Writing the Uncanny

I saw a ghost, once. A friend in Edinburgh wants me to tell him all about it, but I’m not sure I can. The last time I tried that, talking to other friends in an arty professional flat in Stockbridge, and forgetting to psychologise the psychic, a big black cat jumped through the window and scared the living daylights out of them. I’d presumed the cat was theirs – and I’d forgotten that White British rationalist urbanites don’t believe in ghosts. At least not officially.

I’m White too and, though I prefer more rural locations, I’ve also lived in cities. But I’m allowed to believe in the spectral side of life for two reasons: I’m religious and I’m a writer. The Bruno Benedetti Mysteries make some mention of both monotheist and polytheist faiths and of Buddhism – which, arguably, is neither. But, as well as the relationships and adventures of a group of friends, they mostly dwell on the uncanny.

It’s a difficult subject to write about without being constrained by genre expectations: if you write about vaguely angelic inspiration, it’s Inspirational; if the focus is on getting what you deserve from The Universe, it’s New Age; if evil spirits are involved it’s either Evangelical Christian or Occult (some would say they’re the same thing); if it’s girlpower with candles and pentacles, it’s Wicca; fairies, it’s Folklore; dragons is Fantasy; and teen wizardry is (now) a knock-off of a certain very successful series of books and films.

Andre Norton, usually classified as a Science Fiction & Fantasy writer, has a character with the gift of Unasked Sight. My grandmother’s first language was Scottish Gaelic and I grew up familiar with this kind of (Second) Sight that is a well-known and rarely-mentioned phenomenon in the Gàidhealtach, even in its lowland diaspora. The immediacy, urgency and evidential impossibility of this gift make it a good topic for a storyteller and it continually disrupts the otherwise ordered existence of my protagonist.

But I didn’t want to transport Bruno to another realm. I wasn’t interested in my characters going through some portal (a wardrobe or a wall in a train station) from a presumed central location of unproblematic normality (such as the English shires surrounding London, or the city itself) or inhabiting a place in a parallel universe (such as another Oxford or alternative Southern California) where vampires and werewolves and witches exist among us – unseen by those without the power or the courage to discern their existence.

I’m interested in the uncanny as experienced, today, in Scotland. Rarely-mentioned and well-known. With this, reserved, attitude, the Scottish culture of the uncanny occupies a middle place between the cool Anglo-Saxon scepticism of the English (so, no, I don’t include the Cornish, the Cumbrian or the Manx) and the entertaining self-conscious blarney of the Irish.

Narration in the first person is the literary equivalent of the hand-held camera. There are no panoramic establishing shots, instant cuts to another simultaneous location or smooth travelling transitions but, as well as the already-limited point-of-view of the protagonist, writing (almost exclusively) this way enables me to use the altered perspectives of anxiety, dream, drugs, drunkenness, euphoria, hypnosis, memory, sadness, tiredness, trance and vision. So there are already many explanations of the phenomena experienced by the characters. I feel it’s important not to force the reader into accepting a particular one.

This last point, I will admit, I got from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Always give them the ‘gas leak’ explanation. Otherwise they may either feel manipulated – or simply assume that, whatever world you’re writing about, it isn’t this one. So, when I write about the vibes or astrology or tarot, this form of non-local perception or mnemonic sequencing can be interpreted as coincidence, or an individual’s free-floating anxiety; telekinesis or spectral/ elemental phenomena witnessed by more than one person can similarly be dismissed as mass hysteria – if enough pressure is on the group at that time.

Even if such explanations are too far-fetched, the indulgent rationalist, if suitably entertained rather than preached at, will read the uncanny as magical realism – transported from its presumed home in steamy Latin America (even though the maestra of this genre, Isabel Allende, has written many of her novels while living in the USA) to rainy Scotland. Reading the adventures of Bruno and his friends might not result in seeing fairies at the bottom of the garden (especially if it’s raining) but it might make the reader wonder whether there are more things in heaven and earth than have ever entered into their rationalist religion or philosophy.

Tricks of the Mind, by Alan Ahrens-McManus, is free on Smashwords (where the whole series is available in various eBook formats) and – like The Lovers, Shades of the Sun, Qismet, Tìr nam Bàn and Transits of Terror – is also in print and Kindle on Amazon and other online retailers.  The Marrying Maiden, seventh in the series, should be out in September.

Pixie hat

Photo, Pixie hat in garden, ©Alan McManus, 2019. Use permitted with link to this post.  



‘Sister Act’ at Cumbernauld Theatre

Catherine MacKenzie gave us a wonderfully brassy brunette Deloris Van Cartier in Cumbernauld Musical Theatre’s production of Sister Act this week; she sashayed about the stage and belted out those numbers like a pro. So Julie Cassells had a challenge in playing Mother Superior: too strict and she’d lose the sympathy of the audience; too laid-back and she’d lose her authority over the nuns. It was a challenge she rose to admirably and her compassion, her fear and her vulnerability came through especially as she sung her moving confession: I Haven’t got a Prayer.

‘But to sing is to pray twice’, as St Augustine of Hippo reminds us, and from the moment Iain Fraser the Front of House Manager (presumably) asked us to turn off our mobile phones and added “can I have an AMEN?” we were all down with Jesus – and up on our feet to give a well-deserved standing ovation at the end.

Indeed the singing was wonderful (slightly muffled sometimes by the volume of the music in the first half, it’s true) with the very well-cast holy trio of Srs M. Robert, Patrick & Lazarus (Christine Duncan, Amanda Letarte & Marie Jo McCrossan) in hilarious character counterpoint.

The unholy trio of crooks, Joey, TJ & Pablo (Alan Brown, Christopher Costello & Gerard Kane) had us in stitches with their ‘what women want’ scene as they each in turn tried out the effect of their varied manly attractions on the audience in the fond hope of seducing the Sisters.

Special commendation to Gerard Kane for his word-perfect Spanish which he confessed afterwards he didn’t speak before rehearsals and basically just took at run at it. Similarly to the Sisters for their chanted and sung Latin. My Mum can remember the Latin Mass and we didn’t hear a wrong word.

Yes, on the Catholic side, there were the usual tiny costume errors. Only dedicated followers of Madonna hang rosaries round their necks rather than from their belts (and not from the end of the cord, which should have three knots in it, either) and the priest’s garment over his soutane was more Southern Baptist choir than RC cotta or chasuble. However Jan Letarte’s concept of the colourful cascading scapula for the Sisters was inspired and I liked the kitten heels too – apparently plain black shoes but with that little bit of sass for dancing in.

David Campbell’s Curtis Jackson (erstwhile beau of Dolores) was nicely nasty (and has a great voice) and Andrew Davidson’s Monsignor O’Hara played up the pragmatic priest even more than in the movie – which in these days of failing parishes is very topical – and added more complications to the peace of the convent than those brought by Dolores at the insistence of Lt. Eddie Souther. Keiran Butler brought his handsome burly charm to this part, which was expected from the movie, what took me by surprise was the poignant scene of hopeless homeless people shuffle-dancing around him as he was painfully aware of his inadequacy to help them all.

But help there was aplenty in this production and all the supporting parts did their bit very well indeed – and evidently enjoyed it!

Full marks to Producer Fraser Morrison, Musical Director Ian Monteith-Mathie and Choreographer Amanda Letarte (also onstage) also to the orchestra, and Stage Crew under Frank Kerr. I especially noted the elegance of the Sisters simply processing on and off with benches, and the communal table being left to our imagination. Other points I admired were Kieran Fitzpatrick’s timing of the radio (on and off several times) to the split-second, and Chris Combe’s evocative use of lighting when Dolores is pulled between the siren voices of the goodtime girls and the nun’s chorus. At one point her face turns green (okay I did think of Wicked momentarily) but it made me wonder about envy and the pursuit of happiness.

Last but not least, Front of House staff! My mother is ages with the Queen and I was touched by the kind consideration of the ushers, and being able to pre-order interval drinks was really helpful too. Thank-you Cumbernauld Musical Theatre and thank-you Cumbernauld Theatre for a really enjoyable evening out!


(Image from Cumbernauld Theatre website)