The Uncanny: Joanna Pearson’s EVERY HUMAN LOVE
By Nick Fuller Googins •
Snooping through my father’s desk at age twelve, I discovered a bundle of papers related to our very old house. Within this bundle was a photocopy of a newspaper article from the 1800s, which informed me that a woman had been murdered in our living room, her skull “cleaved” with an axe in front of the fireplace, as the article phrased it. The murder took place a century before my family moved in to hang stockings at that same fireplace, but no amount of time could change what I’d uncovered: my childhood home was, most likely, haunted. And sure enough, over the years, strange things happened.
The radio turned on suddenly, volume climbing, static hissing.
The dogs woke at two a.m. running up and down the stairs, whining and barking.
The sounds of a lively dinner party floated in from the thick marsh behind the garage.
These occurrences always happened when I was alone—my folks out of town, my grandfather deep asleep, my brother at some party—which only made it all the scarier, because I was sure I’d heard what I’d heard, and seen what I’d seen…but what if I hadn’t?
Uncertainty is a hallmark of the “uncanny” experience, and one that Joanna Pearson expertly threads through her eerie debut collection, Every Human Love, which strikes every note in the deep minor chord that is good uncanny fiction.
The uncanny, to be clear, is not horror. Horror is the nightmare. The uncanny is that creepy liminal state before the nightmare, that place where the familiar and unfamiliar blur, where a growing sense of unease invades us and reality wobbles on its axis. The Turn of the Screw is a classic example: is the Governess crazy, or do the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel truly exist? Bad things are going to happen at the country home in Essex either way, and until they do, the uncertainty is the suspense. The uncanny therefore requires a lighter touch than horror, making it difficult to execute, but when well-crafted, as Pearson’s Every Human Love is, the uncanny scares in the most subtle, delightful way possible.
The collection’s fourth story, “Rumpelstiltskin,” best demonstrates Pearson’s craft in layering elements of the uncanny into a slow-burning suspense that pays off. The story follows Bree, a young woman who wants a baby but cannot conceive. Bree and her husband have spent ungodly sums on every possible treatment, all to no effect. Enter Bree’s friend, Lisa, who had similar troubles conceiving—until suddenly she didn’t. Lisa can’t explain how she finally succeeded in having a baby, she isn’t allowed to explain, she says, but she can give Bree a phone number—if Bree is interested?
Lisa looked apologetic, but Bree merely nodded. She would call. She would do anything. Make every bargain, give up what she had to give up, sell what she had to sell.
Let’s pause here to give Pearson a high-five for setup: Bree is a regular suburban mother—a reliable narrator if ever there was one. Other narrators in Every Human Love include professors, graduate students, psychiatric doctors, and more suburban moms, nearly of all them upper-middle-class professionals, which make very good narrators of uncanny fiction. Why is this? Let’s call it implicit bias, causing us to more easily trust the accounts of these well-off, reliable people from well-off, reliable neighborhoods. We are so willing to follow Bree into the uncanny that by the time we realize where Pearson has taken us, it will be all but too late.
After Lisa gives Bree the mysterious phone number, the story continues along the loose narrative pattern that is characteristic to Every Human Love: our reliable narrator is sent into a setting of squalor, where he or she must confront the grotesque. Sometimes the squalor is urban (needle-strewn alleyways, dimly lit wings of psychiatric hospitals) but more often Pearson takes a page from Flannery O’Conner and takes us to the gothic countryside. Gone is the city, replaced by “[s]ad, slumping houses with No Trespassing signs, skinny dogs tied to stakes,” or a “wooden stretch of rural highway” where the “kudzu and scrub pines” have a “haunted feeling.”
This is exactly where Bree finds herself after calling the number: a twenty-minute drive outside the city brings her to a run-down house with a sagging roof and a battered couch in the yard. The house is filled with junk, cats, and dirty, half-naked children, one of whom takes Bree to meet Yvonne, the woman who helped Lisa conceive. Yvonne promises the same for Bree, but Bree is no longer so sure:
The room was hot, the air stagnant, and Bree felt queasy. She began to second-guess her decision to come here. Maybe she’d found the limits of what she was prepared to do.
Here is where we expect something terrible to happen, and in a horror story, it might. But this is the uncanny, remember, and Pearson works her craft to draw out the suspense; Bree’s meeting with Yvonne goes smoothly, even suspiciously so: Bree writes a check and waits for “some potion or poison” in return. Instead, Yvonne simply chuckles and says, “It’s already in motion. Whether you like it or not.”
What is in motion?
We don’t know, and neither does Bree. This represents our first real dip into the uncanny, and right on cue, Bree immediately experiences a tremor that something is not right. Suddenly, she realizes, there are so many children around Yvonne’s house: “The longer she stood there, the more they seemed to emerge, like camouflaged moths from a patterned background.” Bree is disoriented, bewildered. And then she notices the boy:
Something about the angle of the sun made the boy look deformed and ancient, with a leering old man’s face. He wore a jagged silver chain of sorts around his neck that caught the light, sparkling like knives. He winked knowingly at her—she could have sworn he did—and she turned quickly away. It was nothing. A trick of the sun.
This is scary stuff. This is the uncanny. Yet nothing more happens to Bree at Yvonne’s ramshackle home, and this is because the uncanny works its terrifying magic best within the realm of the familiar. Pearson’s characters, after brushing up against the grotesque, must return to their normal lives, only to discover, with horror, that life might never be normal again.
These flashes of horror happen throughout Every Human Love in the most banal of places—the Walmart, for instance, or the corner café. For Bree, it happens by the avocadoes at the local co-op, where she sees Lisa’s family shopping. At first Bree experiences a pang of jealousy—weeks have passed since she visited Yvonne, with no sign of miraculous conception—but she swallows her envy and walks over to say hello. Lisa is her good friend, after all, and Lisa’s baby Hartley is adorable. But then Bree stops. Something is wrong.
They weren’t speaking, she realized. They wore the silent faces of the stricken, the stunned. Even Baby Hartley. His small mouth hung slack, and though his eyes were open, he seemed only dully unaware of his surroundings…Things were not right. Bree could see it clearly now: a sort of sickness had befallen them. She stared at them, their ordinary faces gone monstrous in the produce section lighting, then backed away.
Lisa’s deal with Yvonne was a curse, and as Bree realizes this, it occurs to her—and us—that the curse must be following her as well. The story has reached peak scare—almost. Bree, in a rush of terror, flees home (the most familiar place of all) only to find a “battered old truck” parked out front, and by this point we almost can’t bear to follow her inside.
Most of Pearson’s stories follow a similar arc to “Rumpelstiltskin,” and although some readers might find that decoding this pattern will dampen tension, other readers (like this reader) will find the opposite to be true. Take for example, another story, “Fox Foot,” which begins with a medical student picking up a hitchhiker on a rural road; it’s a tense setup, sure, but in a predictable sense: in another story we would expect the hitchhiker to be violent or crazy or both. Set within Every Human Love, however, where we are primed for the spooky and uncanny, the scene takes on an extra jolt of suspense. We have to wonder, for instance, is the hitchhiker even real?
The tension in Pearson’s stories—like the uncanny itself—is born from the unknown, shocking with a soft but persistent buzz. She has succeeded in knitting a dreamlike world in which the settings and characters are realistic, but the possibilities are endless, making the tight control of her narrative structure both necessary and utterly enjoyable.
Every Human Love, by Joanna Pearson, is out this month from Acre Books
NICK FULLER GOOGINS’s fiction has been read on NPR’s All Things Considered, and has appeared in The Paris Review, The Southern Review, Ecotone, and elsewhere. He is a graduate of the Rutgers-Newark MFA program and recipient of a fellowship at the Hawthornden Castle International Retreat for Writers, which is definitely not haunted. He lives some of the time in LA and some of the time in Maine. He is a proud member of the Sunrise Movement, fighting for a Green New Deal and an end to the climate crisis.