Archive for joyce carol oates

Forbidden Tomes: THE ACCURSED

Posted in Forbidden Tomes, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 1, 2016 by smuckyproductions

Happy March, ghouls – we’re beginning to get a taste of spring in the air. It’s a time of reawakening, good weather, and fertility. Unless you’re in a Joyce Carol Oates book. In one of her only outwardly supernatural works, Oates weaves a disturbing portrait of historical Princeton as it falls under the power of demons. Things get weird in the sepulchral spring of THE ACCURSED.

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It’s 1905 and we’re in Princeton. While some actual figures appear in the background, like Woodrow Wilson and Upton Sinclair (who were at Princeton then), the main story depicts the Slade family as the daughter – set to be married – is targeted by a vampiric demon. When the demon takes young Slade as his unwilling wife, the surrounding characters (accurate and fictional alike) fall into madness, betrayal, and violence. It really sucks when demons walk into history; they tend to ruin things.

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Having read a few other works by Oates, I expected this one to be like those – psychological, grim, and very disturbing. While it is all of those things, this novel sports a wonderful, crooked sense of humor as well. Like Shirley Jackson’s work, there is social satire to spare here, stemming from these real people’s responses to demonic activity. And though it may be funny, it also tends to get nasty. Oates has created a synthesis of the macabre, the grotesque, the political, and the tragic. It’s pure literary fun to watch Mark Twain, Jack London and Sinclair interact in a world where demons roam.

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Being a part of Oates’s Gothic series (which includes “Bellefleur” and “The Mysteries of Winterthurn”), this novel is written in high language and spares no detail. It moves slowly, which for some is a turn-off. But for those who are willing to wait for the Gothic nightmares to begin, the payoff is all the better for what is established before. The imagery and manifestations are suitably bizarre – possessed babies, toad-demons in a bog-castle, snakes ejecting from men’s throats – and, even better, visually represent the neuroses of the characters. Oates is brutal with the psychological dissection of her creations, and this is no exception.

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In spite of its slow pace and its ultimate focus on satire over horror, “The Accursed” is a wicked ghost story – more so because the supernatural elements explore the human characters. The period setting and springtime aura give the uncanny occurrences an air of elegance, almost loveliness. Oates’s universe is pleasant… until it’s not. The madness and horror that seep (or explode) through the historical trappings is of the highest order. It’s a hellish tale, poking through the fallacy of human belief and their sureness in themselves, finding corpses instead.

For an old-fashioned but gruesome epic of phantoms and broken minds, Oates has given us a gift. She is a craftsman of the highest order, as long as one has the patience. So take the vow and enter this work of nightmares – but know that those vows are binding.

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Forbidden Tomes: HAUNTED

Posted in Forbidden Tomes with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 17, 2015 by smuckyproductions

Short stories were arguably the first great American literary tradition, with Washington Irving, Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne contributing groundbreaking tales that still resonate. It is no question that many of these stories at least dabbled in the Gothic. This tradition has lessened over the years, but there are some contemporary authors who have not forgotten. Joyce Carol Oates is one of them, and she contributes to this tradition brilliantly with her collection HAUNTED.

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I talk about Oates a lot. That’s because I think she’s a genius. These stories showcase her ability to render a typical American scene – dollhouses, Christmas dinner, and Thanksgiving shopping, to name a few – in visceral prose that makes them disturbingly wrong. Her detailed and ruthless eye skewers the everyday with macabre observations, warping things until they are almost beyond recognition. Almost. Her stories are all the more chilling because they rarely stray into the supernatural, drawing all of their horror from things that could – and have – happened.

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With these details Oates explores a number of themes that may, in another author’s hands, be commonplace – but not here. There are four sections of stories, and each deals with a broader, recognizable topic: aging, birth, sex, and finally, death. Oates handles these with just the right touch of grotesque, avoiding the garish, and brings them to light in a way that feels revelatory. In the title story, a girl’s childhood ends abruptly with a nebulous trauma and her friend’s death; “Extenuating Circumstances” and “Don’t You Trust Me” both display the horror to which mothers are subjected; and “Martyrdom” makes us question the nature of humanity in the most horrific way.

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In Oates’s beautiful but glaring prose, the above topics become magnified. Her vivid rendering is what makes her ‘normal’ environments so disturbing. Because Oates is also the master of the unreliable narrator, these worlds become even more unreliable. But, like the best horror fiction, their extremes bring out truths that would otherwise be lost.

On a very specific note, the penultimate story – “Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly” – presents a delight for horror fans in its reimagining of “Turn of the Screw.” Seen from the perspective of the ghosts themselves, who cannot reconcile their place between life and death, and instead taunt the children whom they loved. This story alone is reason to explore Oates’s collection.

Take these grotesque visions of a world we all know and plunge into them. On cold evenings, the rotted truths that Oates presents will make a particular mark.

Forbidden Tomes: ZOMBIE by JOYCE CAROL OATES

Posted in Forbidden Tomes with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 25, 2015 by smuckyproductions

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.

Forbidden Tomes: BEASTS by JOYCE CAROL OATES

Posted in Forbidden Tomes with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 4, 2015 by smuckyproductions

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.