- The uncanny, and: The Seduction of the Occult and the Rise of the Fantastic Tale
As a commentator having once taken certain issue with Todorov's treatment of the 'pure uncanny' as a sub-genre (see Neil Cornwell, The Literary Fantastic, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1990, p. 37), as indeed already had Rosemary Jackson (in her Fantasy, Methuen, 1981, p. 32), the present reviewer was reassured to read, at an early stage of Nicholas Royle's The uncanny, that: 'The uncanny is not a literary genre'. Indeed, Royle maintains: 'It makes "genre" blink' (19). Royle's wider approach asserts, too, that 'there is no "the" for "the uncanny"' (28, n. 20) – neither (though, if he comments on this detail, I must have missed it) is there a capital 'u' for the title phrase. Chapters treat the phenomenon not just in literature, but in psychoanalysis, philosophy, film, in a variety of theories, and even in teaching (many readers will relish Royle's diatribe against the RAE and 'learning outcomes' [End Page 429] – though 'uncanny' here may not always be the first adjective that comes to mind).
On Todorov's postulation of the 'meta-uncanny', Royle rejoins: 'Every allegedly uncanny text is always a text about the uncanny. The uncanny is always "meta-uncanny". And at the same time, there can be no "meta-uncanny", since we can never fix the place or borders of where the alleged discourse of the uncanny ends and the putatively "meta-uncanny" begins' (18–19). The concept of the uncanny can therefore appear so wide that one may at times be forgiven for wondering what cannot be 'uncanny'. The present reviewer, for example, fresh from studies of the absurd, was liable to see that particular notion frequently as indistinguishable from manifestations of the uncanny – especially amid discussions of such writers as Kafka and Beckett.
The starting point is, of course, Freud's essay 'The "Uncanny"', of 1919 (Das Unheimliche: Penguin Freud Library, 14, 1990 [formerly Pelican, 1985], 339–376). Freud, indeed, is rarely far away, although severe deficiencies in his readings of Hoffmann's 'The Sandman' (as indeed of the Strand Magazine tale 'The Inexplicable' by L. G. Moberly) are duly pointed out. If the name of Freud might have appeared in a subtitle to The uncanny, so – indeed all the more so – might that of Jacques Derrida, who remains a point of almost constant reference and obeisance. Not, however, that this does not contribute toward fruitful insights and coinages: for instance, appreciation of silences, or what at times is not said, enable one 'to tune into the speech of the phantom in a virtual archive' (311).
Following an introductory historical, critical (and linguistic) overview, and a survey of the areas mentioned above, we encounter chapters broaching such topics as the death drive, premature burial, darkness and 'night writing', déjà vu, the double, chance, phantoms (various), insanity, cannibalism and – perhaps most fruitfully – telepathy. A 'telepathy effect' is promoted as a key to much modern narrative fiction, to replace such allegedly outworn terms as 'omniscience', 'point of view' and 'focalization'. Again, Derrida's device of 'being-two-to-speak' (l'être-deux-à-parler), provides the inspiration (266). One may be slightly surprised, however, to find no mention in the discussion here of the narrative concepts of 'dual voice', 'free indirect discourse' or 'reflector characters'.
Royle's study, openly compiled at least in part from previously published essays or papers given, ends up as something of a stimulating hybrid genre in itself – somewhere between the scholarly monograph [End Page 430] and the collection of selected (if more or less thematic) writings, splintered with the occasional more personal fragment. The result may perhaps be categorisable as something of a deconstructionist revival of belletrisme. Among the (some might say self-indulgent) quirks on display are a number of semiotic and paratextual...