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You are here: Home > Writing in Education > Writing at University > Writing in Practice > Previous Issues > Vol. 5 > “Small Objects” (short story) with accompanying commentary “Are you reading uncomfortably? Second person as an uncanny narrative mode”
“Small Objects” (short story) with accompanying commentary “Are you reading uncomfortably? Second person as an uncanny narrative mode”
Author: Jane Alexander
Jane Alexander uses the second person to critically reflect on writing a short story in the same mode.


By submitting a short story with critical-reflexive commentary, both of which are written in the second person, this article performs and illuminates some of the specific ways in which second-person narration lends itself to the creation of uncanny affect. The story, “Small Objects”, was composed as part of a doctoral thesis investigating the ways in which short fiction may be a particularly appropriate form for illuminating and interrogating contemporary experiences of science and technology through the creation of uncanny affect. The accompanying commentary locates this story in a practice research context, reflecting on its composition in relation to definitions of the uncanny, and second-person narration in short stories by China Miéville, Nicholas Royle and Ali Smith; it extends existing narratological theory to demonstrate that second person is a particularly uncanny narrative mode, and indicates that the capacity of second-person narration to capture a shifting sense of intimacy and distance may make it an especially useful mode for writing reflexive commentary.


Keywords: uncanny, short fiction, short story, second-person narration, practice research


Small Objects

You will find them stashed in a shoebox, padded round with crumpled newspaper pages; each the size of a cricket ball, and an awkward shape to wrap. Instead, your father will have written your names on scraps of paper, taped one to the curved surface of each memory.

This will be your inheritance. What money there is, after several years of residential care, to be split between you and your brother. Your dad’s belongings to be shared likewise, those few things he kept when the house was sold – about which you and your brother will be polite, each careful of what the other might want: your father’s favourite chair, some books, the framed print that used to hang in your parents’ bedroom. And for each of you, the most personal thing: a memory of your father’s. One chosen for you, and one for your brother. 

Beyond your names in your dad’s writing, the memories will be unlabelled. By the morning of the funeral you’ll have had yours almost a week, but you won’t have played it yet. Your brother, having flown in just the day before, will not have played his either. It’s too much, right now, you will say to each other. You’ll wait until later, till the time feels right, that’s what you’ll both agree. You will be happy to see your brother, and at the same time swamped by a sadness that’s distinct from your grief. Too many years since you were last together, and an unknown number till you’ll see him again. There will be no more funerals, not like this one. Weddings – you’ll hope for several of those, of children, perhaps even grandchildren; but the next time you’re both at a funeral, it’s bound to be one of you packed in the box.

You will keep the memory on the mantelpiece while you wait for the time to be right. You will pick it up often, turn it in your hands; it will feel light and smooth, slipping neatly into the curve of your palm. Then one morning, a couple of months after you buried your father, it will occur to you that you’re forgetting his voice, its tone and its rhythm. You will take the memory, tap it with your finger, listen to the hollow sound it makes. Run your thumb along the seam, and wonder if now is the later you and your brother talked about. You were at your dad’s bedside when he died; you held his hand, paper-light in yours. If there was anything he wanted to tell you, that was his chance. You should not expect his memory to be a message from him to you. But out of his whole long life, this is what he wanted you to have. It could be a memory of your mother – or of you as a child, as a baby. The first moment he saw you newborn, held you, fell in love with you. The time you played the violin solo in the school gym at the end-of-year concert. A snapshot from a family holiday, Cornwall or France. 

 Not yet. You’ll replace the memory, beside the photos of him and your mum: their wedding day, and yours; their anniversaries, silver and gold.


 You and your brother will keep in touch, as you always have – presents for the kids at Christmas and on birthdays, phone calls three or four times a year. Each time you speak, one or other of you will ask: have you played yours, yet? The answer will always be no – until one day it won’t be. The time he’ll tell you yes.

Behind your breastbone, the questions will push. You will want to know what it is, the memory your father left for him; whether it has a special meaning, and how it makes him feel. But in the pause before your brother’s yes, you will sense a forcefield of silence. You will think of your own memory, sealed away on the mantelpiece. How private it feels.

Instead, you will ask him how he knew the time was right. You’ll imagine his shrug travelling halfway across the world to perform itself for you. He just knew. One day he picked his memory up, and knew he was ready.

Though you’ve always thought you were close enough, the two of you, you will find yourself unable to press for the details you want. Over on the mantelpiece, your own memory will catch the light.  


You’ll be on your way to work when it happens. It won’t be a significant date, not an anniversary of your father’s death or his birthday, and not your own birthday, but it will be the right day. You will make a loop at the next roundabout, drive back the way you came, and it will feel as though your body has made the decision, or that the decision has been made for you. That all you are doing is carrying out the necessary actions.

You will let yourself into an empty house, and in the unaccustomed silence you will sit – rather formally – in the chair that used to be your father’s, that you chose for the way it had moulded itself over the years to the shape of his body. You will close your eyes, and open the memory.


Afterwards, you will stay seated for a few minutes longer; imagine your dad’s weight creaking his chair, his shoulder blades pushing into its back. You will turn your face sideways, press your cheek against the textured fabric. Inhale, and imagine you’re drawing in a trace of his smell. 

You could call your brother. Ask if he understands the memory he’s been given. But you’ll worry he might tell you yes. Might ask the same question of you.

You will be uncertain which way round it is with you and your father: who has disappointed whom.


The memory will become an ornament on the mantelpiece, something you stop seeing. You will lift it when you dust, whenever visitors are expected; you’ll coddle it in the dusting cloth, polish it gently, thinking sometimes of your father and sometimes of how much work there is to do before the house is fit for company. Then you’ll move on to wipe the glass of the photographs beside it.

It will live there quietly until the time you find the kids tossing it back and forth in a game of catch. You won’t mean to shout so fiercely, but when they’re shocked into tears you will not comfort them. You will grab the memory, carry it upstairs and hide it away in your bedside table, where it will roll to the back of the drawer behind books and pens and earplugs and tissues and tablets.

Years will slip past; you will find yourself alone more often in the house. There will be days of wandering from kitchen to living room, from one bedroom to another – and one evening in early autumn, when everyone else is somewhere else, you will open the bedside drawer and reach for the memory.

You will carry it in the cup of your hands, downstairs to where you’ll settle in the chair that replaced your father’s once the cat had shredded the fabric beyond repair and the arms had worn to stuffing and wood. With the sun falling slantwise through the window, gilding and holding the floating dust, you’ll close your eyes and                                                                                         

                                                                                                                  remember the way it was, a day compressed to a moment. You had climbed the hill halfway, turned and stopped and sat cross-legged, dry grass flattened warm straw-smelling, blades tickling your ankles. It was summer, but still early, and all the hours you sat there the sun shone, burning your skin at the neck, the wrists, the ankles. You were with friends, without speaking, in the presence of the city: a scoop of parkland dotted with families, streets hazing into the distance, hills shimmering against the sky and everything ready to start. You did not know the shape of the life that was waiting, but it stretched itself out in the city, in streets and hills and sky all ready for you to step into – and for the moment of that day you sat brimful of watching, and did not step. Hours were minutes. The sun painted freckles on your face.


Once it’s over, you will open your eyes and blink in the late sharp-angled light. Any moment, the sun will shift in the sky and the drifting glitter will vanish into dust; if you sit here long enough, you will press the shape of your body into this chair. You are not as strong as you were when you were young, but even so the memory will feel weightier than you remember: a smaller object, more densely packed. If you tap it with your finger, it will make a full-up sound.

If somebody asks you, now – if your brother ever asks – you will tell the truth. That you don’t know what it means, or why your father chose this day for you. You don’t know if he thought you would understand. But if anyone asks how it makes you feel, you will tell them you’re ready: to open your mouth like a snake, and swallow small objects whole.


Are you reading uncomfortably? Second person as an uncanny narrative

“the ‘you’, after all, may not finally stop short of you, the reader.” (Bennett and Royle 2004: 260-1)

The second person keeps knocking on your door, demanding to be let in. You recognize its insistence when, reviewing the first five stories of the 15 you will eventually write for the collection of uncanny short fiction that comprises the creative element of your practice research thesis, you realize the second person is present in each one. But each time it feels like a different choice, a set of subtly different narrative strategies deployed in different ways so as to contribute to the creation of uncanny affect: to disturb the familiar; to destabilize a fixed sense of self; to blur the borders between what’s “real” and what’s “not-real”.

You use it to create readerly complicity in a story about surveillance, voyeurism and free will; to set up a complex relationship of intimacy and distance in a story about communications technology; to play with ideas of doubled identity in a story about cloning; to haunt a text about the virtual reconstruction of a destroyed city; to draw the reader into a circle of empathy in a story of human-animal relationships. Your choices are informed by the ways in which other writers of uncanny short stories – Ali Smith, China Miéville, Nicholas Royle – use the second person to unsettling effect. By stories like Smith’s “being quick” (2003), which pivots on a point of view switch where “you” becomes “I” and disrupts readerly identification with a narrator whose routine commute is disrupted by the sudden appearance of Death on the station concourse. Like Miéville’s “The Design” (2015), where an epistolary “you” emerges in the final line of the story to conjure a reading or listening presence that’s simultaneously absent; a ghost retrospectively haunting a text that encompasses dissection, bodysnatching and medical impossibilities. And like Royle’s “The Dummy” (Eyre and Page 2008), a story of infidelity, marital breakdown and the implication of a terrible crime, in which the second-person narration distances the narrator from his actions, and dissociates him from his sense of self.

All the while, as you read and write, you’re interrogating what it means to set out with the intent to write a collection of uncanny short fiction; in particular, what it means to work with a concept that's as notoriously slippery as the uncanny, and an affect that's acknowledged as being highly subjective. Uncanniness has, after all, from its earliest conception had to do with feeling: Ernst Jentsch refers to “a feeling of unease” (12), Freud to the “affective nucleus” of the uncanny (123), while for critic Nicholas Royle the uncanny “involves feelings of uncertainty”, and “a feeling of uncanniness may come from curious coincidences” (1). More, it has to do with a peculiarly in-between kind of feeling that is hard to pin down. Samuel Weber situates the uncanny thus on a spectrum of related emotions: “it is not simply a form of anxiety, but is located between dread, terror and panic on the one side, and uneasiness and anticipation on the other” (1973: 1131-2); and a striking characteristic of critical texts about the uncanny is the emphasis placed on its elusive (Bernstein 2003: 1129), unstable (Gunning 2008: 83), evanescent (Plank 1973: 73) and overflowing (Royle 2003: 19) qualities. The literary uncanny, therefore, is an evasive mode, dependent on the response of the reading subject.

Still, for Jentsch – although “the same impression does not necessarily exert an uncanny effect on everybody”, and “the same perception on the part of the same individual does not necessarily develop into the ‘uncanny’ every time, or at least not every time in the same way” (8) – there is enough commonality of experience “for a certain psycho-physiological group” that it should still be possible to arrive at a working definition that sets out not what the uncanny is, but how it operates as a psychological effect and what the conditions are that lead to its emergence.

To define the uncanny can’t really be done, he says in effect; but in order to speak about it, we must nevertheless try to define it as best we can. You follow his lead – drawing on your reading of those contemporary uncanny short stories that most unsettle you (and which fall closer to Weber’s unease and anticipation than his panic and dread; are characterized by the “trembling of what remains undecidable” (2003: 52) that Royle argues is essential to uncanny experience) as well as your critical reading and the evidence of your own emerging stories to sketch out and refine a working definition of the uncanny as a literary mode. A checklist, necessarily subjective, of three attributes that can be said to characterize uncanny short fiction.

1) The story should destabilize assumptions of identity, or of the nature of what is being experienced.

“Uncanny is the word always falling away from itself into its opposite, yet affirming itself in doing so. ... Like a ghost, it ‘is’ and ‘is not.’ The opposition between subject and object also falls away with the erosion of the structure of identity; subject and predicate can no longer keep their boundaries intact” (Bernstein 2003: 1113). This troubling of identity is an effect that’s integral to the status of the uncanny as a word and concept that contains its opposite and destabilizes itself, so that, as Bernstein has it, “the uncanny functions as a critique of identity” (1112).

2) The story should unsettle distinctions between the familiar and the strange.

“It can take the form of something familiar unexpectedly arising in a strange and unfamiliar context, or of something strange and unfamiliar arising in a familiar context. It can consist in a sense of homeliness uprooted, the revelation of something unhomely at the heart of hearth and home” (Royle 2003: 1). The familiar made strange is that specific form of unease associated with the uncanny. It encompasses Freud’s notion of the return of the repressed, experiences of disturbed domesticity, psychological invasions, and Friedrich Schelling’s notion of the uncanny as “everything that was meant to remain secret and hidden and has come into the open” (Freud 2003: 132). “It disturbs any straightforward sense of what is within and what without, and alerts us to the ‘foreign body’ within us. Or worse, makes us regard ourselves as a foreign body, a stranger” (Eyre and Page 2008: x).

3) The story should create cognitive uncertainty for the reader.

“The uncanny is ‘disquieting’ only to the extent that it entails ‘uncertainty’” (Royle 2003: 34 n62). The uncertainty associated with the uncanny is often about the extent to which an occurrence or phenomenon is real or not-real, and is connected to the destabilising of assumptions – but what’s critical is that this uncertainty is a phenomenon that affects not just a story’s protagonist, but its reader. In order for the reader to experience, not just recognize, the unease associated with the uncanny, they should be in uncertainties; for instance, hesitating as to whether a haunting should be explained as a supernatural or psychological event.

These are the qualities you’re alert to as a reader and which, when they occur together in a text, spark in you a frisson of uncanny sensation. This is the checklist you measure your own stories against, as you continue to write.

As you accumulate material – from a handful of stories to a dozen and more – increasingly you are seeking to avoid the predictable, and to set the ground shifting beneath the reader’s feet. Though repetition is one of Freud’s uncanny tropes, consciously you avoid further repetitions of the second person. Still, it returns: in the scraps and notes of your very first drafts; in the distilled, experimental text of “Small Objects”, a story concerned with “the that that is unsaid but somehow manages to be said” (Rohrberger 1989: 43), in which uncanny affect is created at least as much by the conditional second person narrative mode as by the dramatic action. In this way, the evidence accumulates, in the processes and the products of your practice research, to suggest there is something fundamentally uncanny about the second person, and second-person narration.

Just as the uncanny is acknowledged as a phenomenon that escapes definition, there is no clear critical consensus on what constitutes second-person narration. Matt DelConte cites the Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms as defining second-person narration as a narrative in which “the narrator addresses a ‘you’” (DelConte 2003: 206), along with definitions from Brian Richardson and Monika Fludernik who agree that in second-person narration the narratee is often also the protagonist, and from Gerald Prince who asserts that this coincidence of protagonist and narratee must always be the case (206) – a view DelConte also holds (207).

The “you” of second person, as outlined by Fludernik, includes but is not limited to: the you that we all understand as a version of I; the you one recognizes as a generalized second person; and the you that merges with you, the reader. Not limited, because categories of narrator, narratee, reader and protagonist shift and overlap; the “you” often slips and shifts within a text in a way that makes its definition “problematic” (Fludernik 1994: 284). (Problematic: it’s almost as though the authors of these fictions don’t want their work to be neatly categorized.) The very essence of second-person narration, Richardson concurs, is “to eschew a fixed essence” (Richardson 2006: 19). Though this makes everything more difficult, it also pleases you – because just like the uncanny itself, second-person narration appears to be something that evades definition, that destabilizes itself. Beautifully, Helmut Bonheim calls this slippage the “referential slither” (Fludernik 1994: 286).

For Brian McHale, the second person is a “shifter”, a pronoun “whose reference changes with every change of speaker in a discourse situation: every reader is potentially you, the addressee of the novelistic discourse” (McHale 2004: 223). This shifty mode is uncanny in its capacity to blur the divide between reality and fiction, so that a “gap [is] opened in the discourse” (224) between extratextual reader and reader-as-character that “uncannily straddles the ontological divide between the reader’s real world and the text’s fictional world” (225). It’s uncanny too in its ability to gesture towards the reader even when it signifies a displaced first-person internal dialogue or third-person free indirect style. Always, McHale observes, “you retains a connotation of the vocative, of direct appeal to the reader, which imparts to these texts a slightly uncanny aura” (223-4). The second person, he seems to say, may not always be used in a way that chiefly provokes uncanny affect (it may be used instead to primarily playful or confronting effect as in, respectively, Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller or Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist), but it will always lend itself to uncanniness.

McHale’s notions of uncanny gaps and auras can be more fully accounted for by your recognition of a striking overlap between the characteristics of second-person narration and those characteristics set out in your working definition of uncanny short fiction.  

1) It destabilizes assumptions of identity, or of the nature of what is being experienced.

DelConte’s model is of a second-person narration that is always also either first- or third-person (2003: 208) – a doubled narrative mode. Richardson, though, argues that “second person narration is situated between but irreducible to the standard dyads of either first and third person … oscillating irregularly from one pole to another” (2006: 28), a description that more accurately captures its shifty, overlapping effects. So not either / or, but multiple; not a doubled perspective, which would be uncanny enough, but a multiple perspective that resonates with contemporary notions of an uncanny of multiplicity (Punter 2007: 133) – a trope that’s highly specific to our age of limitless virtual identities. 

Identity is not only doubled or multiplied but revealed as unstable by a second-person narration in which, as Darlene Hantzis has it, “the reader … continually places her/himself in and continually displaces her/himself from the ‘you’” (1988: 69), a movement that “generates an alternating pattern of identification and displacement” (4), so the reader must constantly re-orientate themselves, never knowing where they stand. In “Small Objects” you courted precisely that push-and-pull: used biographical detail (“What money there is, after several years of residential care, to be split between you and your brother. Your dad’s belongings to be shared likewise”) to prompt the reader’s resistance to identification with the protagonist’s experience; used the conditional (“You’ll be on your way to work when it happens …You will make a loop at the next roundabout, drive back the way you came, and it will feel as though your body has made the decision, or that the decision has been made for you”) and the sensory, the sensual (“turn your face sideways, press your cheek against the textured fabric. Inhale, and imagine you’re drawing in a trace of his smell”) to insinuate just such an identification.

Richardson too sees second-person narration as inherently unstable, echoing McHale’s view that one of the more unsettling features of second-person narration is its capacity to collapse distinctions between protagonist or narratee, and actual or implied reader – something Richardson argues “threatens the ontological stability of the fictional world insofar as it seems [the you] could be addressing the reader as well as the central character” (2006: 20).

This tendency of second-person narration to trouble a fixed sense of self may be deployed stealthily, as in Miéville’s “A Mount” (2015) – a story, perhaps, of ghostly doubles and a haunted carousel – where the “you” shifts from an unspecified, generalized narratee, to a you that merges the narratee within the story with the you that is surely you-the-reader: “you are forever jerking awake long before dawn with a hammering heart, trying to make sense of some noise you cannot even really remember but that you know is what frightened you awake” (2015: 399); or abruptly, as in Royle’s “The Dummy” where the “you” forces a dizzying viewpoint shift that merges the living with the not-living in a story that ends with a suggested filicide. In one of your own stories, about surveillance, individual agency and complicity, you perform your own version of Royle’s disorientating viewpoint switch and Miéville’s referential slither; a shift from the “you” that is a displaced free indirect style to the “you” that implicates you-the-reader: the “him” that until this point signified the protagonist becomes instead his double, while the second person encompasses both reader and protagonist in another uncanny doubling.      

2) It unsettles distinctions between the familiar and the strange.

Richardson describes how the second-person narrative mode is “especially effective in disclosing the sense of intimate unfamiliarity” (2006: 35) – that essential uncanny quality, the unfamiliar and the familiar intertwined. You recognize this, how the narrative voice asserts its familiarity with you, recounts actions, experiences, perceptions that are not your own, that are perfectly strange to you. The second person, says Richardson, “radically alters the tone of the work and provides a unique speaking situation for the narrator, one that does not occur in natural narratives and consequently one that continually defamiliarizes the narrative act” (28). The narrative “you”, he argues, is thus ideal for recounting dream-like selves, journeys through death and time –something like the journey made in “Small Objects”, a projection of the past into the possible future, with the inheritance of unfamiliar memory from someone intimately familiar seeming to permit a crossing of the border between death and life.

3) It creates cognitive uncertainty for the reader.

Dennis Schofield writes of the “Protean, shape-shifting quality” of the second person, and how it leads to a “deferral of narrative closure …. [and] lack of clarity” (1997: 105) – the “undecidability of interpretation” (109) that finds an echo in the critic Royle’s[i] assertion that the uncanny is that which cannot be explained, disquieting only to the extent that it entails uncertainty (2003: 34 n62). According to McHale, “This strategic shiftiness produces a kind of ‘hovering’ or ‘floating’ you, one in which equivocation is kept alive” (2004: 225). This is particularly the case when the second person is deployed as instruction or combined with future tense, what DelConte describes as a hypothetical or conditional mode (2003: 207). In “Small Objects” you use that conditional mode to diminish resistance to identification (it’s almost possible, after all, that the reader may live to have this experience or something like it) so that as far as possible the protagonist’s acceptance of another’s (hi)story performs itself in the reading experience. At the same time, the location of events in the future gives the narrative the unreliability of prediction or prophecy. And indeed the second person seems to be a doubly uncertain narrative mode, creating ambiguity not only around who is speaking, but, as DelConte suggests (2003: 204), around who is listening.

Listening, or watching. Do you feel observed? Do you feel the urge to glance over your shoulder, or block the dark eye of your webcam? Who is listening, across that uncanny gap in the discourse? 


The question of who is watching / listening is played out in Ali Smith’s “Blank card” (2000). The narrator makes love to a homodiegetic “you” in “a brilliant performance” (43), for an audience that may be real or imagined; in her mind’s eye she sees herself being watched; she acts, and watches herself acting (“there I was, watching myself open my eyes” (45)); she becomes her own stalker before acting the role of her lover’s stalker. Observer and observed are reflected back and forth; roles of lover, performer, voyeur, stalker shift and overlap until all identities and relationships are uncertain: “I wondered if the you you believed you were talking to on the phone was definitely me after all” (48).

The second person is integral to the uncanniness of this narrative, even though it doesn’t involve the coincidence of protagonist / narratee that narratologists tend to agree constitutes second-person narration proper. In several of your stories, too, “improper” or conversational deployments of the second person – epistolary second person and second-person address to an absent (dead) listener – contribute to uncanny affect: in one, an “oscillation” or “referential slither” between homodiegetic addressee and connoted extratextual reader fleetingly merges living reader with dead character; in a second, an uncanny doubling extends, through the invitation to remember a shared experience, to encompass the reader.

In Smith’s second person stories a conversational mode is usual; in Other Stories and Other Stories (2000) her use of the second person is frequently of this type, a first-person narrator recounting a story to a “you” who is the narrator’s lover. These intimate acts of storytelling set up relationships of warmth and tenderness, seemingly antithetical to the uncertainties and disturbances of uncanny fiction. In The Whole Story and Other Stories (2003), Smith deploys the same kind of homodiegetic second person to stage dialogues between lovers: in “being quick”, “may” and “the start of things” the story pivots; you becomes I, assumes the right to reply. The authority of the storyteller is shared along with the stories, and both voices are heard within a narrative structure of equality and equilibrium that might seem, again, to exist in opposition to the destabilising effects of the uncanny. Highlighting these qualities, Emma Smith writes that “the second person for Ali Smith is less about drawing the reader into a play of dis/identification than about reconstructing the narrative situation as a site of intimacy and intersubjectivity” (2008: 126).

But what happens at that moment of pivot? Since (per McHale) “every reader is potentially you, the addressee of the novelistic discourse”, that hinge-and switch of the story undermines any certainty of your position in relation to the text, of identification with character. The story reflects back on itself, an altered perspective, the same but different: the familiar becomes strange. One half of the story, inevitably, comes first. That primary voice persists past the handover to a second narrator / protagonist, haunting the voice of that second person.

That same connotation of the vocative positions you uncomfortably in relation to the lovers, both participant and voyeur. In stories like “God’s gift” you are addressed with intimate familiarity by a narrator who is a stranger to you. “There are so many things that you don’t know about me now” the narrator tells you (Smith 2000: 3), and you think: who are you? And then: who am I?


You remember when you began to write, when your material was still raw and personal, how the second person made the whole business safer: more comfortable, less revealing. Even when you were your only reader (who is listening?) it offered an illusory, protective distance. You watched yourself, like an out-of-body experience, but still you felt each action, emotion, perception you committed to the page. You were three-in-one: protagonist and reader and addressee. It occurs to you now that perhaps a whole reflexive exegesis ought to be written in the second person, since it captures something of the shifting relationship you have with the work as you make it – the shifts and overlaps along a spectrum that runs between instinct (which feels like intimacy) and analysis (which feels like distance). 


The second person continues to knock. Repeatedly, it appears in your drafts. Carefully, you make changes, switching you to she, he, I. You are wary of defaulting to a fading formula, fear that over-use will rob the second person of its insinuating, destabilising quality – so you keep the door closed, to hold open that uncanny gap into which the reader can slip.


[i] Uncannily, there are two Nicholas Royles, both authors whose work is concerned with explorations of the uncanny. In this essay, they are distinguished in the reference and bibliography lists by the inclusion of their birth years in brackets. 



Bennett, A. and Royle, N. (b. 1957) (2004) Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory. 3rd edn. Harlow: Pearson. Bernstein, Susan (2003) “It Walks: The Ambulatory Uncanny” in Modern Language Notes 118 (5), 1111-1139.

Calvino, I. (1979) If On A Winter's Night A Traveller. Reprint, London: Vintage, 1998.

DelConte, M. (2003) “Why You Can't Speak: Second-Person Narration, Voice, and a New Model for Understanding Narrative” in Style, 37 (2), 204-219.

Eyre, S. and Page, R. (eds) (2008) The New Uncanny: Tales of Unease. Manchester: Comma Press.

Fludernik, M. (1994) “Introduction: Second Person Narrative and Related Issues” in Style,28(3), 281-311.

Freud, S. (2003 [1919]) “The Uncanny” in The Uncanny. Translated by David McLintock. London: Penguin, 121-161.

Gunning, T. (2008) “Uncanny Reflections, Modern Illusions: Sighting the Modern Optical Uncanny” in Collins, Jo and Jervis, John (eds.) Uncanny Modernity: Cultural Theories, Modern Anxieties. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 68-90.

Hamid, M. (2007) The Reluctant Fundamentalist. London: Hamish Hamilton.

Hantzis, D.M. (1988) ‘You Are About to Begin Reading’: the Nature and Function of Second Person Point of View in Narrative. Ph.D. thesis. Louisiana State University. Available at: http://digitalcommon [Accessed: 20 May 2015].

Jentsch, E. (1995 [1906]) “On the Psychology of the Uncanny”. Translated by Roy Sellars, in Angelaki 2 (1), pp7-16.

McHale, B. (2004) Postmodern Fiction. London and New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis e-Library.

Miéville, C. (2015) Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories. London: Macmillan.

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Jane Alexander is director of prose fiction on the MSc in Creative Writing by online learning at the University of Edinburgh, and an associate lecturer in creative writing with The Open University. Her first novel The Last Treasure Hunt (Saraband, 2015) was selected as a Waterstones debut of the year, and her short fiction has won prizes and been widely published. She is the recipient of a Scottish Arts Council New Writers Bursary and a Creative Scotland research award, and in 2016 was awarded a Hawthornden International Writing Retreat Fellowship. Jane has recently completed a creative writing PhD at Northumbria University.