You can also watch my reading vlog about Night Gaunts & HP Lovecraft's famous poem.

Throughout her writing career, Joyce Carol Oates’s fiction has frequently self-consciously tapped into the gothic and horror genres. She’s previously described how this form of writing seems to be linked to a quintessential kind of American experience born out of the country’s largely puritan roots. Examples of her fiction in this genre can be seen in many of Oates’s story collections and her 2013 novel THE ACCURSED is probably the most sustained instance of her utilizing this curious blend of horror, death, romance and a pleasing sort of terror. There are two established masters in particular Oates frequently references when discussing this form. In Oates’s 1996 NY Review of Books article titled ‘The King of Weird’ she observes that for “Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft the gothic tale would seem to be a form of psychic autobiography.” She goes on to observe how H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction appears to have been motivated by a particular kind of sensitive sensibility and a childhood overshadowed by his father’s severe mental illness, prejudices and early death from syphilis. From a young age Lovecraft was plagued by nightmares that were populated by a monstrous race of entities he labeled “night-gaunts” who were faceless beings that snatched him up and terrorized him. Lovecraft wrote a poem about these creatures which Oates includes in the epigraph of her story collection which is also called NIGHT GAUNTS.

This entire collection is inflected with the twisted imagination and preoccupations of Lovecraft, but rather than depicting fantastical worlds they are stories set in starkly realistic and (mostly) contemporary settings. In fact, the titular story which ends the book is a tribute to and a fictional re-imagining of Lovecraft’s life. This story vividly invokes the difficult experiences which shaped him and influenced his creative imagination from his reading about the hellish landscape of Dante’s Inferno to browsing the terrifying drawings of Felicien Rops. Interestingly, she describes how the only way he could keep the horrors which plagued him at bay was to render the haunting images and wild scenarios of his nightmares into fictional forms. It’s a striking depiction of the artistic process and as his craft develops, “he had no need to commemorate the night-gaunts that haunted him, but could create his own.” Oates’s story itself is also a suspenseful tale of horror where Lovecraft is entrapped in a circular kind of nightmare which makes him a simultaneous witness and victim of his past plagued by feelings of grief, loneliness and fear.

Oates has previously fictionally rendered the lives of famous authors in her short fiction, most notably in her collection WILD NIGHTS! These tantalizing tales function both as a fictional homage to some of Oates’s primary influences as well as a way of reckoning with the problematic aspects of these authors’ ideas and beliefs. The story ‘Night-Gaunts’ itself makes candid references to Lovecraft’s prejudice against Jewish and non-white people and grapples with the seeming contradiction of how (as Oates describes in the ‘The King of Weird’) “Lovecraft was unfailingly kind, patient, generous, unassuming, and gentlemanly in his personal relations; yet, in keeping with his Tory sensibility, an anti-Semite (despite his deep affection for Sonia Greene and other Jewish friends), racist, and all-purpose Aryan bigot.” A kind of disguised or shrouded racism is described in a few of the stories in this collection including a neglected wife who takes solace in connecting to white supremacists online and a young Asian scientist cognizant of the stereotypes projected onto him from his colleagues and romantic partner/test subject. 

Félicien Rops, La parodie humaine (1878)

Félicien Rops, La parodie humaine (1878)

In Lovecraft’s poem he states how his night-gaunts fail to “wear a face where faces should be found” and in Oates’s stories there are fascinating examples of individuals who are described as faceless. A central character in a story will turn someone they encounter into a faceless “other” who then becomes their antagonist. The fact that the protagonists literally don’t recognize the facial features of these characters dangerously denies them of their humanity. The opening story ‘The Woman in the Window’ fictionally imagines the scenario of Edward Hopper’s famous painting ‘Eleven A.M.’ (Incidentally, this painting is the cover image on the hardback edition of Oates’s previous story collection BEAUTIFUL DAYS.) In this painting, the naked woman’s face is obscured by the hair falling in front of her face. Oates’s story describes how she is an aging secretary who has become a nuisance and terror to the married boss who keeps her as a lover. In the story ‘The Long-Legged Girl’ a wife suspects that a young female student is having an affair with her husband who teaches her and she describes how the girl’s “long straight silver-blonde hair fell about her face shimmering like a falls.” Despite the girl describing her difficulties and innocent reverence for her husband, the wife refuses to see her as anything other than a seductress. In the story ‘Walking Wounded’ a cancer-survivor who returns to his home town continuously encounters/stalks a woman with “silvery hair” and at one point he observes how “Her long, tangled hair falls forward, hiding her face, which seems to him an aggrieved face, though he cannot see it clearly.” The climax of the story powerfully depicts a violent clash where the protagonist’s fantasy about this woman collapses. All of these stories meaningfully portray the way Lovecraft’s unconscious technique of making faceless demons out of people we fear leads to disconnection and egregious violence.

A wonderful nail-biting sense of suspense is created in these stories when the line between reality and nightmares blur. This sometimes occurs when there is an ambiguity about whether the protagonist is a perpetrator or victim. In ‘Walking Wounded’ the main character is working on laboriously editing a lengthy nonfiction book and keeps finding descriptions of violence against women inserted in the text. (Whether it is the text book’s author or the protagonist who wrote them is unclear.) In ‘Sign of the Beast’ a boy is made to feel incredibly self-conscious in the presence of his new Sunday school teacher who teases and may molest him. Much later, when the teacher is eventually found dead, the boy feels certain he must have committed the crime though the law enforcement insists he played no part. These uncertainties about guilt form a suspenseful read, but also poignantly portray the psychological reality of the characters whose sense of logic breaks down.

In the most ambitious and lengthy story in this collection ‘The Experimental Subject’ a naïve young nursing student is unknowingly enlisted in an outrageous biological experiment. A group of scientists entrap her and manipulate her for the purposes of their study. This story playfully pits the ambitions of man against biological advancement and ideas about evolution. It also meaningfully portrays the plights of two frequently scorned segments of the population: the working class and racial minorities. The breadth and ambition of this novella feels almost cinematic in scope. It’s a fine example of how Oates’s fiction can travel to the wildest corners of our imaginations and artfully dramatize the simmering preoccupations of America. These stories skilfully invoke the tortured imagination of Lovecraft and form utterly compelling modern tales of suspense.

This review also appeared on Bearing Witness: Joyce Carol Oates Studies

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson

In her introduction to the anthology American Gothic Tales (1996) which Joyce Carol Oates edited she pays tributes to the gothic tradition in American literature bourn out of a crisis in the Puritan consciousness. She detailed how writers such as Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and H.P. Lovecraft wrote unsettling fiction in which “the ‘supernatural’ and the malevolent ‘unconscious’ have fused” and how Lovecraft, in particular, has a compulsion in his fiction “to approach the horror that is a lurid twin of one’s self, or that very self seen in an unsuspected mirror.” Such a crisis in consciousness where the real and unreal intermingle to produce horrific results is adeptly-realized in the six unsettling and mesmerizing tales contained in Oates’ new book The Doll Master and Other Tales of Terror.

Reading about characters such as a lonely boy whose sister died of a rare disease, a diligent adolescent girl entrusted with house-sitting a beloved teacher’s upscale residence or a wife who ardently desires to be a loving companion to her charismatic husband, we want to believe and trust these sympathetic individuals. Even when taken into the point of view of a white man imprisoned for shooting dead an unarmed black boy, we guardedly hope that there has simply been a misunderstanding as he so vehemently insists. We do this in order to preserve our belief in people’s essential “innocence” and “goodness”. We’re invited in these stories to connect with these characters’ experiences - sometimes in a bracingly direct manner such as this passage in the title story: “All your life, you yearn to return to what has been. You yearn to return to those you have lost. You will do terrible things to return, which no one else can understand.” The involved reader will hesitantly survey his own emotionally conflicted experience as well as fearfully wondering what lengths the cryptic narrator has gone to assuage his own painful feelings about his past. Here is the perverse pleasure of these stories which become so personally involving it’s as if we see the horrific consequences created from our own darkest compulsions (albeit within the “safe” realm of fiction).

Oates has a masterful way of leading us through the consciousness of the troubled individuals at the centre of these stories so that heartfelt sympathy is gradually replaced by guarded unease and, eventually, by a terrifying repulsion. Paranoia leads the characters to conclusions which make them act in a way to justify reprehensible actions. Their fear often comes from social issues such as drug abuse, economic inequality, racial divisions or child kidnapping. The narrator of the story ‘Soldier’ remarks how “Uncle T. has told me This country is at war. But it is not a war that is declared and so we can't protect ourselves against our enemies.” Destructive divisions are created by ideological notions passed down by political rhetoric, extreme religious institutions or inflammatory media sources to create an “us” and “them” mentality where the characters feel drawn into taking extreme action to defend against insidious encroaching forces. At other times, paranoia arises in a more domestic setting from problems that seem sadly endemic of the human condition like a fear that those we love will eventually betray us.

Many stories contain surprising and satisfying twists worthy of the most compulsively-readable tales of Poe or Agatha Christie. Unexpectedly the hunter might become the hunted. Those who seemed well-meaning or benign become frightfully sinister. What felt like sure fact turns out to be fiction formed in a character’s deluded mind. Oates finds inventive methods for keeping the reader on their toes. She invokes the methods of this genre’s great masters while building upon them with issues current to today. “Mystery, Inc” pays the most playful tribute to the suspense genre as it is set in a rural bookstore which contains enticing treasured editions from some of America’s greatest writers. It also allows Oates to engage with a meditation upon the genre itself as a touchstone for our most personal philosophical concerns. The shop’s gregarious owner states that “It is out of the profound mystery of life that ‘mystery books’ arise. And, in turn, ‘mystery books’ allow us to see the mystery of life more clearly, from perspectives not our own.”

"the lonely Siamese cat appeared in the kitchen doorway staring at me with icy blue eyes" from 'Gun Accident: An Investigation'

"the lonely Siamese cat appeared in the kitchen doorway staring at me with icy blue eyes" from 'Gun Accident: An Investigation'

Another story 'Big Momma' has the tenderly emotional and creeping sinister feel of a fairy tale. An insecure middle school student named Violet who has recently moved with her working single mother to a new area ingratiates herself with a welcoming close-knit family run by a single father. She’s rebellious against her mother and seduced by the caring affection of her friend’s father. Although she becomes naturally wary of something unsettling about her new adopted family, she is seduced by the acceptance she finds with them which feeds her emotionally and physically. The startling outcome and imagery invoked by this parable of young adulthood produces a distinctly haunting feeling.

Oates has previously invoked elements of genre fiction in multiple novels and story collections. These range from novels of ambitious literary scope such as her gothic quintet of books which she first began publishing in the early 80s with the family saga Bellefleur (1980) and only recently completed with the historical gothic-horror novel The Accursed (2013). Some story collections approach genre in a more straightforward manner such as her books Haunted (1994) and The Collector of Hearts (1998) which indulge in sinister stories of the “Grotesque”. Last year she produced Jack of Spades: A Tale of Suspense (2015) which takes the form of a thrilling story about author-rivalry and pseudonyms. With The Doll-Master and Other Tales of Terror, Oates has created unique, gripping stories which take us to the most extreme edges of what people are capable of when logic breaks down and their minds are plagued by virulent emotions. The terror comes from knowing that with a twist of fate their stories could become our own.

This review also appeared on Bearing Witness: Joyce Carol Oates Studies

It’s my birthday today and, as I explained last year, it’s a personal tradition to read a book I’ve never got around to reading for one reason or another. This year I consciously saved something until today. “Mystery, Inc” by Joyce Carol Oates was published in July this year as a standalone short story by Head of Zeus Books and part of Mysterious Press’ ‘Bibliomysteries’ series. Anyone who is familiar with the bulk of Oates’ writing knows she has a predilection for the macabre and a fascinating engagement with the tradition of gothic literature. This is most evident in her "gothic series" of five novels which first begins with "Bellefleur," but also in many of her short stories and the many novels she's written under pseudonyms. 

I can’t imagine a better story to have saved as a special treat. This book is a fantastically-enjoyable and hypnotically-narrated short crime story. It’s also a bibliophile’s dream as it centres on a beautiful old New England bookstore and includes exhaustive lists of special editions of books that are discussed with reverence: “signed first editions by John Dickson Carr, Agatha Christie, and S.S. Van Dine… 1888 first edition of A Study in Scarlet… first edition of The Hound of the Baskervilles…Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (priced at $75,000), signed by Dickens in his strong, assured hand, in ink that has scarcely faded!” The narrator greedily wishes to obtain these volumes himself and plays with the idea of stealing them. So surprising to read in a book someone recalling with wistful feeling the thrilling rush of shoplifting in a bookshop: “Ah, those days before security cameras!” But the narrator has visited the bookstore while wearing a disguise with the much more sinister intent of poisoning the owner so that he can eventually acquire the shop himself to add to his growing chain of mystery bookshops. The story is sumptuously detailed in its descriptions of the shop, books and artworks displayed. It provoked strong feelings of warm-hearted nostalgia in me as what reader hasn’t felt the pleasure of perusing the shelves of bookstores and all the treasures they contain?

As the plot thickens, the tension rises while the narrator talks with the gregarious owner Aaron Neuhaus over mugs of cappuccino. There is a kinship between the men, but at the same time the narrator sees himself as a predator intent on disposing of Neuhaus to take his business and he even imagines himself taking Neuhaus’ wife! He’s threatened by Neuhaus’ success, particularly the lucrative online bookselling he does. However, Neuhaus has less interest in the business side of things and is more a passionate reader who has a philosophical interest in the genre of mystery. He states that “It is out of the profound mystery of life that ‘mystery books’ arise. And, in turn, ‘mystery books’ allow us to see the mystery of life more clearly, from perspectives not our own.”

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  Aaron Neuhaus has a print of Goya's stark & haunting painting  The Dog  in his bookshop

Aaron Neuhaus has a print of Goya's stark & haunting painting The Dog in his bookshop

The tale turns as Neuhaus describes the history of his bookshop and the various ill-fates of the previous owners by tunnelling backwards in time like a ghost story about a cursed house. There is a shift in control as the narrator listens and it’s as if the predator has become the prey. The story ends in such a fascinatingly ambiguous way that left me unsettled and feeling a rush of wonder. This short story is in some ways like a compressed variation of the wonderful book-length thriller “Jack of Spades” which Oates published earlier this year. Anyone who is thrilled by this story will want to read this longer novel. It was such a joy reading "Mystery Inc" early this morning in my so-called "book nook" at the back of my apartment while drinking tea and listening to the airplanes somewhere over London humming by.

It felt so perfect and pleasurable reading Oates' story this morning that I felt connected to something greater. Not a higher intellectual or spiritual plane but that common ground of sharing a good story thrillingly told, taking part in that agreement between author and reader to indulge in a fantasy which plays upon the deepest murmurings of the subconscious. Like many people, I've encountered some difficult times in my life so I'm grateful for the peace offered by this solitude to read, participate in such enjoyable fiction and reflect.

Tonight I’m looking forward to seeing Sufjan Stevens perform at the Royal Festival Hall and having some dim sum with friends beforehand. Thanks to everyone who has been in touch with me over the past year to discuss books and suggested more things to read.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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