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‘Uncanny Stories’ by May Sinclair *****

I have been coveting a copy of Uncanny Stories by May Sinclair for such a long time.  She is an author whom I was originally focusing upon in my current postgraduate thesis, and whilst my scope has changed since I began my project, I am still very keen to read her entire oeuvre.  This particular book proved rather difficult to find, but I struck gold by keeping my eye on Abebooks, and finding a copy which was around £20 cheaper than those which I have previously seen.

The Wordsworth Edition which, whilst out of print, seemed to be the only edition which I could find, has been edited and introduced in a thorough manner by the well-informed 9781840224924Paul March-Russell.  The stories were first published with this title in 1923, and throughout, Sinclair ‘combines the traditional ghost story with the discoveries of Freud and Einstein.’  March-Russell, who calls her a ‘pivotal writer in the development of the ghost story’, recognises the myriad elements which influenced Sinclair’s work, calling her ‘one of the most intellectually driven of writers, pursuing the “new” and the “modern” in philosophy, psychoanalysis, mysticism and the paranormal.’  These eight tales promise to ‘shock, enthral, delight and unsettle’.  March-Russell writes that due to the very nature of these stories, they are ‘disturbing’ both in their content and the Modernist form in which they have been written.

A recurring motif in Sinclair’s stories is the ‘horror of family life’, and the ‘theme of self-denial’; she explores both in each of these stories, weaving them cleverly in with mysterious circumstances and paranormal occurrences.  Her writing is what really shines here.  A contemporary critic of hers named Julian Thompson said that her writing was ‘pin-sharp, often harrowingly economic.’  Everything here feels almost effortless; there is such a sense of flow and control in Sinclair’s writing, which often feels like a mixture of the Victorian Gothic and the Modernist tradition.

Uncanny Stories has a curiosity about it; it is as though Sinclair has chosen to explore our world through things which cannot be proven to exist, but which a lot of people in the Victorian era, for instance, as well at the time of writing, were highly interested in.  The descriptions which Sinclair has crafted are vivid and mysterious at once.  ‘The Finding of the Absolute’, for example, deals with differing dimensions and the emergence of Kant conversing with the narrator in this particular space, and is the most unusual story in the collection.  Here, she writes: ‘He found himself alone in an immense grey space, in which there was no distinguishable object but himself.  He was aware of his body as occupying a portion of this space.  For he had a body; a curious, tenuous, whitish body.  The odd thing was that this empty space had a sort of solidity under him.  He was lying on it, stretched out on it, adrift.  It supported him with the buoyancy of deep water.  And yet his body was part of it, melted in.’

Different narrative techniques and perspectives can be found from one story to another so, despite the often recurring themes, there is a freshness and variety to the collection.  Given its main theme, Uncanny Stories could so easily have been melodramatic, but not a single story can be categorised as such.  Sinclair has a way of making obscene and otherworldly things seem entirely reasonable; she provides ghosts and hauntings almost with a sense of normalcy.  The tension is built masterfully, and the theme of obsessive love has been explored in such depth in many differing situations.  Whilst there is a trope in these stories in which many young wives come back to haunt their husbands, the ways in which they do so vary, as does the reasoning.  The only thing here which I felt was a little overdone were the accents, some of which felt almost impenetrable.

The stories collected here were originally presented with illustrations; they have since been removed, which seems a shame.  Of this collection, I had only read one of the stories before, ‘The Flaw in the Crystal’; this, I enjoyed even more the second time around. The influence of psychology particularly here is fascinating; there are so many layers to each story, and psychological elements can be picked out in every single tale.

Uncanny Stories is highly engaging, and whilst I read it during a heatwave in France, it would definitely better suit a dark evening with a crackling fire.  The stories here should be better known and more widely read, as, indeed, should the rest of Sinclair’s books.  She is a wonderful and unjustly neglected author, and this collection demonstrates just how versatile she was.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ by Shirley Jackson *****

The Haunting of Hill House was my second Halloween read of 2013, and is certainly one of my favourite books of 2013.  I have wanted to read it for years; more so after very much enjoying Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle.  I hoped that this novel would be just as good, and I was overjoyed to find that it was both better and creepier.

In The Haunting of Hill House, Jackson begins the story by telling the story of Dr John Montague, who goes to live in Hill House when he finds out that it is purported to be haunted.  He invites a few select people along to Hill House in rural America to stay there with him, whom he feels are interested enough in hauntings to warrant a place in the experiment of sorts which he is conducting.  One of the characters who accepts the invitation is Eleanor Vance, a spinster of sorts, who becomes the one whom Jackson places the most focus upon.

One of the primary things which I love about Jackson’s fiction is the way in which she makes the houses in which her protagonists live characters in themselves.  I love the way in which Jackson introduces her characters too – for example, ‘Luke Sanderson was a liar’.  I admire how matter-of-fact she can be, but how she also leaves many elements up to the imagination of the reader, and the way in which she weaves in loose ends at times in which they are not expected.  The entirety of The Haunting of Hill House is beautifully written, and the prose works marvellously with regard to her unfolding of the plot.  Some of the passages which Jackson crafts truly made me swoon.  For example, when describing Eleanor’s journey to Hill House, she writes:

‘The Haunting of Hill House’ by Shirley Jackson (Penguin)

She nearly stopped forever just outside Ashton, because she came to a tiny cottage buried in a garden.  I could live there all alone, she thought, slowing the car to look down the winding garden path to the small blue front door with, perfectly, a white cat on the step.  No one would ever find me there, either, behind all those roses, and just to make sure I would plant oleanders by the road.  I will light a fire in the cool evenings and toast apples at my own hearth.  I will raise white cats and sew white curtains for the windows and sometimes come out of my door to go to the store to buy cinnamon and tea and thread.  People will come to me to have their fortunes told, and I will brew love potions for sad maidens; I will have a robin…

The novel, as it gains momentum, is marvellously creepy.  The atmosphere which Jackson builds is powerful and rather oppressive.  Her pace is perfect, and the conversation between characters is fabulous.  Jackson never lingers into the field of mundanity, but is instead original in all that she writes and crafts.  The relationship which she builds between Eleanor and another of those who has accepted the invitation to stay at Hill House, Theodora, is believable and so well structured.  I read this novella almost in one go, as I struggled to tear myself away from it.

Purchase from The Book Depository

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‘Audition’ by Ryū Murakami **

Ryu Murakami’s ‘Audition,’ Paperback; 2009.

In part due to my recent declaration to renew my avid horror genre reads, I imagined it would be the appropriate starting point to begin with Murakami’s Audition, published originally in 1997 and further translated by Ralph McCarthy in later 2009. Unfortunately, I wasn’t as impressed with Murakami’s story. Although somewhat successful in its vile and repulsive imagery – thus rendering the isolation of the story almost perfected in its surrealism and horrification – it almost felt too flat in its execution. The plot follows middle-aged Aoyama, a documentary film-maker in Tokyo after the tragic death of his wife, Ryoko. During quite a heartfelt procession of overcoming said tragic passing, he is abruptly encouraged by his teenage son Shige to remarry and the thought begins to consume his mind. He feels compelled to find the ‘ideal’ wife, which further prompts him to – with encouragement from his fellow colleague Yoshikawa – hold ‘auditions’ for a fabricated movie idea in order to come into close contact with a splurge of females and therefore potential spouses.

As morally questionable as this sounds, it is this plotline which acts as the main drive for the novel and subsequently leads to the enamouring of Aoyama with a 24-year-old woman named Yamasaki, who seems a little ‘highly-strung’ and troubled. We are informed of several foreshadowing elements surrounding Yamasaki’s supposed past, yet Aoyama is blinded by his insatiable lust to care for this girl who seems to have undergone such suffering.  Inevitably, it is this error which causes the horrifying and most tragic cataclysm.

As most know, I am an undeniable fan of Japanese literature, and find it infinitely engaging. Similarly to film, I find Asian horror emphatically more chilling than Western, which is why such titles tend to surface among my favourites in both horror literature and cinema. Albeit a debatable genre, I personally believe horror should have the capacity to scare through the metaphoric ‘cold hand on the shoulder’ affect, in place of somewhat comical splattering of gore and guts. Usually I am satisfied by Japanese tales as they tend to either substitute gore for eerie material – few may recount the long-haired ghost girl from the Ring and the similarly begrudged woman in The Grudge – or justify such by disclosing severe psychological issues behind.  Audition is, quite simply, a psychosexual thriller, so although we are prone to repugnant amounts of explicit torture, Murakami has nevertheless attempted to employ some narrative behind it with regards to Yamasaki’s backstory. Yet this never appears to lead anywhere, and personally I felt quite offended by how little we are told of Yamasaki’s intentions.  I squirmed during moments I felt when the novel appeared to tread slightly among misogynistic waters, with the lunacy of Yamasaki and little attention to other female characters (let alone Aoyama’s forgiven yet blatant infidelity to his previous wife) adding a darker and objectifying tone to the novel. Two other titles of Murakami’s, Coin Locker Babies and In the Miso Soup are on my ‘to read’ lists as other pieces of Japanese horror, but to suffice to say  I am a little underwhelmed and slightly unnerved by the prospect of reading them. Perhaps I will look more towards other Japanese horror novelists to satisfy my appetite for the spooky.