The Hidden Uncanny
This is part of a #FridayFlashback series of rereleased essays.This one revisits my reviews of two works of contemporary horror, ‘The Unheimlich Manoeuvre’ and ‘Everything That’s Underneath’, first published October 11 2019.
As the title suggests, Tracy Fahey’s The Unheimlich Manoeuvre is rooted in the uncanny. As Cate Gardner puts it in her fabulous introduction, the tales occupy ‘a world you and I would recognise. They are stories of folk who take the wrong road, knock on the wrong door, and find themselves somewhere not quite right.’ She continues, getting at what makes these forays into the contemporary gothic so unsettling, ‘The real world surrounds them but it seems they are unable to turn the corner and return to it. They are lost now.’ Gardner’s favourite of the collection, ‘The Woman Next Door’, is exemplary of this lost-ness. The premise is that a new mother, struggling to cope with those ‘placatory rituals to assuage a screaming, soaking god’, unflatteringly comparing herself to an idealised neighbour in the same situation. What is lost here is initially contained the gap between the ideal and the real, but takes on a more monstrous shape.
My personal favourite has similar themes. In ‘Papering over the Cracks’ a writer discovers an eerily familiar portrait beneath the wallpaper of her Georgian mansion, where she has just moved with her husband after having acquired what was once the residence of her great-aunt. There are echoes of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novella The Yellow Wallpaper — the story of suffering domesticity, of social power relations rerendered through the prism of the fantastical. The renovation being done to the house involves removing the Victorian bric-a-brac and thereby excavating a deeper past, but only by missing the locus of trauma that defines the place. It’s a fascinating backdrop for a story defined by haunting and, more crucially, recurrence.
The horror of repetitions is at the core of ‘Long Shadows’ too, another stand-out piece; indeed, a motif of sinister refrains runs through the whole collection: ’If you want to fight, to keep going, stop trying to remember.’; ‘Soon it will be morning’; ‘I’m coming to get you.’ These echoes, which take place in story after story, create a haunting déjà vu, and they build up the pressure, the ominous dead. The difference between other stories and these two, however, is that for them the refrain is synonymous with the horror in the fable’s particular nightmare logic. Elsewhere, the horror is found in other oddities.
When I first opened The Unheimlich Manoeuvre, skimming its contents list, the title of ‘Something Nasty in the Woodshed’ struck me. The story is of a horrific before-after, of guilt compounded by guiltier regret, and of that ‘web of circumstances’ that ‘seems infinitely fragile.’ But the title is an allusion to Stella Gibbons’s comic novel Cold Comfort Farm, and as I read the book it became clear that Fahey deliberately situates her text within a broader network of fictions. There are references to Stephen King in ‘Coming Back’, Ira Levin in ‘Walking the Boderlines’, Douglas Coupland in ‘Long Shadows’, possibly to Robert and Richard Sherman’s ‘I Wan’na Be like You’ music number from Walt Disney’s adaptation of the The Jungle Book in ‘I Look Like You, I Speak Like You, I Walk Like You’. By invoking common cultural touch-points, Fahey borrows an accompanying familiarity, and by so doing doubles down on an uncanny defined by making the familiar strange, by making us lost where we should be at home.
In the opening story, ‘Coming Back’, the narrator slides in and out of consciousness, the choppy prose mirrors than fragmentary perspective of someone wired into a bed, reduced to ‘a ghost in the machines.’ Here, as is often so in Fahey’s narratives, the horror gets to a sense of an ebbing away of agency, a state of graduating helplessness. There’s also a morbid curiosity about one’s own condition, of the character who is experiencing the horror being numbed but curious about it: ‘The tender crook of my left elbow flowers with appalling roses of red, black, yellow, blue; a horrid clustering of repeated punctures, fingerprints, incisions, invasions.’ The last story, ‘Looking for Wildgoose Lodge’, which is otherwise quite different, also has this dreamlike, numbed quality, and that sense of poking and prodding at the source of a trauma. Here, a series of time-jumping vignettes from the narrator’s life recount an old family tragedy, rooted around the titular place.
Another favourite of the book is ‘Ghost Estate, Phase II’. The second person voice of this one throws the reader off kilter right away, but the story, which explores the idea of topographical doubles, is more seriously an exploration of our own alienness to ourselves. It occupies a slightly out of sync reality—‘It is nowhere. It runs on nevertime.’—and it includes one of the more vivid descriptive passages in the book:
There’s even a doppelgänger of your own house. Number 5 Evergreen drive. When you press your face close to the dirty window your shadow reveals the interior; a dark scar of a fireplace, a bare concrete floor, a broken plastic chair in the corner.
The premise and execution of ‘Tracing the Spectre’ is a ghost hunting art-project taking place in an Irish gothic castle, which sets up our expectations, but its then the unfolding of the narrative voice, the note of strain, that defines the story itself. Everything about it is keen to build up a mood, and it’s a wonderful homage to the genre of romantic fables to which it also belongs. ‘A Lovely Place to Live’ is much lighter and comic by comparison, but it still feels like it belongs to this world of unexpected strangeness, as if haunted castles and the narrow lives of middle-class nimby’s belong to the same logic. It has one of the best twist endings, as a cardiac incident sees a teacher and writer living on a cul-de-sac estate, ‘sucked into the suburban hierarchy of the Neighbourhood Watch.’
‘Sealed’ is an especially good example of another common theme, touched on by many of the aforementioned stories; that of the pathos attendent to domestic torture. It is one of the more uncomfortable inclusions, and its sense of bodily misery is striking: ‘A small sob builds large in my throat, so it swells and hurts with the contained pain of her.’
Over and over, we are confronted with people trapped in places that are hostile, where loneliness, shame and paranoia coalesce in the suspicion that there is something odd about one’s home, one’s most habitual world.
There’s so much we can’t see. Everything that’s underneath. Hiding. But it wants us to see, to pull it out from where it’s sleeping and make it beautiful again.
The opening story of Everything That’s Underneath features a character with multiple sclerosis, which hit close to home. It would not be the only time this collection found resonance in its horror, which conveys with precision different human experiences of trauma and frailty. Kristi DeMeester’s writing has a quality distinct to the current flowering of indie horror; it’s a gentleness, a willingness to take its time, and with a subject matter focussed on the isolated experiences of life, especially when lived at the margins. Anybody used to a horror defined by the elaborate shock gags of Hollywood or even the cosmic grandstanding of Lovecraftian pulp will find the intimacy of DeMeester (and many others writing this type of fiction, see my past horror reviews) unexpected. Even when this horror plays with larger metaphysics, it’s so delicately bound to our subjectivity.
With DeMeester this is encapsulated by the most recurring motif, the titular idea of something erupting from beneath. Often, this is explored through exsanguination. The idea of bleeding recurs again and again. Its there in the haunted book narrative of ‘To Sleep Long, to Sleep Deep’ where the principle tome is described as filled with ‘sepia-toned depictions of vivisections, bodies peeled open like ripe fruits while grinning devils lapped up spilled blood’. Its there, also, in ‘The Lightning Bird’ and its titular creature: ‘And the terrible bird, rising from the waters, its white feathers stained crimson.’ Most obviously its there in the sublime ‘Worship Only What She Bleeds’, which opens with the visuals of a house that ‘pours itself back into the dirt.’ And, one of the best pieces, ‘The Tying of Tongues’, which focuses on an archetypal stranger’s arrival: ‘When the hooded woman came to our village, her bloodied skirts trailing behind her, the old mothers whispered behind chapped hands, and the animals found their holes and hid.’ Over and over, we are confronted with this literal loss of interiority, reflected in the characters’ experiences.
But the notion of what’s underneath in DeMeester’s tales is not confined to bleeding. It perhaps finds its most direct expression in self contained pieces such as ‘The Beautiful Nature of Venom’ and ‘Like Feather, Like Bone’. In the former, the character addresses the second person and seeming lover in a narrative with a surprise ending: ‘Under my skin, the spiders traced the tips of your fingers.’ In the latter, a woman shares a little girl’s metamorphosis, ‘Beneath my skin, my bones shift, and the dead make room for something new.’ DeMeester is not just writing about the loss of self, but self-becoming, the self as infinitely mutable. The body horror here works to convey a sense of the inherent instability of selfhood, and it does so with a fascinating acuity. That’s not to say that the body and its interiority is secondary to subjectivity, a mere metaphor, but rather that in her horror DeMeester collapses such distinctions.
Nor is the idea of interiority limited to people, as the example of the bleeding house already shows. In ‘To Sleep in the Dust of the Earth’ the story plays with notions of what it means to lose something, the earth’s resonances with death and life as well as the distinctions between outside and inside. Its central conceit involves t a passageway with many fairytale parallels, one which grants a girl the ability to recover misplaced items. And it includes this beautiful paragraph, which in its elliptical strangeness captures the mood of the entire book:
We bury our dead in the ground. We tend to the seeds and water them with our tears. We wait and watch. Sometimes, what we find is beautiful. Other times, all of the hope we put inside the seeds rots and decays. Then, we mourn all we have lost. The things we can never find. What we have thrown into the woods with our eyes closed.
My three favourite stories are ‘The Wicked Shall Come Upon Him’, ‘The Dream Eater’ and ‘All That Is Refracted, Broken’. The first is an apocalypse with a difference. Here, the formula of many of the other tales in the collection are inverted as the external world pollutes an internal one, ‘In the months leading up to her, darkness had bled from the edges of the heavens, blotting out what had once glowed with quiet, white light.’ The sky begins to scream and moonlight leaks ‘into people’s skins, turning it the color of something spoiled, rotted.’ The next storys occurs after, rather than leading up, to a global cataclysm. And again, something threatens the integrity of the principle character, a great field of grass ‘I look again into that green void. It is only that. A void. And I am so hungry.’ Finally, in ‘All That Is Refracted, Broken’, DeMeester draws on the folklore and demonology of mirrors in a story of a sickly brother who can only look at his sister through a reflection, the protagonist becoming slowly sure that there is something amiss about herself, ‘if only he would get rid of whatever it was lurking just under my skin.’
We find in both of these horror story collections a concern with what is outside of ourselves, what is outside of our domains, and how it interacts with what is within.
Whether taking on ideas about domesticity or wondering at a world that can change us in unexpected ways, these books take to the core of what it is to be thrown into a world with its own, often obscured logics, with pasts over which we have no control and associations we struggle to define.
This is something the weird and the gothic are presently well placed to do.
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