Forbidden Tomes: BEASTS by JOYCE CAROL OATES

The Gothic genre has been sorely neglected, I think, in modern fiction – film and literature alike. But there are a few who still champion the genre and use its moody trappings to examine the dark corners of our society. One of the forerunners of new Gothic, and possibly its best practitioner, is Joyce Carol Oates – and one of her best offerings is the novella BEASTS.

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Oates is a genius at creating a sensually dangerous atmosphere. In “Beasts,” it manifests on a quiet New England college campus, as a student begins to fall slowly and deliriously in love with her poetry professor. But this is no innocent schoolgirl crush – the professor has a history of picking favorites amongst his students, all of whom suffer some sort of breakdown soon after. And his gorgeous femme fatale wife, with fiery red hair, is seductively controversial. In spite, or because, of the danger, the student falls under both of their spells… and they take her in as their new favorite. What follows is hallucinatory, dirty, and psychologically monstrous.

The story is woven as a memory, which allows it to drift from moment to moment in a dreamlike reverie. When the dark events start to accumulate into madness, the dream becomes a nightmare. Oates knows better than anyone how to get a reader inside her character’s head – it’s a trick she uses cruelly, because by the time her stories kick into gear, the character’s head is the last place you want to be. This student’s journey into animalistic sexuality and evil manipulation is hideous, but like the best Gothic fiction, the hideousness is what makes it entertaining.

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Though the events are not supernatural or particularly shocking, Oates’s deft warping of reality makes this a horror novel. It’s impressionistic, and the flashes of detail that are given reveal something ghoulish – something beastly. The innocent college campus is turned into a Bacchanal breeding ground for decadent nightmares.

Like the main character, the reader is made to doubt what happens, and perhaps for the better, because the damage is so great. Much of Oates’s fiction – particularly this one – deals with the raw terror of sex and sexuality. The act becomes one of violence, earthy and painful wickedness. Because of the graphic attention she gives to the theme, she transcends the Gothic cliché of subdued sensuality, blasting through barriers and discussing it as it is: naked and dirty. She has invented a new type of Gothic, one that scrutinizes the classic form and finds the rotten skeleton underneath its trappings.

This means, of course, that “Beasts” is a remarkably disturbing read. But for someone who wants to plumb the depths of sexual psychology, and is prepared for the horrors that wait there, it’s difficult to think of a better author than Oates. Her novella is a fever dream turned nightmare, somehow managing to be both hideous and beautiful.

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