pages in this section

Black Static


My Hero: Joyce Carol Oates

10th Feb, 2011

Web Exclusive icon

By Nina Allan

The curse on the Bellefleurs, it was said, was very simple: they were fated to be Bellefleurs, from womb to grave and beyond

(Joyce Carol Oates Bellefleur)

The first Oates I read was a novella called 'The Ruins of Contracoeur', sandwiched between stories by Kim Newman and Tom Disch at the front end of Al Sarrantonio's epic pre-millennial anthology 999. Like many cases of love at first sight it was a chance meeting, but its effects turned out to be instantaneous and ongoing. 'Contracoeur' is a strange, meandering tale of five children left to run wild in the grounds of a dilapidated mansion while their bankrupted, outcast parents try and fail to come to terms with their disgrace. There is talk of a monster, a thing-without-a-face, but it becomes increasingly uncertain as to whether this barely glimpsed creature is a figment of the imagination or worse still a metamorphosis of the children's own father. The house, Cross Hill, is a repository of ghostly echoes, a reimagining of Henry James's Bly from a century earlier. The children, we are told, are 'skilled with computers,' they use mobile phones and email like everyone else. And yet their mysterious, almost telepathic togetherness, their isolation from ordinary things, make them seem, like the Gormenghast children or the Midwich Cuckoos, survivors from another age or possibly another reality.

Was this supernatural fiction or a superheated metaphor for the human condition? Even after reading 'Contracoeur' twice I still wasn't sure. I knew only that I had never read anything quite like it before, that I had not experienced such profound identification with a writer since I first came to know the work of Iris Murdoch a decade before. Only that if this was horror, I wanted in

I also wanted to read more, and as soon as possible. I was surprised and dismayed to discover that copies of Oates's novels were hard to come by, that those I was most interested in - the novel called Zombie that won Oates a Stoker in 1996, a collection of stories entitled, promisingly, Haunted - had to be ordered from America.

The internet has made it easier to obtain Oates's import editions these days, but I still find myself amazed by how few UK readers seem to have read her. It's not as if American fiction is out of fashion. The 'great American novel' is a staple of literary debate and the review pages of the broadsheet newspapers last autumn seemed to talk nothing but Jonathan Franzen, so why is it that Oates's most recent collection, Sourland (released at around the same time), hasn't even had a review in The Guardian yet?  

There will be those who argue it is because she's a woman, that while her male contemporaries - Roth, Yates, Ford, Updike - are lauded for their acute social commentary and political insight, Oates has been sidelined as a female oddity, her very audacity in her choice of subject matter recast by the male literary establishment as obsessive neurosis. There is probably some truth in this reasoning. In both social and political terms Oates's novels are potentially explosive, and yet her treatments of race and gender issues, social entropy and family breakdown, corruption and domestic violence are often brushed aside by reviewers as 'gothic tropes.'  You have to ask yourself if this would happen to Oates if she was a man. I think the answer would undoubtedly be no.

This isn't the whole story though and I would hate to make it so because such arguments often tend to distract from the work itself. The bigger truth is that commentators get edgy around Oates because she's hard to pigeonhole. As a writer she does not go in for bland generalisations, and 'issues' in her novels impact upon her characters as they impact upon the rest of us: as interwoven and inextricable strands in a life drama that is singular and personal. Her works show little interest in the boardroom or the pulpit or the political rally; instead they inhabit the realm of the particular, the private worlds of passion and incipient madness. The Mulvaney family in We Were the Mulvaneys do not stand for middle America, they do not have to 'stand for' anything. They are simply the Mulvaneys, and they are doomed.

The problem with Oates is that she is unclassifiable. It's fashionable to talk about her divided output, her horror novels versus her mainstream and therefore more 'serious' works, but amusingly there seems to be some dispute about which is which. I have seen her masterpiece Bellefleur described as 'an epic family saga,' whereas it is in fact the second-greatest vampire novel yet written. And not everyone who reads Solstice realises they are reading a novel about witchcraft. But anyone who knows Oates knows such definitions are nonsense anyway. The truth is that all her novels are gothic novels, and all her gothic novels are serious. Oates is clearly comfortable enough with her talent not to care how her works happen to be categorized. What matters to her is the mystery that is story.

Oates's stories chime with the secret, innate music of tales told around a camp fire. Her prose has an intimacy to it that seems to invite collusion in a crime. It is a tapestry of chance remarks, of shifting glimpses, of dangerous observations. Things happen, only it is not always possible to know if the events described in an Oates story have really come to pass or are simply imagined, perhaps by the narrator of the story or perhaps by you. Oates whispers rather than shouts, but the things she whispers about - madness, desire, obsession and death - are so compelling you can't help but lean in closer to listen.  

Joyce Carol Oates is a hero to me not because she's a woman but because of her fearlessness as a writer. Like Shirley Jackson before her, she is a horror writer that cares first and foremost about literary quality, a literary novelist who understands that myth and magic form the tap root of the human imagination. What is more, she is brave enough to celebrate that and embrace it rather than insisting as some have (and we all know who we're talking about here) that she does not write horror, and that science fiction is not the province of the 'serious' writer.  

Joyce Carol Oates - a beginner's guide

Zombie 9780451189080 Scandalously it's out of print now, but copies are easily obtainable from I read it again recently and I have to say it's one of the most horrible horror novels I've ever read! Not only did it deserve its Stoker, it deserves to go down as a classic in the canon of the 'unreliable narrator.' More unsettling than American Psycho even, once read it's never forgotten. One of those rare novels you feel nervous of picking up too close to bedtime, even as an adult.

Bellefleur 9780452267947 Once again, the only way of getting this at the moment is through the second hand sites, but there are plenty of reasonably priced copies out there and it's more than worth the effort. A six-hundred page family chronicle, a vampire novel in which the word 'vampire' is never mentioned, a glorious cornucopia of myth, magic, and heartbreaking tragedy. Here is Oates's writing at its lyrical best. It's a crime how few people know this novel.

The Tattooed Girl 9780007170784 The closest Oates gets to a love story! As always with JCO, nothing is quite as it seems, but I found so much beauty in this novel that it went straight on to my Desert Island booklist. 

Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque 9780451185723 Worth the cover price for 'The Doll' alone. These stories are quite simply the best that modern horror has to offer.

My Sister, My Love 9780007305766 A novel based loosely around the killing of child beauty queen Jonbenet Ramsey in the 1990s. Narrated by the murdered girl's brother, it is both a dark and disturbing personal drama and a stinging critique of contemporary America.

Sourland 9780061996528 A collection written in the wake of Oates's husband's death in 2008, these intense and powerful stories tell of crimes of the heart and the death of love, the corrosive power of grief. They read like Alice Munro in the grip of a dangerous overdose of insomnia and black coffee.

American Gothic Tales 9780452274891 A wonderfully imaginative anthology edited by JCO showcasing the finest in classic and modern American dark fantasy

And online: check out Celestial Timepiece, a treasure house of Oates news, reviews and biographical information.



Section items by date:

Pages in this section: