[spoiler warning—also, spoilers for “Benito Cereno” by Herman Melville]
JOYCE CAROL OATES
Joyce Carol Oates is an incredibly prolific author. Most horror collections you will find—whether an anthology of American horror literature or one of those Mammoth Year’s Best Horror collections—seem to contain at least one Joyce Carol Oates story. The collection I have—published in the early ’90s—lists seventeen books by Oates inside the cover, and that’s just short story collections. But what’s really surprising is that despite writing so much, and writing largely horror and melodrama, her writing is often considered a prime example of contemporary American literature. Harold Bloom edited a collection of critical essays on her. Somehow, she has managed to avoid the ghettoization that largely blocks other skilled horror authors from getting a strong critical treatment, or a critical treatment that looks at them outside of specific discursive genre studies. I’ve never looked into her career to figure out why this happened, but at least one thing I can offer is this: her writing is very good.
To be more specific, she uses a particularly engaging style. There is a distinct style to almost all of Oates’ writing, to the point that I suspect I could identify it in a blind taste test. The style is marked by stream of consciousness that, rather than spinning off in some Joycean tangent, curls back and forth around the narrative so that the plot is never lost, but the psychology of individuals is always thrust between it and you. This works very well for some things—passages, for example, where a character must deal with some trauma, or must interact with an environment (such as a haunted house) that kicks up associations. It doesn’t work as well for other kinds of passages, such as straight narrative action like you see in pulp, or anything that might try to pull back into a dissociated third person narrative, such as Tolstoy often employs. Fortunately, Oates seems well aware of this, and she avoids those sorts of elements, instead focusing on first person narratives or narratives closely linked to individual psychology.
If there’s one really negative thing for me to say about this book, it’s that despite being, as the cover says, ‘Tales of the Grotesque,’ none of them are really scary. They’re psychologically disturbing and often involve extremely disturbed individuals, but there’s none of that chilling sensation that makes you check to be sure the door is locked and bolted, which is so common in authors like M.R. James and Ambrose Bierce. That is, with one exception, the story I’m going to look at.
Our story starts with Whitney driving toward his brother’s house after having had a premonition based on the fact that his wealthy brother, Quinn, had apparently “started drinking again, he’d threatened his wife, Ellen, and perhaps their daughters too, it was a familiar story, and depressing.” Oates loves the comma, but in the context of her writing it doesn’t feel tiresome; it develops a natural cadence, like someone taking breaths as they speak.
Whitney is also feeling odd because he couldn’t reach his brother at home or at work. When he gets to the house, there’s no one answering and he sees suitcases inside. “Whitney recalled a rumor he’d heard a few weeks ago, that Quinn had spoken of traveling to some exorbitantly costly exotic place, the Seychelles, with one of his women friends.” He anticipates an unpleasant family Christmas, and remembers Quinn’s barely-veiled violence in the past. “Thinking, though, that it isn’t just desperate, impoverished men who kill their families”. Growing increasingly concerned, he remembers how Quinn had at one point become very jealous, accusing even Whitney of sleeping with Ellen, although he had later recanted.
Whitney is very relieved when Ellen answers the door with “a look of fatigue in her face, yet something feverish, virtually festive, as well.” She seems confused with Whitney says he was worried, and laughs. The two girls come in to see Uncle Whitney, and everyone seems a little jittery. Ellen says that Quinn is gone on a business trip, but they’re to be going soon to, joining him on a trip, and they’re all going to miss Christmas. The near vacation is apparently what is making them giddy, although Whitney is suspicious of Quinn. “Whitney deduced that Quinn had gone off with his latest woman friend, to the Seychelles, or wherever; he’d managed to convince his credulous wife that he was on one of his ‘confidential’ business trips, and she seemed satisfied by—grateful for?—the explanation.”
“How women crave being lied to—being deluded! Poor Ellen.”
The story continues in rather a standard fashion from here, with Ellen and the two girls visiting with Whitney. He notices a bruise on fourteen-year-old Molly’s eye. When Whitney enters the kitchen, the younger daughter, Trish, had “been squatting, wiping something up off the floor with a sponge.” The excitement makes Whitney feel odd. “A distinctly female atmosphere in the room, Whitney thought; with an undercurrent of hysteria. … Surfaces gleamed, as if newly scrubbed. The fan above the stove was turned up high, yet the kitchen still smelled—of something rich, damp, sour-sweet, cloying.” Our boy Whitney just cannot take a hint!—but then again, as we’ve seen plenty of times by now, that’s part of the game of the horror genre. He notices bruises on Ellen’s face as well.
Most of the kitchen is covered in Christmas supplies; clearly, Whitney thinks, they are wrapping presents early since they’ll be away for the holidays. “How like women, to be thinking of others at such a time! No wonder their faces were so bright and feverish, their eyes glittering manic.” The girls pick this moment to start saying their father is on “the Sea Shell Islands,” thus confirming Whitney’s belief that Quinn is enjoying time with a lady friend on the Seychelles. Whitney again notices the bruises on Ellen’s and Molly’s faces, and recalls a time that Quinn spontaneously hit Ellen in public, but no one questioned it in the face of his wealth and authority.
After Molly makes an odd joke about Trish getting her period, Whitney looks over all the present supplies, bows and wrappers wand boxes. “On a section of green plastic garbage bag on the floor, as if awaiting removal to the garage, or disposal, was a heterogenous assortment of tools—claw-headed hammer, pliers, another gardening shears, a butcher knife with a broken point, Quinn’s electric carving knife.
“‘Uncle Whitney, don’t peek!'”
He offers to take his Christmas present early but they deny him, and then he decides he should be getting on his way. First he goes in the bathroom and again notices the strange odor, which he identifies as blood. He decides it must have something to do with menstruation. “His cheeks burned. He didn’t want to know, really.” Just as he’s leaving, they decide to give him the present after all, only to be opened on Christmas. He notices covers on the furniture, and thinks the trip is probably going to be very long.
“Driving back home across the city, Whitney felt pleased, however, with the way things had turned out. He’d been brave to go to Quinn’s house—Ellen and the girls would always remember. He would always remember. He glanced at the present beside him, pleased too that they’d given it to him tonight, that they’d trusted him not to open it prematurely.
“How characteristic of women, how sweet, that they trust us as they do, Whitney was thinking; and that, at times at least, their trust is not misplaced.”
A lot of Oates’ stories are engaged with previous works of fiction, responding to them or re-evaluating their ideas. This work seems to me to be responding to “Benito Cereno” by Herman Melville, in which a white captain boarding a Spanish slave ship does not realize, as he is given a tour of the ship by the white Spanish captain Benito Cereno, that the slaves have in fact revolted, taken over the ship, and then engineered this as a show when he appeared and asked to come aboard. There are two key differences here: gender has been substituted for race, and, interestingly, Ellen and the girls do not seem to wish any actual harm on Whitney. Oh sure there’s something sinister about the Christmas gift, and we might be able to guess the contents of candy tins and previously opened wine bottles, but there’s no immediate threat of life like that challenging Melville’s lead. Since a lot of the language in the story is used ironically, we can look at the closing the same way: how sweet that, when given the opportunity to revenge themselves on the brother of their tormentor, the women instead let him leave unscathed. It suggests a certain commonality, a willingness to look at the problem as being more about the violence of individuals than generalizations of gendered violence.
To be frank, there is a lot more I could say about this story—mechanisms of power, inheritance and family, concepts of women’s work and women’s place, etc. But as I’m tired and it’s late and this post is already running long, I’ll wrap it up by saying that this is an example of how much Oates puts into just one story. There are drawbacks to her writing: as mentioned above, a regularity of technique limits her in certain ways, and her stories while often intelligent and provocative do not have the studied, painstaking technique of Bierce or James. However, with few exceptions they are very good studies in psychology, particularly adept at showing how people deceive themselves. I give this story an 8/10, and a big recommendation to the collection as a whole, as well as other short stories by Oates. I’ve heard that her novels aren’t as good; the one novel I read, Black Water, definitely wasn’t up to par with this collection, although I did enjoy it. Therefore, if this interested you, I would recommend starting with any of her short story collections, but not with a novel. Another good place would be the frequently-anthologized short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”, which can probably be found with a Google search.
Tomorrow, we go back to the Lovecraftian before Lovecraft, to look into the madness of The King in Yellow and its author, Robert W. Chambers.
All quotations from Haunted copyright The Ontario Review, Inc, 1994.
Everything else copyright Kile Marshall Bigbee 2012.