Writing the Uncanny: an interview with Dan Coxon

Dan Coxon is an author and editor. His anthology This Dreaming Isle was shortlisted for a Shirley Jackson Award and a British Fantasy Award, and he won a Saboteur Award for Best Anthology in 2016. His writing has appeared in the Guardian, Salon, Popshot, Gutter, Unthology, Neon, The Portland Review to name a few. Most recently he coedited Writing the Uncanny alongside Richard V. Hirst. Published by Dead Ink in 2021, Writing the Uncanny sees some of the best contemporary authors discuss the Uncanny in all its various forms.

Next month Dan will chair a panel discussion of Writing the Uncanny authors Lucie McKnight Hardy, Claire Dean and Rowan Hisayo Buchanan as part of Leeds Lit Fest 2022. More info and tickets available here.

Leeds Big Bookend: Hello Dan! Having read Writing the Uncanny without, I have to admit that much knowledge of Uncanny writing, I’ve discovered this whole world of fiction and media which is so varied and exciting and  creative – and scary, and I think Writing the Uncanny does a great job at exploring all those different areas. You’re are a long-time fan and author of horror and Uncanny fiction, how did you first discover it and what drew you to it as a genre?

Dan Coxon: So there’s a long story behind this which, if you boil it down to the essentials, is that I used to love that kind of stuff when I was a teenager and I read a lot of fantasy and horror and science fiction. Horror was only a part of it, but it was the strange things I really liked, those odd stories. I wasn’t a big Stephen King fan, for example, or those classic horror writers from the ‘80s, I was much more into weird, unsettling stuff. And then I spent the best part of maybe two decades trying to be more serious and literary. I did an English degree at St Andrews University and the focus was all on literary work and I felt very much that that was what I should go into. It’s only really been in the last 7 or 8 years that I’ve decided to throw part of that away and focus on the stuff that I actually really enjoy doing. And part of that realization, actually, was discovering Uncanny and unsettling writing in what is already literary writing, and that actually the two are not necessarily two different things.

BBE: I really liked that aspect of this book, the idea that the Uncanny has crept into all these different genres. There’s a line in the introduction about it “creating an ever spreading shadow which stalks our mainstream culture” which I really like.

DC: I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately actually, partly because we’ve got the event coming up. I do think that it has always been there, we’ve always had this Uncanny thread running through fiction it just sometimes comes to the foreground and sometimes stays in the background. And I think at the moment we’re in a foreground phase.

BBE: There’s another great quote in the introduction which says  “In its sense of disquiet and unease, the Uncanny may be the perfect genre for the modern era, reflecting the political uncertainty of our times – and the disordering of our everyday world that has accompanied the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.” Can you tell me a little bit about why a collection like this is so relevant and timely at the moment?

DC: Well when we started work on it, it was pre-Covid, certainly the early discussions about it. At that time there was still a feeling that the Uncanny was on the rise – we were seeing it a lot in cinema and films and TV, and in a lot of mainstream literary fictions, people like Andrew Michael Hurley and Daisy Johnson. But I think the Coronavirus outbreak has really doubled down on that to some extent – life feels odd, places look slightly empty and strange and there is a sense of anxiety at times which was never there before. That is all very much part of the Uncanny, the idea that things look similar to the way they should be but something is not quite right and it makes you feel anxious and unsettled – and that’s the last year and a half for most of us!

BBE: Yeah I think you’re right, and this whole idea of a ‘new normal’ is quite Uncanny in itself.

DC: It’s something that the Uncanny plays with a lot; small changes. It’s why I said I wasn’t a big fan of Stephen King earlier because in the Uncanny fiction I like the Uncanniness is in the little things. Alison Moore is very good at that actually. I’ve just finished her most recent one The Retreat and she does that very well in there.

BBE: I read Lucie McKnight Hardy’s Dead Relatives recently, and in a couple of those short stories she does those small changes but they’re so creepy and weird!

DC: I did the copy edit on that for Dead Ink, so I know it well.  You’re right she does it very well but again, she’s very much a writer of this period, but I think there would have been a time about 10-15 years ago when what she’s doing would have been labelled as genre and would have been published as genre fiction. I think we’re at a time now when it has crossed over into mainstream literary fiction a lot more.

BBE: Do you think that that goes hand in hand with indie presses and publishers doing quite well, and specialist publishing houses being able to do genre fiction really really well?

DC: I think bigger publishing houses tend to compartmentalize a lot more. With independent presses, because they’re smaller and generally have a smaller readership there’s a lot more scope for messing around with things and publishing books that don’t fit neatly into a nice little pigeon hole.

BBE: I think there is a parallel there with short fiction and the short story in that as a form it can sustain experimental ideas that novel length writing isn’t necessarily able to. There are essays in Writing the Uncanny that look at novels, but the short story seems to be overridingly prevalent in this genre and many of the authors involved in this anthology are short story writers. Many of the authors also talk about folktales and ghost stories and these all tend to be short in format. I think Robert Shearman talks about Roald Dahl’s short stories for adults which  unlocked this memory for me of reading them as a really young teenager and being obviously terrified. That shock of a well-known children’s author writing this really horrific adult material was kind of an uncanny, jolting experience itself. What do you think it is about the genre that is so well suited to the short story format?

DC: It really is, and to be honest I think it is in many ways better suited to short stories than longer fiction. The problem with full length fiction is that it is very difficult to sustain a feeling of something being unsettling and odd; sooner or later it has to resolve one way or another, it has to be normal or it has to go full on strange. There are a handful of writers that can do full length Uncanny books which don’t turn into full blown horror. Alison Moore is one of them of course, Shirley Jackson is the main example but then even if you look at her We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House they are both very short, novels but very short novels. You can’t just keep that tension and drag it out and drag it out, but short fiction does that wonderfully. You can leave things unresolved – most of the time when you start resolving something it stops being Uncanny.

BBE: That means there are so many angles you can come at the Uncanny from, and that is what I really liked about this collection, each essay had a different subject and area. You have Claire Dean’s fairytales and folktales, and Robert Shearman’s comedic essay, Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s ghosts.

DC: We kind of wanted to do that, but it was also slightly accidental in that we gave everyone a very loose remit! Some are funny, some are serious, some are quite academic.

BBE: I suppose that is quite an interesting job for an editor, to find a way to piece them all together and make them cohesive. What kind of role did you play in the shaping of this book and what was the process like?

DC: Richard V. Hirst and I worked together on this one. We asked for essays again with quite a wide remit but which had to be about the Uncanny. Then as they came in we had to think ‘well how do these form a full picture?’ I’m a big believer in the sequencing of books. I know some people read anthologies out of order, but I don’t personally and I do feel that the order you put them in should have some sense and coherence to it. There were a lot of discussions on this one – this is the first time I’ve co-edited and it was nice to have someone to be able to bounce ideas off.

BBE: You’ve edited a few anthologies before, what do you think is the best thing about working collaboratively in this way?

DC: I have the joy of working with them because I am a reader so I’m asking all these authors I love to write things for me and they send them in and I get to be surprised by them, which is absolutely wonderful. That’s the joy of being an editor, you don’t just collect all these pieces together and throw them out in any old form, it’s actually understanding what you’ve got and presenting it in such a way that it makes some kind of narrative sense from beginning to end. An interesting tightrope to walk with this book was pitching it to both writers and readers. We had to make sure it was interesting enough as a reader but that you could also take away some writing tips.

BBE: So, my final question is do you have any recommendations for Uncanny fiction for readers?

DC: There are the obvious classics that we always come back to time and time again, everyone who is even vaguely interested in short stories needs to read Shirley Jackson’s short stories, and probably We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Robert Aickman as well, the one that is discussed in the book by Jeremy Dyson ‘The Hospice’ is a fantastic story so if you only read one Aickman story it should probably be that. But I think it’s everywhere, I was looking for stuff to feed into another project I’m working on and there’s a Bret Easton Ellis novel Glamorama from the ‘90s which is hands down a piece of Uncanny fiction. It’s all about doppelgangers and there’s this really unsettling bit where the main character digs a tooth out of a shower cubicle, which reminded me of the scene in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet where they find the ear in the park.

BBE: That’s so interesting, once you’re aware of the Uncanny as a genre you start seeing it everywhere.

DC: Exactly,  I think especially once you’re aware of Freud’s original essay, once you know these little symbols of the Uncanny it becomes quite easy to spot. I almost feel like if you pick up any literary novel there’s a 50/50 chance you’ll find something Uncanny in there.


Writing the Uncanny is available from Dead Ink here

Find out more about Dan here

More info about the 2022 Leeds Lit Fest can be found here

Book for: Writing the Uncanny. Panel event



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