the uncanny valley--a short story

“Everything is unheimlich that ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light.” Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling


Francesca Lia Block

When I was born my parents tried to kill me.

They put me in a bucket to see perchance if I would drown.

            They put me in a bag and left me out overnight on a hill to see if I would suffocate.

They put me in the fireplace to see if I would burn.

            Three times I refused to die. Iggy says I have a lust for life, to quote his nick-namesake, Mr. Pop. He says I must have known I had to survive so I could meet him and we could escape, someday, to the Uncanny Valley.

            Because my face looked wizened, wild and pale, my teeth were sharp and my hair grew in robin’s egg blue dread locks, my parents believed I was an old faerie swapped for their perfect human child.

            One day when I was six months old they were sipping their nightly cocktails out of eggshells at the chrome and mirrored bar in the sunken living room when I sat up in my bassinette and said, “How strange to drink your liquor in such a way.” They did not actually enjoy drinking beer in eggshells—the portions were too small and the alcohol spilled. It was simply a test.

            Thus began the persecution.

I did not look like my blond, green-eyed mother or my black haired, blue-eyed father. Both of them were naturally tan with good muscle tone while I was spindly and the color of the undersides of mushrooms. After I had survived their attempts at murder, my parents gave up (at least temporarily) and set their sights on conceiving another child, my sister Meghan, whom they guarded savagely when she was born with her skin burnt-sugar brown and glossy and her blue-green eyes. They were afraid the faeries would steal her away and replace her with another one, bad as me. I wish. Then at least I would have had a companion in this world.

            Instead I had an enemy. She slept quietly between them in their California King sized bed (I used to howl and cackle like a hyena alone in my bassinette) while I was locked in my room with mirrors everywhere, as if my parents were attempting one last time to kill me with the shock and horror of my own reflection.

            I urinated regularly on the sheets in my sleep and when I got up to change the bed, wandered around the room in the dark, bumping into furniture, unable to find the light switch (had my parents removed it as punishment?) until I gave up and curled on the floor.

I gnawed on the baby blue shag rug and the gingham curtains till they were ragged and torn. I actually consumed an entire teddy bear once, my only toy. I am surprised they let me have it at all unless they thought the stuffing would poison me. I wanted a doll very badly; my sister Meghan had hundreds. Once I stole one from her, called her Mistral and tried to make her come to life to be my friend. I thought I heard her say my name but the next day she was gone. My sister Meghan had blacked out Mistral’s eyes with Sharpie pen and strung her upside down from the tree outside my window.

            Yes, I grew up ugly and neglected in the ranch style house with sliding glass doors all around, and a pale blue pool in the backyard, on a tree-lined street. I went to a private school (because maybe this would finally do the trick and kill me) where I was called every name you can imagine, tripped in the hallways and on the concrete and pinched so hard I came home black and blue every day.

            My sister Meghan was the most beloved and beauteous girl in the entire school and I knew that if she so much as shook her gilded locks a certain way they would all have left me be, but she never did.

            “You are revolting, Zizi,” she said to me, when I came to stand behind her while she applied Pretty-in-Pink lip gloss and curled her eyelashes. “You cause me to feel revulsion.”

            Both our house and school were in that strange place called the Valley—a wide, flat, overheated expanse of asphalt, concrete and stucco; cars, pools, malls and poisonous flora, the leaves and flowers of which used to make their way into my crazy salad on a regular basis. (I was good at recognizing belladonna and oleander but I imagine they would not have harmed me. I just preferred teddy bear stuffing.)

            I hated that Valley and wanted to escape its bonds more than anything, although I had no idea where I would go.

            Iggy and I met online through a forum about the video game The Uncanny Valley to which I had become addicted. If you have not heard of it, it is a rather untraditional, psychological game, in the vein of The Path, about a group of outcasts who believe they are changelings and have to escape this world back to the world of faerie from whence they believe they came.

            Do you think The Uncanny Valley is named after the Freudian concept of the Uncanny as expressed in his 1919 essay of the same name? someone named Iggy had posted.

            I replied, It would seem that the use of the name Olympia, from Hoffman’s Tales of Hoffman, would suggest this since Freud believed Hoffman to be a master of the uncanny in literature.   Posted by Zizi

            Also, the use of the repetition of the number three throughout the game, the use of the maze in which the player is forced to follow the same path repeatedly, and the theme of blindness when Otto’s eyes are eaten by the monster, Sand, is another argument for the relevance of Freud’s essay. Posted by Iggy


We met in person at a park near my house a few weeks later. Iggy wore a black coat, heavy and woolen, even in the heat. Giant black Doc Martens like the ones I had bought for myself with money I had stolen from my mother’s wallet. His head was shaved. He had a stilted way of walking and speaking that I recognized as similar to mine. Every so often he would stare off into space as if he could see something beyond the haze in the air.

As we sat side by side on the grass under a tree we spoke about The Uncanny Valley, Freud, Hoffman, doppelgangers, castration and blindness, dolls, automatons, a 1973 horror film called The Wicker Man, the Bjork video for the song “All is Made of Love,” where two female robots fondle one another, and, finally, our persecution.

“When I was born my parents tried to kill me,” I said, plucking strands of grass from the ground with the satisfaction I sometimes experienced when plucking hairs from my head, feeling that last blissful pop as the bulb released from my scalp.

“They put me in a bucket to see perchance if I would drown.

            “They put me in a bag and left me out overnight on a hill to see if I would suffocate.

“They put me in the fireplace to see if I would burn.

“Three times I refused to die.”

Iggy’s body jerked as if he had been hit. Then he composed himself, stuck three sticks side-by-side in the dirt and nodded sagely. Even in the time we had sat there I saw a tiny layer of hair had grown in on his head. It was a pale shade of robin’s egg blue.

“You have a lust for life. You must have known you had to survive so you could meet me.”

I plucked a dandelion and began to chew off its petals one by one as Iggy told me about his own persecution. His parents home-schooled him, too ashamed were they to send him out into the world. When his work was not perfect they chained him to his chair and made him correct each mistake a hundred times, forced him to stand on his head for an hour or beat his hands until he couldn’t bend his fingers, depending on the severity of the error.

As an infant he had seizures and was diagnosed with epilepsy. Quite often he would look at things that he had seen a million times before and not be able to recognize them. “Jamais vu,” he said. “But you, it seems as if I have known you from long before.”

When he said this he stared at me so deeply it felt as if he had parted my thighs and gently placed his hand between my legs, rubbing in circles with his big, pale hands. I had never felt any sensation like this, except a slight premonition of it when, before I ate my teddy bear, I had rubbed against it to soothe my loneliness.

“Do you ever feel like you are wearing a human skin?” I said, not sure if he would understand.

Iggy was still staring at me. “Putting it on to dance in. Like a Halloween costume,” he added.

Iggy and I spent hours and hours together in my room, playing The Uncanny Valley, listening to music, discussing philosophy and watching the news like it was a horror movie.

One day as we were lying on my bed, watching a story about a boy who had been shot by someone on Neighborhood Watch and listening to the 911 tape of the shooter screaming racial obscenities, Iggy’s body jerked away from me, fell off the bed and onto the floor. I tried to push the shiny white furniture away from him so he would not hurt himself but he cut his hand on the corner of my desk. When I tried to touch him his arm flailed out and hit me so hard I flew across the room against one of the mirrors. I sat in a corner watching him, feeling the warm blood pour out of my cold temple, wanting to touch him again. When the seize was over I lay him on his left side. He was twice my size so it took all my strength and more.   I washed and bandaged the cut on his hand.

He came to and saw the blood on my face.

“Zizi, what happened? Did I hurt you?” His voice sounded like a clock ticking and although we were both bleeding I wondered if either of us were real.

I told him I was fine but he wouldn’t stop begging my forgiveness and dabbing at my blood with his t-shirt. After my head stopped bleeding he wanted to leave but I wouldn’t let him.

We crawled into my bed and held each other with every part of our bodies. It is a strange thing that happens when you arrive, out of a cold night, at the door of your true home. There is a deep warmth like a fire in the hearth in your chest, where you will never be set to burn to death.

My sister Meghan walked in the next morning—I had forgotten to lock the door--and screamed.

Iggy rose naked from the bed; he was huge and pale, blocking the light from the window.

My sister Meghan screamed again and ran for my father.

When he came upstairs with his gun, Iggy had jumped out the window and run across the lawn, away.

When I was born my parents tried to kill me.

They put me in a bucket to see perchance if I would drown.

            They put me in a bag and left me out overnight on a hill to see if I would suffocate.

They put me in the fireplace to see if I would burn.

Three times I refused to die.

This time when my father did what he did I felt a weakness as if my bones and muscles were dissolving and the world turned the color of the darkest bruise. I could not scream or cry out. In my mind I saw a strange vision of a place that looked eerily familiar and yet different in a way that caused my gorge to rise with revulsion; it was like watching a person, any person except for Iggy, blinking their eyes at me. I just hadn’t been able to acknowledge this response before. And the revolting place I saw was this world into which I had been born.

Iggy and I filled the pool and marble sunken bathtub with urine. We unplugged the refrigerator so all the dairy and meat went bad. We made all the flowers die. We tore up my sister Meghan’s short shorts, crop tops, sundresses, skinny jeans and peasant blouses. Then Iggy took a handful of pills and a vial of liquid from the depths of his black woolen coat pockets.

            “What is this?” I asked him, showing my sharp little teeth.

            He held up the hand with the pills. They were bright pink and white capsules, like Good N Plenty.

“Elf-addles,” he said.

He held up the hand with the vial. The liquid was yellow-green. Chartreuse. “Elf-shot,” Iggy said. “These will help us get there.”

“Where?” I asked, blinking out the sliding glass at the garden full of bare stalks like stick figures.

“The Uncanny Valley is filled with citrus groves and wildflowers,” he said.   “A giant lake supplies fresh, clear water. We will live on avocados and lemons and dance on a hill until the sun comes up and then we will sleep in a tree. No one will ever be cruel to us again and we will suffer no more when we escape to the Uncanny Valley. “

            When he kissed me, he deposited three of the pink-and-white pills called Addle into my mouth. Then he took a double slug of Elf-shot and gave me half in the big, toothy cup of his maw. We swallowed. I nodded my head, slowly, slowly, slowly, and blinked my eyes three times. One. Two. Three. This is the number that repeats itself again and again.

            And so we left. And so we left the world. And so we left the world of our grieving.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Escape through art. Not this way. Love, flb



  • Super User Tuesday, 27 May 2014

    Really enjoyed the story. Then again, I've enjoyed everything I've read from you :)

  • Super User Monday, 02 June 2014

    Great story. I think I love "Fairy Horror".

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