The Heimlich and Unheimlich
in Short-Short Fiction

By : William Boast




Click here for a printable version...
Click here for a Printable Version

Yoking the advantages of the familiar in short-short fiction is essential in creating economical fictions. As readers of fiction, we know, however, that a work must contain more than just familiar situations, characters, endings, and settings. A short fiction quickly becomes dull if it doesn't contain possibilities, events, feelings, or characters outside of our everyday experience. We know intuitively that good creative writing almost always contains unexpected or unpredictable elements. Like all other fiction, short-shorts must also have a mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar. Short-short fiction, however, is unique in the extent to which it exaggerates their coexistence.
The familiar, by definition, is easy to recognize and grasp. The unfamiliar, however, tends to defy our attempts to categorize it. We can begin to discuss the unfamiliar, however, by examining what critics of Gothic literature term the "uncanny." In Gothic literature, the "uncanny" is the element of a fiction which creates frightening or disturbing effects. In Freud's essay "The Uncanny," the German words heimlich and unheimlich are related to our English definition of uncanny. Heimlich literally translates as "belonging to the house, not strange, familiar, tame, intimate, friendly" (Freud 222). Unheimlich, its opposite, means "concealed, kept from sight, so that others do not get to know of or about it, withheld from others." While Freud's discussion of the heimlich and unheimlich goes on to complicate these definitions to the point where he demonstrates that heimlich can be virtually identical in meaning to its supposed antonym, his ideas still apply readily to short-short fiction. Freud says of fiction writing: "In the first place, a great deal that is not uncanny in fiction would be so if it happened in real life; and in the second place there are many more means of creating uncanny effects than there are in real life" (Freud 249). How does a fiction writer create an uncanny effect? By adding the unheimlich to his tame, familiar, heimlich fictional world.
Although Freud primarily examines Gothic literature in "The Uncanny," his discussion can be modified to apply to fiction as a whole. In Gothic fiction, the unheimlich produces frightening or repulsive effects. In fiction as a whole, it is an essential ingredient in creating tension. The unheimlich alters the reading pattern. It dislocates the reader, forces him out of the realm of the familiar, and replaces the ability to predict with uncertainty. The writer of fiction can employ the unheimlich, Freud says, because he has the license to "select his world of representation so that it either coincides with the realities we are familiar with or departs from them in what particulars he pleases" (249). Short-short fiction takes advantage of this license to great effect. The genre heightens the conflict between what is unknown, unexpected, or non-native with what is native and familiar.
Lex Willford uses the heimlich and unheimlich in tandem to produce an effective short-short piece in "Pendergast's Daughter," for example. His first two paragraph's sketch out a very familiar situation, a man meeting his fiancé's parents for the first time:
Leann and I were driving to her father's new A-frame on Lake Nacogdoches, and I was nervous about meeting her folks the first time.

Relax, Leann said. Drink a few Old Mils with Dad, maybe catch a largemouth or two off the dock Saturday. When I got the nerve Sunday, she said, I could spring the news on the old man about wanting to marry his little girl. Then the two of us could get the hell out, head on back to Dallas. Lighten up, she kept saying.

Few readers would be unable to supply the implications of this common and recognizable situation. The narrator is nervous he might not get Leann's parents' approval. Given the casualness of Leann's reassurance, however, it seems as if everything will go smoothly. As Baxter says, "We've seen that before. We know where we are." Williford, however, quickly alters our sense of the familiar in his third paragraph:

The lake house was all glass in front so from the gravel drive we could see Mrs. Pendergast inside, slapping the old man's face. Once, twice, then again. She shouted something about him not having any goddamn imagination, about some girl, twenty-six years old, young enough to be his goddamn daughter. He took her flat palms, rigid-faced-just stood there blinking at her. Then his face fell all apart, and he hit her in the sternum with his fist. She staggered back through the open door and up to the balcony rail as he hit her over and over again.

Page 3
related_links.gif (539 bytes)





home | volume 4, number 2|
editorial staff | copyright information | f. a. q
archived volumes | submission criteria