Friday, September 1, 2023

The Centenary of May Sinclair's 'Uncanny Stories'

May Sinclair’s Uncanny Stories was first published about one hundred years ago, in September 1923. Like Walter de la Mare’s The Riddle and Other Stories, also in its centenary year and noticed here earlier, it was a significant volume in the development of modern supernatural fiction. It was enhanced by illustrations by Jean de Bosschere.

Sinclair gets surprisingly perfunctory treatment in some guides to supernatural fiction: she was omitted altogether from Clute & Grant’s Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997), and has only a passing mention in Glen Cavaliero’s The Supernatural & English Fiction (1995). Even Suzanne Rait’s sympathetic and perceptive biography, May Sinclair: A Modern Victorian (2000), gives the short stories relatively little attention, preferring to focus on her novels.

E F Bleiler, however, in his Guide to Supernatural Fiction (1983), notes: ‘Supernaturalism as a vehicle for psychological analysis, mostly of love  . . . The central idea for these stories is that ghosts, which usually symbolize memory, are intimately connected with life and can offer aid in solving the conflicts of life. Horror is internally objectified. Excellent . . .’ 

May Sinclair was sixty years old when the book was issued. A contemporary of Arthur Machen, she was born in 1863 (as was he): she died in 1946, he in 1947. Sinclair, however, moved more avowedly in modern circles, befriending the Imagist poets Ezra Pound, H.D. and Richard Aldington, and the modernist writer of supernatural fiction Mary Butts. She also studied Freud’s theories: the title of her book echoes the latter’s study Das Unheimliche (1919), usually translated into English as ‘The Uncanny’.

Though there had been earlier story collections, Uncanny Stories was her first devoted mostly to this field. Some of the stories had appeared in periodicals the year before or earlier.  ‘Where Their Fire is Not Quenched’, about a modern version of hell, desolate and futile, has become an acknowledged classic. In ‘The Flaw in the Crystal’, her protagonist thinks she has discovered a mysterious psychic power, which she uses to help others, but begins to feel it comes at a severe emotional cost.

‘The Finding of the Absolute’ is a blither story. It takes places in heaven, where Mr Spalding is surprised to encounter his wife, and in particular her lover, who had been in mortal life a drug-taker, drunkard and wastrel. But the latter explains he has achieved the celestial state because he was a lover of beauty: this, we infer, is more important than common morality.

Spalding discovers that here he is to create his own personal paradise from thought forms, and sets hesitantly about this through remembering wonderful landscapes, seeing a country with ‘a grace, a harmony of line and colour that gave it an absolute beauty; and over it there lay a serene, unearthly radiance’. Sinclair celebrates here both the transient beauty of our world and the potential of the creative imagination. 

Sinclair was to follow this with a further volume in the field, The Intercessor and Other Stories (1931), in which both the title story and 'The Villa Desiree' in particular explore similar psychological themes to the 1923 volume.

All of her stories have sophistication, subtlety and a sure style, and repay re-reading. Mike Ashley’s recently-issued The Flaw in the Crystal and Other Uncanny Stories (British Library Tales of the Weird, 2023) is a generous selection with an informative introduction, and includes the stories from both these volumes, and others.

(Mark Valentine)

Image: Barter Books, Alnwick

1 comment:

  1. Wordsworth published a nice reprint of Uncanny Stories under their Tales of Mystery & the Supernatural series as well, which includes The Intercessor.