First published in September 2018.
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 Paul 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.