Forbidden Tomes: ZOMBIE by JOYCE CAROL OATES

There are countless thrillers and mysteries about serial killers, hard-boiled cops following grotesque trails of breadcrumbs to catch a psychopath. But rarely do we get a convincing glimpse into the mind of the killer him or herself. Perhaps because to enter such a mind means questioning your own. One book that accomplishes this all too well, and most disturbingly, is Joyce Carol Oates’s ZOMBIE.

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We all know about Jeffrey Dahmer – the pretty boy who had a habit of lobotomizing his lovers, killing them by accident, and keeping their body parts in jars of formaldehyde. Ever wonder what it’s like inside his head? Through the fictional character of Quentin P., Oates delves into this mind, unearthing thoughts and secrets in the form of a diary. The reader follows this diary through the most mundane of things – school visits, family dinners, days at home. Oh, and the occasional murder. He is simply engaging in a hobby. That hobby just happens to be lobotomizing young men in an attempt to make them his sex slaves.

This is a fascinating exercise in empathy. Oates does not linger on the nasty bits – she spends most of her time exploring Quentin’s everyday life, which is more or less similar to our own. That is what makes it so disturbing when he does commit crimes. He is a human being, after all; and Oates makes it clear that Quentin does not believe that he is doing anything wrong. It’s easy to write a character who is ‘evil,’ who relishes in causing others pain. But what if the ‘evil’ thinks it is good?

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Because of this, Oates’s killer becomes horrifically real, and almost sympathetic. He isn’t a coldblooded beast, causing pain for the joy of it. He is a human being, trying to find love and connection in a world that shuns him. Who hasn’t felt like an outsider before? By tapping into this emotional core, Oates makes Quentin a protagonist who we can root for – even though we don’t want to. It’s a dirty trick, sure, but it reveals so much about who we are as people.

Reading this book feels perverse, in the end, due to the extreme nature of the empathy that Quentin P. conjures in us. That is a testament to the power of Oates’s writing. She crafts horrific narratives but inverts the point of view – without warning, the reader is seeing through the eyes of someone who society deems monstrous, evil. While there is no glorification of murder – the book is as grim and depressing as they come – it does raise some immensely disturbing questions. How can someone be evil when they believe they are doing good? And how do we know that we aren’t hurting someone in our actions, too?

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Let that serve as a warning to readers: this book twists and ruins a person’s mind for a while after finishing. But the experience is, in the end, revelatory. That is the power of horror, and the power of empathy alike: it forces you to see something you do not want to face.

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