The Uncanny

by Chris Jackson

In honor of the generalissimo in the woods, here's a Civil War post, sort of. One of my favorite writers is Victor LaValle, who you should all read if you can—his recent novel BIG MACHINE, about the search for God and monsters in Queens, Oakland, and Utica, New York, just won an American Book Award, and his previous novel, THE ECSTATIC, narrated by a morbidly obese schizophrenic trying to save the virtue of his family (but really fucking things up instead), is funny and merciless, but still remarkably moving (okay, full disclosure: I'm his editor! But I loved him before I ever edited him—from the moment I read the first story in his debut, a short-story collection called SLAPBOXING WITH JESUS—so I think of myself as a fan first).

He wrote a piece in The Nation last month, sort of a manifesto for what he calls the "literature of the uncanny," that makes the case that our uncanny age demands literature that sees beyond the real and the probable and gets to the truth, which, these days, is rarely "real" or probable. Oddly enough for a manifesto about contemporary lit, the central subject of Vic's essay is Ambrose Bierce, whose famous Devil's Dictionary defined realism as "the art of depicting nature as seen by toads." I'm bringing this up here because Bierce was a Civil War vet and his fiction—at least as captured in Vic's essay—presents the Civil War as a horror movie (a horror play, I guess, to avoid anachronism) as a way of capturing the truth of his experience of it. In this scene from the story "Chickamauga," a small boy wanders from his home into the forest and comes across wounded soldiers fleeing the battlefield:

They were men. They crept upon their hands and knees. They used their hands only, dragging their legs. They used their knees only, their arms hanging idle at their sides. They strove to rise to their feet, but fell prone in the attempt. They did nothing naturally, and nothing alike, save only to advance foot by foot in the same direction. Singly, in pairs and in little groups, they came on through the gloom, some halting now and again while others crept slowly past them, then resuming their movement. They came by dozens and by hundreds; as far on either hand as one could see in the deepening gloom they extended and the black wood behind them appeared to be inexhaustible. The very ground seemed in motion toward the creek. Occasionally one who had paused did not again go on, but lay motionless. He was dead. Some, pausing, made strange gestures with their hands, erected their arms and lowered them again, clasped their heads; spread their palms upward, as men are sometimes seen to do in public prayer.

I just love that scene. Anyway, check out the essay and then check out some Bierce (probably a free download for you Kindlers!), especially if you're interested in an uncanny, imaginative angle into the Civil War.


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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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