Archive for the ‘uncanny’ Category

A few days ago, I was awakened at 6AM by the slow roll of thunder in the background. At first, I though it was shunting freight cars, but by the time I sank back on the pillows from the bolt upright position that I had no memory of moving into, I realized that the spur line to the nearby industrial complex had been closed for years. It was only one of the small storms we get on the south Vancouver coast in late spring and early fall. After dashing out to make sure that the computer and its peripherals were unplugged, I settled back to enjoy it.

There’s something about the deep-pitch of a thunder storm that impresses me on an instinctive level, much like a note struck on a full-sized church organ. It rouses all the fight or flight responses, raising the hairs on my arms and perking up my ears. In the presence of thunder, I find myself walking further forward on the balls of my feet, and looking alertly about me. I suppose that when we hear thunder, we all revert to prey animals, because it is something beyond our control that seems to be circling us, moving in for the kill.

Perhaps that is why, the once or twice I’ve been in a skyscraper during a thunder storm, everyone has crowded to the windows to stare at the accompanying lightning, careless of the fact that the window is probably the last place they should be. If the storm had eyes, no doubt we would be staring into them, like a mouse transfixed by a snake.

I have two main memories of thunder storms. The first was on my way back from a trip I took in the first days after I graduated from high school, camping with a friend in the Kootenays. The trip was eventful, involving for me the end of the romance, my first sight of a raven, my first trip as an adult, and a nasty cramp from ingesting too much of the water while swimming at Radium Hot Springs.

We were driving down the Fraser Canyon, the motion of the car doing little to help my queasy stomach, when suddenly we crested a hill from which we could see what seemed like the whole of the Fraser Valley stretched out before us. And, at that moment, sheet lightning flashed across the entire western horizon.

The sight couldn’t have lasted more than ten seconds, and probably only half or a third of that. But to me, it seemed to last for minutes – a bright, blaze as though the sky was on fire, impossibly golden and shining, and blotting everything else from sight. Remembering my graduation the week before, I wanted to take it as an omen, then decided that it didn’t need any symbolism attached to it: However I regarded it, it was one of the most magnificent and outright uncanny sights of my life. Later, I had time to wonder what would have happened if a car had been coming the other way at that moment, but in the immediate aftermath, all I could do was sigh and wish that the sight would return.

The second was in the last weeks of my master’s thesis. I had just bought a new computer, and was learning to work on it, rather than my worn IBM Selectric. I had file cards with the basic formatting options for WordPerfect written on them, and each day I would learn some other chore, such as file management.

I had had the computer a week, and was priding myself on getting to know it fairly well. That day, I planned to learn how to backup my work to floppy disks.

I was sitting at the keyboard, happily typing, when I heard the thunder crescendoing over head. It seemed unusually close, and I wondered if lightning had struck at Simon Fraser University on nearby Burnaby Mountain. For a moment, I enjoyed the pleasant sensation of mingling my newfound competence on the computer with my somewhat Byronic enjoyment of the storm.

Suddenly, I remembered the vulnerability of computers to power surges and reached down to unplug the computer. As I did, the screen filled with light – possibly, just in my imagination.

I spent a fretful hour wondering what had happened to the computer while I waited out the storm. Somehow, I was no longer enjoying it very much.
When I finally dared to turn on the computer again, the worst had happened; it wouldn’t work.

That same afternoon, I took the computer in for repairs. But my thesis defense was in three weeks, and I couldn’t afford to assume that the latest versions of two chapters and the draft of a third that I had typed into the computer would still be there. I spent the next ten days frantically recreating my work and worrying about my diminishing time.

Eventually, I found that the lightning surge had fried a resistor on the motherboard, and, that damage done, had been unable to affect the hard drive. My chapters were still there, although I no longer needed them. But I had learned a hard lesson, and I’ve been a backup fanatic ever since.

Probably, these experiences explain the contradictory impulses I have in a thunder storm. On the one hand, I want to rush to the window, or even outside, to experience the full glory of the storm. On the other hand, I want to run to the computer to make sure it’s safe, even though these days I always have current backups and two or three computers around the house. Because I’m stolidly middle-aged, checking the computer usually wins these days, but, once I’m assured of its safety, I still turn to my romantic enjoyment of the storm.

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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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