The Western Uncanny

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Let us say you are walking near a wetland where red-winged blackbirds nest. You are absorbed in conversation, in a human and social world. Then, over your head and just behind it, the air creases and rips. How do you know—before you even know—to duck, to avoid?  In another moment you will realize it’s just a blackbird defending its nest, but before that realization comes, you are prey. Is this some ancient mammalian response to the giant birds that once swooped upon our tiny, scurrying ancestors? For the briefest moment you straddle the past and the present, the animal and human. Then your borders solidify, you stand in your known body and within your present mind with all its adequate explanations, and shout the dumb bird away.

You have just experienced an uncanny moment. It is small, and so fast you barely recognize it—a sense of being shifted profoundly out of your boundaries to a border realm that is neither-nor and both. The uncanny is uncanny—it doesn’t make sense—because it always straddles a border between two noncomplementary realms. Thus the term edginess clarifies both our subjective feeling or experience of the uncanny, and its physical or psychic location. Any explanation for an uncanny event that works on one side of the border is useless or inconsistent on the other: If a ghost is spirit, how do our physical senses detect it? If it is physical, why can’t we touch it, or how does it pass through a door?

To un-uncanny a ghost, invent a type of vacuum cleaner, as in Ghostbusters, that can vacuum it up and pull it fully into a single realm of existence, and therefore of explanation (though, admittedly, you might need the explanation before you could invent the vacuum cleaner). It now becomes merely a monster, fearful only insofar as its powers in this world are greater than your vacuum’s. It is possible you have actually made it more dangerous, but it has lost that particular, paralyzing creepiness and eeriness that accompany the uncanny—paralyzing precisely because no full explanation tells us what the uncanny is or what it means or how and why it behaves. Monsters may be dangerous, but if we could understand their power, we might possibly manage them. The uncanny cannot be managed, since it can only ever be partially understood, and any attempt to manage is predicated on a belief that we understand what we are dealing with.

A serial killer isn’t uncanny. He’s far more dangerous than any ghost, but with enough psychology, we can explain him, and explanation is the first stage of control. If you are a writer wishing to invent a serial killer who also feels uncanny, stop the explanation of his character before it becomes satisfactory. Then suggest another realm of explanation incompatible with your first, but don’t venture far into it. It should be outline, thin tracing, dust thrown into a breeze that for a moment seems shaped and orderly—a brief, fleeting sense that your killer participates in a life over there, beyond some psychic border. He then partakes of that particular, attractive power that draws readers in by pathways of what they can’t know. Pushed by language to where he straddles a border but doesn’t step fully across it, a just-human killer becomes eerie.

My fairly small interest in Star Wars dissipated entirely when The Force was explained. As long as Yoda and Luke Skywalker participated in mystery, I retained some interest in their powers. When those powers became the result of microscopic somethings in their blood, my interest fled. It didn’t matter that the explanation made no sense in my world, because it made full sense in Yoda’s, and in being explained, it lost its uncanny, border condition.

For a truly uncanny scene from popular science fiction—a scene that clarifies the nature and power of the uncanny—nothing I know beats the moment in Star Trek: The Next Generation when we first see Captain Jean-Luc Picard as a Borg. The Borg by themselves are merely horrifying or awful, but Picard-as-Borg is—what? (“The Best of Both Worlds”).

For readers who are not Star Trek fans, the Borg are a kind of humanoid insect horde, in which the individual becomes a drone to the colony, without will or autonomy, and in which individual minds are drawn into the intelligence of the whole and contribute to it. The Borg are voracious for new members, attacking any life-forms they find and making them part of the colony. When the Borg encounter Picard’s ship, they quickly subdue it and beam Picard out of it. The next time we see Picard, he has been transformed into Locutus of Borg—still himself, still recognizable, and yet wired into the Borg collective, speaking to his former comrades in a voice that has the metal buzz of wasp wings in it.

It is a fascinating and compelling drama. We’re drawn in. Until this point, Picard has been on one side of a border, the Borg on the other, their differences clearly defined. In spite of the Borg’s crushingly superior powers, we have felt protected by Picard’s solidity of location. When he becomes Borg, our ground is shifted. We lurch, beyond control, toward the border. We are suddenly way closer to Borg than we thought, the ground we stand upon to know ourselves suddenly liquefied, a wave moving us toward what we cannot understand. And contained within our fear, or running parallel to it, is a weird eroticism. We’re attracted to the state of being that we fear, and our fear is amplified by the attraction. Our emotions themselves are cast into a border state, where they are not quite manageable, and where our own hearts resist explanation.

This is the emotional disturbance of the uncanny. It both repels and attracts. In all the stories of ghost sightings I have heard from people—and I have heard a few—no one has ever told me that he or she ran. People are stilled, mesmerized by fear and attraction, drawn to and repelled by. The uncanny exists on an interior border that mirrors and is mirrored by the exterior border that the uncanny event, being, or sighting straddles.


The American West is full of borders. The nation’s most significant border lies between the United States and Mexico, a border that, as Charles Bowden and others have shown us, is straddled by history and ideas and families and the black market of the drug trade. Bowden’s gritty and realistic and disturbing portrayals of the border in such books as Down by the River are as uncanny as any ghost story, giving us the feeling of being in hyper-familiar and hyper-alien worlds at the same time. Cormac McCarthy, in fiction, uses the border to create one of the creepiest characters in American literature, Anton Chigurh, the contract killer of No Country for Old Men, who, with his coin-flipping and incredible physical and intellectual powers, seems both merely and terribly psychotic and/or/but of another nature than human entirely. I would suggest that readers who understand and sympathize with Sheriff Ed Tom Bell’s refusal to pursue Chigurh at the end of the novel feel Chigurh as uncanny, and those who see Bell’s decision as morally suspect feel Chigurh as simply psychotic. McCarthy thus forces us to wrestle with the moral dangers of too quickly feeling the ordinary as extra-ordinary, of giving up on explanation too soon, or of simply assuming, because someone seems alien or powerful, that he or she is a citizen of an unexplainable realm. Assigning a phenomenon to the category of “beyond explanation”—therefore uncanny—automatically relieves us of responsibility to deal with (to manage) it, and this, the novel seems to suggest, is a vital moral and political danger.

The American West is also full of semi-permeable borders between European-American and American Indian cultures and nations, and is, of all the regions of the country, most full of borders between present and past. The West’s dry climate preserves the most ancient human relics on the continent in places like Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde, while also allowing the land’s much deeper past to emerge in the form of fossils. Are dinosaurs here or are they there? Alien or of-us? It is indeed an uncanny experience to visit a place like Chaco Canyon, where the ruins are so  well preserved it feels as if they have been deserted for only a year or two and might, with some work, be put back together to reconstitute the culture and life of their original builders. And yet the meaning of those ruins is so distant, so far beyond the present’s border, that we lose our footing, we vibrate with the strangeness.

The uncanny can also be experienced through cultural straddlings. A friend of mine living on the Cheyenne–Eagle Butte reservation was invited to a sweat ceremony. Inside the dark, hot dome, she heard birds singing—so uncanny a thing she was afraid to speak of it. Had she gone over an edge in her mind? Months later, still haunted—note how right that word is—she worked up the courage to ask a Lakota friend about it. “Oh, of course!” he said. “Birds always sing in the lodge when that particular person runs a sweat.” For my friend, the experience lay on a border between her mind and the exterior world. For her friend, however, the singing birds inside the steam weren’t uncanny because whatever explanation there was for them lay fully in the realm of the sweat ceremony itself. He didn’t need a physical or logical explanation for them. He was simply capable of accepting that they had a full explanation, a complete one, in a realm that doesn’t require logic or the laws of physical presence.

In Fools Crow, James Welch takes at face value full border crossings that modern readers resist, and at other times he suggests immense mystery behind events we would tend to see as fully physical and rational. In doing so, he creates powerful meaning, and a narrative unlike any other novel I know. The full crossings, which contemporary readers would deem impossible, contain no sense of weirdness at all, whereas the suggestions of a border where we would not expect to find one become uncanny visitations. Thus a bird, Raven, using human speech doesn’t feel uncanny; Welch strides right across the border and plants us in a world where birds are spirits, and because we are so solidly there, our hackles don’t rise when they speak. But when the grizzly bear, in “a slither of speed,” takes Fast Horse’s mother, it’s uncanny (187–88). It’s a brief scene, but it catches us short, and we teeter. The grizzly should be fully animal, but we feel it has erupted through a spiritual border. It is an ordinary, random bear attacking a woman picking berries, while her six-year-old child watches. But what we feel in those words “a slither of speed” is another power, an emanation of spirit slashing out of the realm of the godhead to deprive Fast Horse of his mother and usher in his life of doubt and lack of faith. What makes this scene uncanny is the way the border is undefined and yet straddled; what makes Raven’s speaking not-uncanny is that Welch steps fully and without hesitation over the border even though it seems so clear, precise, and defined.

The white poacher in Fools Crow is also uncanny. From Fools Crow’s perspective he is beyond explanation, his greed and lack of concern for relationships impossible in the realm of the human as Fools Crow knows it. Welch’s genius, in the scene where Fools Crow kills the poacher, is in making contemporary readers feel the poacher as uncanny while we feel Fools Crow’s spirit-animal guides as normal.  Our sense of the uncanny depends not on whether we regard something as extra-ordinary but on whether we feel an incompatibility of worlds existing together and at once.

Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, another novel full of borders, is also full of the uncanny—beings both human and animal, witches both mythical and real. But we do not require an American Indian/European boundary to provide a context for the uncanny. Consider this scene from O. E. Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth, and note how the men are paralyzed by what they see, unable to act or move in the face of what is coming toward them; in other words, they react precisely as people do when seeing ghosts:

From out of the west layers of clouds came rolling—thin layers that rose and sank on the breeze; . . . they came in waves, like the surges of the sea and cast a glittering sheen before them as they came; they seemed to be made of some solid murky substance that threw out small sparks along its face.

The three men stood spellbound, watching the oncoming terror; their voices died in their throats; their minds were blank. . . .

And now from out of the sky gushed down . . . a living, pulsating stream. . . . This substance had no sooner fallen than it popped up again, crackling and snapping; . . .  it flared and flittered around them like light gone mad; it chirped and burned through the air; it snapped and hopped along the ground; the whole place was a weltering turmoil of raging little demons; if one looked for a moment into the wind, one saw nothing but glittering, lightninglike flashes—flashes that came and went, in the heart of a cloud made up of innumerable, dark-brown clicking bodies! (331–32; italics mine)

The locusts are only uncanny when those watching perceive them as existing on the border between storm-cloud and something-alive, or between creature and devil. Once Per Hansa understands what they are, they remain disastrous but not uncanny. One can do something about them. One can slap a locust, crush it, shoot a shotgun to frighten it off—all of which, in the next moments, Per Hansa does, as he understands that what he is dealing with is physical and of-this-world, although new and alien to his experience. If the actions he takes against the locusts are inadequate, he can nevertheless explain why: it is numbers, magnitude, quantity, nothing but countlessness, nothing but many.

Per Hansa quickly understands the locusts as an emanation of the land. To his wife, Beret, however, they straddle a border between the physical world and the legion of evil spoken of in the Bible. Because Beret cannot explain the powers of the land by the land, the locusts, for her, straddle mutually incompatible worlds. The ultimate effect is that she becomes uncanny to  the reader, crossing into a border region where her thinking is based both in the world as we understand it and in a world she carries within her, which is beyond our access. Her power over her husband Per at the end of the novel deeply unsettles us, as she sends him into a blizzard on a mission of Christian mercy we know is doomed. Does mere cold kill him—one of the fully natural forces he has fought throughout the book—or does evil kill him, and if it is evil that does so, is it in the world—a notion he has rejected—or in his wife’s mind? And if it is in his wife’s mind, has evil there managed to straddle the border into an eerie region of good? The novel’s intellectual power to raise such questions is of a piece with its emotional power, both dependent on uncanny straddlings of incompatible realms of explanation.

In the film Shane Alan Ladd’s character steps out of wilderness wearing buckskins, but the dialogue of the film normalizes him, and his inscrutable past clearly has to do with human violence and law rather than nature or spirit. He is clothed in, but not imbued with, the natural world, and the border between those two worlds remains intact in the film.  His prowess is a matter of training, history, and physicality. In High Plains Drifter, however, Clint Eastwood’s gunfighter becomes uncanny, inscrutability becomes mystery, and the whole film is played out within an indefinable border state. We can invent satisfactory explanations for Shane but not for The Stranger in High Plains Drifter. He is human but he’s not. He has a story but he doesn’t. He fully intends what happens in the film, but he’s forced into it. His powers could come from either side of the physical/occult border, and we can’t invent a full and adequate explanation for them.

I once spent a week as a writer-in-the-schools on the Rosebud reservation in South Dakota with a class of fourth-graders who kept talking about a Goat Man roaming the land. Goat Man would appear at parties or be seen in the mirrors of cars, catching up, until the driver punched the accelerator. He would be seen in trees, a clear and distinct shape, but would dematerialize if anyone was brave enough to go closer. The children were suspicious of my queries about him, I being a stranger to their lives, but eventually I gained enough of their trust that one of them went to a chalkboard and, reaching as high as he could, drew an astounding figure with powerful, sprinter’s thighs, a boxer’s abdomen and chest, and the shoulders of an NFL lineman, and on top of it all the head of a goat with curved horns and bleak, staring eyes. The young artist stood back from this creature, pointed up to it, and looking at me, said, “That’s Goat Man. But you don’t believe us, do you?”

Goat Man became a feature in my novel, The Work of Wolves, but in the novel that follows it, Twisted Tree, a human character named Shane Valen occupies the same psychic territory and may be just as uncanny, on the border between human and animal, between psychotic and friendly, protective and menacing. So I do believe that fourth-grade artist—and I don’t. With the uncanny, you have a leg in both realms, either-or disappears, belief doesn’t matter, and explanation is impossible.

Several years ago I was having lunch with a friend. Our table was near a large, plate-glass window. I live in a small enough town that we recognize our fringe people, our group-home wanderers, our almost-homeless. As we talked, one of them, a woman who, no matter the weather, wore a fur coat and talked to herself, came up the sidewalk. Suddenly she was outside our window, staring at us, the July sun pressing down on her. As she stood there gazing at us, a look of pure horror came to her face. She lifted her hands, crossed her index fingers, pushed this symbol toward us, then scurried away. I’ve never figured out where I was sitting, what worlds I straddled, as she stood outside that window. Nor do I know whether her charm worked—or whether it is best if it did not.


Works Cited

“The Best of Both Worlds.” Star Trek: The Next Generation. Dir. Cliff Bole. Season 4, Episode 1. Sept. 24, 1990. TV program.

Bowden, Charles. Down by the River. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002.

High Plains Drifter. Dir. Clint Eastwood. Malpaso/Universal Studios, 1973. Film.

McCarthy, Cormac. No Country for Old Men. New York: Knopf, 2005.

Rölvaag, O. E. Giants in the Earth. Trans. Lincoln Colcord and O. E. Rölvaag. New York: Harper Perennial, 1927.

Shane. Dir. George Stevens. Paramount, 1953. Film.

Silko, Leslie Marmon. Ceremony. New York: Viking Penguin, 1977.

Welch, James. Fools Crow. New York: Penguin, 1986.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014