From Wikipedia: “The uncanny is the psychological experience of something as strangely familiar, rather than simply mysterious. It may describe incidents where a familiar thing or event is encountered in an unsettling, eerie, or taboo context.”
As to the use of the uncanny in fiction:
“There’s a power and weight to this type of fiction, which fascinates by presenting a dark mystery beyond our ken and engaging the subconscious. Just as in real life, things don’t always quite add up, the narrative isn’t quite what we expected, and in that space we discover some of the most powerful evocations of what it means to be human or inhuman.” ~Jeff VanderMeer, “The Uncanny Power of Weird Fiction,” The Atlantic
“The uncanny freaks the reader out because it isn’t quite right – it taps into our understanding of the world and patterns around us and renders them slightly ‘off’.” ~Robert Wood, in this great article.
Read “Day of the Builders” by Kristine Ong Muslim in Weird Fiction Review, which opens eerily like this:
“This happened long before the initial signs of sickness from the outsiders rippled across my village. You should understand by now how my people were easy prey because most of us were trusting, greedy for finery, and readily distracted by new things or any semblance of finesse.”
I’m struck by the world-building of this story, how familiar it feels, while at the same time so uncannily “off” in every way.
So much of our world, our once familiar landscape, our interactions, have taken on an uncanny quality during this pandemic: The eerily deserted streets of the big cities, for example. People wear protective masks in the supermarket. A man pours wine out his apartment window into the glass of a woman leaning out her window on the floor below. Goats roam free in villages. We can draw on these uncanny images, this unsettled feeling, in our writing.
Today, I’d like you to face the strange in your flash fiction. Explore something that is oddly and unsettlingly familiar. What happens when a normally benign event takes an eerie or inappropriate turn, for example? Challenge yourself to take a subtle approach with this.
Consider how Hitchcock uses the uncanny in his films, for example, the “uncanny double” of Marion and Norman in the film, Psycho:
If you need a nudge, try using these below (from Psycho) to get you started:
“We all go a little mad sometimes.”