A sinister imagination

Nothing to do with left-handedness, I speak of the weird, the uncanny, the odd, off-kilter and pallor-inducing.


There is a talk forthcoming at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on these themes and how they appear with disconcerting vigour in Scottish fiction ‘Horror and Weirdness: A Scottish Peculiarity’, and it has got my mind turning over on the grue and the shiver.


Robert Louis Stevenson gave the world Jekyll and Hyde. Hogg, the terrible demonic (or possibly entirely mental) presence of Gil-Martin in The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. The devil throwing a hootenanny in Burns’ ‘Tam O’ Shanter’. And why not toss James the Sixth’s Daemonologie into the mix – a treatise on witches and witch-hunting from a fanatical believer? In the talk, the matter of the Weird Sisters of the (English-writ) Macbeth will be addressed – though we have in fact plenty witches of our own to think of, alongside the true horror of the many, many executions resulting from a dehumanisation of old women and other outsiders.


Yet more modern works have skeins of darkness running through them – different to the obvious genre trappings of folk orality and sectarianism. Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory brings a body-rooted old magic alive on an island setting. Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon, set in a former prison and insane asylum of watchful Victorian gothic flourish.


There is a profusion, it’s true, in Scottish fiction. Whether more so than in other places seems a little presumptuous to rule upon. But this is a small cloudy country on the fringes of Northern Europe. In winter the dark is in more evidence than the light, and in the dark we may imagine strange figures. Dents in reality. The residue of grim history is all around us. Of violent individuals and former cruelties done. The architecture built on former colonial brutalities and ancient stone walls. The lonely moorlands emptied of inhabitants and left to fallow and mutter to itself. I think it would be impossible for someone of imagination to grow up, for example, in Edinburgh – city of Hume and Boswell, yes, and Burke and Hare and Deacon Brodie and the Plague – without having a slight macabre twist to their psyche.


I think of my own writing, and see this is the case, at any rate. That I see ‘ghosts’ in all these forms of landscapes and cityscapes overlapping, of bodies been gone and going. I don’t have any answers at the moment, on the ifs and whys of Scottish horror and its relatives. But I am very much looking forward to seeing this talk, chaired as it is by Margaret Atwood, and after hope to combine it with this exhibit of ‘Witches and Wicked Bodies‘  for a good double dose of the stuff. Afterwards, I plan to report back here, maybe with greater coherence – if you go to see these, or have a perspective on the fictitiously unsettling either in Scottish fiction or your own, please leave a comment.


A ghost story or two, now that would be a welcome thing.



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3 responses to “A sinister imagination

  1. That talk sounds so exciting. I am so much into “the uncanny.” It was a big part of my studies when I was a grad student. I am disappointed that I can be there for this discussion. I hope you will report back if you end up attending.

    • Well, we should be going, as my Mother in Law very kindly bought tickets. I fully intend to recap things, and hope that they record the event. If they do I’ll link to it here.

  2. That’s fascinating. I need to read more Scottish writing.

    ‘The lonely moorlands emptied of inhabitants and left to fallow and mutter to itself.’ … This line leaves quite a picture in my overactive imagination …

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