Archive for January 18th, 2008

Freud suggests that a feeling of the uncanny (or unheimlich, as he calls it) is a momentary reversion to a child-like perception of the world as vast, mysterious, and beyond your control. I can speak for anyone else, but, in my case, the observation is correct. Two of my strongest early memories are so imbued with the uncanny that they may explain my lifelong interest in fantasy and science fiction.

In the first, I run out the door of my parents’ house, and descend the upper lawn. I am about to jump off the low stone wall to the lower lawn when I see a huge green and black snake coiled in the grass at my feet. Its body is about four inches thick, and it is slowly raising its head. I start giving it childish insults, calling it, “Sucker” and worse. Its forked tongue starts flicking in and out. For a moment, I am absolutely paralyzed. I think of leaping over it, but I don’t want it behind me in the grass. Finally, I turn around and race back inside. A while later, my family walks down to the car. I am careful to keep my eye on the grass as I go down the walkway, but I see nothing.

In the second, I am walking along the hallway of my parents’ house. I turn the corner, and Captain Hook from Peter Pan is there. He wears a black frock coat, and is well over six feet tall. I can see a bandoleer of bullets and a sword at his side, and he is brandishing a silver hook the size of his head. He shouts and starts advancing towards me. I give a great shout of my own, and my parents come running, but he is already gone.

Needless to say, Vancouver simply doesn’t have such large snakes, and people didn’t keep snakes as pets those days. Nor have I ever found a snake that matches the description of the one I remember. As for Captain Hook – well, I hardly need to explain the unlikelihood of anyone or anything in my childhood home being mistaken for such a figure. Both memories are undoubtedly of dreams, perhaps combined with sleepwalking. Undoubtedly, too, I have embellished them as the years went on, and I developed an even greater imagination.

Yet that’s not how either one feels. Intellectually, I can explain the memories away. But, deep down where the instincts and nightmares dwell, I know that they happened exactly as I’ve described. To this day, a coiled snake makes me profoundly uneasy, although a snake in any other position doesn’t bother me and I have even handled some.

Nor can I suppress a sudden tightness in my chest when I see Captain Hook portrayed in either animated or live action. In fact Dustin Hoffman in Pan made me faintly but definitely uneasy.

I wonder, too, what could have provoked such dreams. I’ve looked in the books I was read as a child, and none of them are likely sources of either memory. Could I have seen something on TV? I doubt I could have made them up entirely on my own, and  my inmost conviction remains that I didn’t: I saw them because they were there.

 No wonder that, when I read The Lord of the Rings seven years later, I took to it so avidly. I was already primed to respond to the fantastic. If Wordsworth had intimations of immortality, I’ve intimations of the uncanny ever since – and, despite some moments of uneasiness, I wouldn’t trade with him if I could.

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