the story, and neither does the reader. Ultimately, though the reader is capable of accepting responsibility for the unwanted return, without a fictional character to act as a vessel for meaning, the return seems to lack significance or gravitas, and functions more as an uncanny trick. The healthy circular motion of “Desire with Digressions” or “Dearth” is not to be found in “My Scattering,” and that this is a direct result of the narrator’s missing past. The return object is necessarily less distinct when the narrator is unable to address it.
The insular circularity of the Uncanny, the back-and-forth return from present to past, effectively prevents it from altering, changing, or moving forward as the story around it progresses. Take Haruki Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase, for example. The narrator keeps returning to his image in a particular mirror which does not quite match up with reality. He ignores it. He creates a cycle of addressing the Uncanny, then ignoring it just as quickly. Finally, when the Sheep Man does not appear in the mirror, the riddle is solved: the Sheep Man is not real, but is part of the narrator’s psyche. The narrator gets rid of his now imaginary friend and the mirror is never addressed again. The Uncanny element, once explained, has no sustainable existence on the page. Similarly, once the reader discovers that the Rat, who has been walking around and speaking to the narrator, is already dead, the first response is one of avoidance. “That hardly matters”, the Rat says of his death. And just as quickly, a new mystery must be set up: “why should anyone who’s about to die wind a clock”? This allows the Uncanny ghost of the Rat to maintain a significant importance for the next few pages; there continues to be an unexplained past event involving what is now a ghost. As with the Sheep Man, though, once the ghost of the Rat is suggested as the result of a bad fever, his place in the story is over. Once explained, the Uncanny has no future within a work of fiction.
This is a contentious claim. But consider the short fictions mentioned so far. “Desire with Digressions” ends as soon as the narrator returns to his significant other, his return object, and she is revealed to be dead. “Dearth” ends as soon as the return object is revealed. “My Scattering” ends once the echoes do, when the narrator can no longer perform the cycle of electric charge and destructive discharge. The Uncanny either repeats endlessly or is understood and ceases to exhibit circular motion, or motion of any kind. For this reason, the author who uses the Uncanny has a vested interested in resisting explanation. Avoidance is a simple solution, but Brian Evenson gets more out of his Uncanny fiction by always providing two conflicting explanations. That way, the reader is never certain which answer is correct, and the cycle can persist. In “Desire with Digressions,” the narrator is “taken to what seemed at first to me an asylum but which I have allowed myself over time to be convinced was a hospital”. By not explicitly marking the narrator as insane, Evenson encourages the reader to continue searching for an answer. It is the search which grants the Uncanny its motion, and it should be said that the cessation of the cycle is not a negative thing. Though its motion is only ever circular, the stopping of this motion often provokes a cathartic moment. When carefully crafted, the Uncanny is an effective emotional tool that goes far beyond what the adjectival form of the word implies.
Whereas the Uncanny exists in relation to the past, the Abcanny suggests a particular future. The flagship symbol of the Abcanny, the monster, derived from the Latin monstrum, meaning a portent or prodigy, from the verb monere, to warn. Like fear, a warning only makes rational sense if the event warned against has a non-negligible chance of coming true. But the Abcanny is never rational. The future assumed by the Abcanny is dependent on an unrealistic present which a monster or thing currently inhabits. The Uncanny does not make any assumptions of realism or its opposite. The Abcanny, however, does. Because there is an unrealistic element at the origin of all Abcanny writing, any future is implicitly possible. Murakami’s worm universe is an excellent example: the only way to move forward is “to dream another symbolic dream” (A Wild Sheep Chase), though the use of the word “symbolic” is a bit misleading. Fundamentally, the Abcanny “does not ‘mean’ at all” (Quantum Vampire). In terms of motion, the Abcanny is completely free to proceed in any direction the author chooses; it is not bound by circularity or the presence of a return object.
As opposed to the wild freedom of its future, the introduction of the Abcanny into a work of fiction is more or less governed by convention. Because of the formless newness of all Weird things, the Abcanny must necessarily be “without mythic resonance” (Quantum Vampire). It must lack a history. In order to insert an element of the Abcanny, then, the author must find a way to position this monster, this thing, as if it has appeared suddenly, in medias res. Even the act of walking into scene may suggest too strongly where the monster has come from. The convention suggests that an author introduces a monster by means of a time lapse. By suspending the present moment for an indefinite period of time, the Abcanny element is allowed license to appear in scene without calling undue attention to the mode of travel. Murakami’s short story, “The Little Green Monster,” follows this convention perfectly. The narrator becomes lost in her thoughts, and “time slips by” until, “all at once, [she] hear[s] a sound” (The Elephant Vanishes). Enter monster. Before the time lapse, Murakami gives no indication that the story will break from reality, that an Abcanny monster will make an entrance (aside from the title, of course). There is no history for the little green monster, no past; it appears quite suddenly in what Kathy Acker calls “the interstices through which all of us fall”.
The titular, skin-stealing character in Brian Evenson’s “Grottor” continually falls through the interstices. He is first introduced by lighting a match in a dark room and later repeats the act. When the point-of-view character, Bernt, wakes, “Suddenly Grottor [is] standing above him”. And when Bernt sleeps, Grottor visits him then, too. Grottor’s flare for an entrance goes beyond a refusal of past, however. Evenson is careful not to shed too much light onto his monster. Just as the Uncanny loses power once explained, “excessive familiarity deguts [monsters]” (Miéville and Monsters). Even though Bernt carries a flashlight, “all things rendered crisp and in painful, explicit detail”, Grottor walks behind him. Murakami’s little green monster, on the other hand, is overcome, first and foremost, by understanding, by the narrator’s realization that the monster could not hurt her.
The excessive familiarity which Miéville advises against is more than a suggestion of aesthetics. When the Abcanny is familiarized, it loses its ability to “fecundly mean all kinds of things” (Miéville and Monsters). Formlessness, nihilism, the ability to mean everything and nothing all at once: this is what rests at the heart of the heuristic. The Abcanny needs that sense of unlimited and unstructured future in order to exist. Murakami pulls a neat trick when his little green monster is replaced, weird for weird, by the female narrator, who cuts and tortures the poor thing, vindictively saying “you have no idea what a woman is”. Murakami copes with the familiarizing of one monster by introducing another one. The transition of the narrator, unsurprisingly, occurs outside of time, when she “paint[s] pictures in [her] mind of all the cruel things [she] want[s] to do it it”. Suddenly, in the internal space of her mind, she has become more monstrous than the thing that troubles her.
But not all Abcanny stories are able to cope with familiarization. In Patrick Sommerville’s “Hair University,” we read and wonder about the wonderfully nihilistic hair monster. Its introduction, though a tangent to our conversation, is worth studying. By introducing the hair monster through vague dialogue, Sommerville follows the convention, but does so in an exciting way. The monster is introduced when the character Phil says to the narrator, “I haven’t even told you about the Hair Monster” (In Miniature). We are made aware of its existence, but it is outside of time. Before the dialogue, there was no hair monster; after the dialogue, it exists and always has. Sommerville avoids the trap of familiarization, of question and answer in dialogue, and instead provides a strong example of craft. On either end of the hair monster’s introduction, like bookends, are avoidance and danger. “I don’t even want to hear about the Hair Monster”, says the narrator, then immediately imagines an old woman in danger of a speaker falling on her head. By surrounding the dialogue with avoidance and danger, Sommerville enforces and solidifies what would otherwise be a very vague monster, indeed.
Further into the story, Sommerville will continue to solidify the hair monster until it becomes the overly realistic and much-too-neat “monster of [Phil’s] neurosis”. And though the reader may have assumed that this was the monster’s most cohesive underlying meaning this whole time, the abandonment of the mask is what Miéville would call “a very drab kind of heavy-handedness” (Miéville and Monsters). Once the hair monster is limited by clear-cut symbolism, it loses all momentum and motion of its own, and is no more active in the reader’s consciousness than the clothing which a character wears on his or her back. In comparison, Kevin Brockmeier’s light touch in “The Ceiling” allows the black mass descending over the fictional town to keep falling and falling. It stays in motion even after the expected symbolism of infidelity is made apparent. When Brockmeier eventually assigns meaning to the black mass, when his narrator says that he would wait for his wife “until the earth and the sky met and locked and the distance between them closed forever”, even then it is loathe to consider it a static symbol. Brockmeier never reveals the moment when the earth and sky meet, and has previously trained the reader not to accept the easy symbolism. And so, the final image is one of movement. We wait, and watch, and are happy to do so as long as there is motion.
Short fictions provide a more compact and simple means of defining the heuristic, so longer works become undoubtedly more complex. Parts of the whole may follow convention, and other parts may break from it. Whereas in short fiction there seems to be a necessity to maintain the Uncanny or Abcanny effect (a simple limitation of form), in long fiction that question becomes much more interesting, and the answers muddled. But longer fictions can also be very conventional. For a longer work which attempts to maintain the heuristic model, one of the biggest concerns will be creating a structure which allows for the avoidance of over-defining the Uncanny or Abcanny element. The Mr. Tuttle character in Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist appears one day in a bedroom, with no past and no name. His entrance (and possibly his looks as well) are Abcanny. But in all other respects, Tuttle is an Uncanny element. The point-of-view character, Lauren, describes Tuttle as “inevitable”. There were strange noises in the house preceding his appearance, and Lauren feels her way “back in time to the earlier indications”. Not only does Tuttle have history, but he has an uncanny memory of things which Lauren’s dead husband, Rey, once said. When Tuttle speaks, “it [is] Rey’s voice she [hears]”: Tuttle as echo, Rey as return object, the repetition of Rey’s words as circularity. DeLillo manages to maintain the Uncanny throughout his novel by intentionally divulging unimportant information, and avoiding the rest. Tuttle’s looks are described in great detail; in appearance, there is nothing left to our imagination. More importantly, the reader is left in little doubt as to the reason behind Tuttle’s appearance to a recently widowed woman. We learn nothing, however, of how Tuttle knows so much about Rey, about who or what he is. DeLillo tricks the reader into being satisfied with Tuttle’s raison d’être and appearance. And to seal our acceptance, the point-of-view narrator mimics our appreciation of Tuttle’s oddity: “There was something so strange about him”. She regurgitates our most pressing questions: “Did you ever talk to Rey” (64)? In doing so, we are sated, and DeLillo is able to continue using Tuttle as a return object even after his disappearance.
Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 eschews convention, yet still produces an overall Uncanny effect. The novel, piece by piece, isn’t specifically Uncanny. There are certainly moments which approach the heuristic model: Oedipa recalls a “head, floating in the shower”, and there are children playing who are “dreaming the gathering…no different from being awake”. But Pynchon abandons each image before it can turn into something more distinct. Oedipa quickly vacates her train of thought about the floating head, and she “[stops] believing in them [the children]” as a retaliation. The novel is full of oddities, but none of them rest on the page long enough to gain focus. The strangeness of reality is exposed. And yet, an Uncanny effect is created. When Oedipa begins to see the mysterious post-horn symbol everywhere she looks, when every person she meets is somehow connected, she must decide if this is fate or a ridiculously complex hoax. She asks herself, “What, tonight, was chance”? Everything within the novel becomes an echo, spurring recollection; Oedipa simply does not understand what the return object is. (Note that it is possible to create an Uncanny effect without a return object, but the echo must still be present.) The echoes accumulate on such a large scale that the only explanations left to Oedipa are blind coincidence, designed fate, hallucinatory paranoia, or actual hoax. Because Pynchon avoids making a claim in any one direction, the reader is left with the same Uncanny feeling as Oedipa, that all things are connected, all echoing one another in some circular maze. The longer form of the novel allows Pynchon to gather enough evidence for this effect to be successful, even without a defined return object.
Contrary to Pynchon, Haruki Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase appropriates the oddities of reality in service of the Abcanny. In the novel, Murakami monsterizes, or makes Abcanny, the ordinary object of the sheep. Murakami’s purpose extends beyond sheep, though. John Langan suggests that the role of the monster is to make us “realize that the world is to some degree permanently beyond our understanding”. And Murakami intends to appropriate the weirdness of sheep to life in general, a loose sort of synecdoche. Instead of docile, unimpressive animals, they become “fabricated monstrosities” that appear “with remarkably high frequency in…hallucinations” and “by all rights should not exist. Even though there is an element of the Uncanny in the way the sheep picture has traveled to the narrator, as an object the sheep has overwhelmingly “no historical connection with the daily life of the Japanese”. And so it is that Murakami creates the Abcanny out of the ordinary. He finds an ordinary object with little cultural symbolism, and amplifies what oddities it has to makes it weird. This is what Miéville would call the “radicalised quotidian Sublime” (Miéville and Monsters).
Indeed, the Abcanny need not be monstrous in the traditional sense. Andreas Schonle writes that “it is because an object has no form that it is deemed unlimited”. And it is this lack of limitation that the Abcanny absolutely must possess. Schonle will go further to suggest that in the “utter uniformity” of the quotidian, there is a lack of form which can be considered limitless. But note that even though Murakami has appropriated his “monster” from the ordinary, he is still aware of and bound by certain conventions of the heuristic. He still must avoid over-exposing the Abcanny element. In three-hundred and fifty-three pages, our narrator spends exactly one of those as actually, physically, looking at live sheep (The Wild Sheep Chase). This is, coincidentally, the same amount of time Murakami spends describing how thoroughly and in what way the mountain cabin is cleaned. Or is it a coincidence? In order to radicalize the quotidian, the author must balance their writing with excessive banality. The mundane is the foil to the Abcanny. Bruno Schulz’s stories continually position the father character as the “fencing master of imagination…who alone [wages] war against the fathomless, elemental boredom that strangled the city”. Without constant reminders that “The world is mediocre” (The Wild Sheep Chase), the reader of the Abcanny could very easily slip through the funhouse mirror and find nothing but bent images and nonsense. By allowing the radicalized quotidian Sublime a foil of banality, the author opens another door to meaning in a heuristic which resists it.
If there is one thing that is infinitely clear about the Uncanny and the Abcanny, it is that both thrive on constant and compelling motion. It is therefore that I share Ezra Pound’s piece of advice: make it new.
Illustrations by John D. Batten, from Indian Fairy Tales edited by Joseph Jacobs, 1892.
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About the Author:
Alexander Stachniak is a writer living in Chicago. His work has appeared in Word Riot, The Driftwood Review and Writer’s Bloc, among others.