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JOYCE CAROL OATES: The Gothic Queen

September 1999
By Paula Guran

Joyce Carol Oates Just keeping abreast of Joyce Carol Oates's bibliography is a challenge. Since 1963 she's written or edited more than 100 books and works of drama including more than three dozen novels. (Thank goodness for Randy Souther, who maintains the comprehensive Oates-authorized Celestial Timepiece Web site at Her latest book (at this writing in September, 1999) is WHERE I'VE BEEN, AND WHERE I'M GOING: ESSAYS, REVIEWS, AND PROSE (Plume), an amazing display of wide-ranging knowledge and diverse interests from psychokillers to the art of René Magritte and Edward Hopper to Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe to boxing. Her latest novel, BROKE HEART BLUES, a classic tale of misfit outsiders who disrupt the quietude of a small town was published in July by Dutton. Earlier in the year Dutton also issued her seventh suspense thriller written under the pseudonym "Rosamond Smith" -- STARR BRIGHT WILL BE WITH YOU SOON. The novel explores the dark bonds of twinship and the mind and emotions of a female serial killer. Among several books published last year was THE COLLECTOR OF HEARTS:NEW TALES OF THE GROTESQUE, a collection of short dark fiction comparable to her earlier HAUNTED: TALES OF THE GROTESQUE (1994).

Through her stories, novels, and criticism she has become something of a contemporary Honoré de Balzac -- but instead of nineteenth century France, her panoramic vision of the human comedy offers a grim look at the wounds, violence, and rage of contemporary American society.

A literary luminary whose work has touched on many genres, she's received numerous awards including the F. Scott Fitzgerald Award for Lifetime Achievement in American Literature, the Rea Award for the Short Story, the National Book Award, and has written a bevy of O. Henry Award winning stories.

book cover But for those of us in the horror field, she's the Grande Dame of the New Gothic. The only woman to receive the Horror Writers Association's highest accolade, the Bram Stoker Award for Lifetime Achievement. She's also received a Stoker for her serial killer novel ZOMBIE (1995). Oates's stories have appeared in seven of the twelve THE YEAR'S BEST FANTASY AND HORROR annual anthologies. Her most recent novella, "The Ruins Of Contracoeur" is one of the most outstanding entries in the recently released mega-anthology, 999: NEW STORIES OF HORROR AND SUSPENSE. Oates describes "The Ruins Of Contracoeur" as "both a horror tale and an adventure of redemption. The 'horror' is the realization that our parents can't help us; even if we love them, they can't shield us from harm; and just possibly we don't know them. The redemption springs from acting upon this realization. Most horror tales contain the seeds of redemption, though of course not inevitably. Horror can simply confirm -- horror."

"'Horror'" is a fact of life," says Oates, "and as a writer I'm fascinated by all facets of life. As H. P. Lovecraft has said, 'The oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.' Horror or gothic literature is the most imaginative of all literatures, bearing an obvious relationship to the surreal logic of dreams."

book cover Beyond her own fiction, Oates has influenced and helped define modern horror through her critical writing and editing of AMERICAN GOTHIC TALES. In her introduction to the anthology, recognizes that many of the writers she selected for the volume "are not 'gothic' writers, but simply -- writers. Their inclusion... is meant to suggest the richness and magnitude of the gothic-grotesque and the inadequacy of genre labels if by ''genre' is meant mere formula."

She explained to HorrorOnline that the "gothic sensibility" is "one that cultivates a surreal, often dreamlike landscape in which to dramatize basic emotions like fear; 'modern gothic' ( or, as Bradford Morrow and Patrick McGrath have called it, in their excellent anthology, THE NEW GOTHIC) tends to focus upon interior states of mind; there are no cartoon monsters in The New Gothic, for instance."

(As for the goth subculture that borrows the nomenclature and perhaps some of that sensibility, Oates finds it "playful and imaginative; a counterworld to set against the fitness-conscious, career-minded, 'healthy' straight world that is the overwhelming majority.")

book cover Oates recognizes, however a distinction in the popular sense of horror as opposed to horror in the literary sense; "'Horror' in the popular sense is genre work, writing or films, that focuses upon that emotion, and subordinating all other aesthetic consideration to it; you don't expect psychological subtleties or plausibilities in genre horror. It appeals to people because, I think, it prepares us for the possible experience of genuine horror; an aesthetic fear isn't the real thing, and in times of social upheaval, war, private distress, no one would feel the need to seek out 'horror' fiction."

Joyce Carol Oates childhood years involved "a daily scramble for existence." Her working-class family lived in a rural area outside of Lockport, New York, and Oates attended a one-room schoolhouse for the elementary grades. Even before learning to write, she drew and painted "stories." At age fourteen, she received a typewriter as a gift and began "writing novel after novel." After high school, she attended Syracuse University on scholarship. Her writing talent won her the "Mademoiselle" fiction contest while in college. She was graduated as valedictorian of her class and went on to earn an M. A. in English at the University of Wisconsin, where she met Raymond J. Smith. They married after a brief courtship and in 1962, the couple settled in Detroit. Like many urban environments in the 60s, the Motor City was seething with social tension. Oates saw the violent reality of America reflected in the city. She has written: "Detroit, my 'great subject,' made me the person I am, consequently the writer I am -- for better of worse."

book cover Oates began teaching at the University of Windsor in Canada in 1968. She produced two or three new books a year while working as a full-time academic. Still in her thirties, Oates became one of most respected and honored writers in the United States. Often asked how she has accomplished so much outstanding writing in so many genres, her response is invariably close to what she told the "New York Times" in 1975: "I have always lived a very conventional life of moderation, absolutely regular hours, nothing exotic, no need, even, to organize my time." Oates doesn't even see writing and teaching as "work" in the usual sense as she has also found them "so richly rewarding."

The author moved to Princeton, New Jersey, in 1978. She still teaches there in Princeton University's creative writing program. Oates and her husband also have a small press and publish "The Ontario Review," a literary magazine. Darkly bizarre and obsessive early novels, like WONDERLAND (1971) and SON OF THE MORNING (1978), hint at the supernatural. BELLEFLEUR (1980), the first of four gothic novels that (according to her biographer, Greg Johnson) "simultaneously reworked established literary genres and remained large swaths of American history. Published in the early 1980s, these novels marked a departure from the psychological realism of her earlier work." Thematically and stylistically related there are elements of horror and the Gothic in all four although only BELLEFLEUR (1980), a gothic family saga; A BLOODSMOOR ROMANCE (1982), a romance involving spiritualism; and MYSTERIES OF WINTERBURN (1984), a novel of mystery and murder -- include supernatural elements. Although originally written in the middle 1980s, MY HEART LAID BARE was revised in the mid-1990s and published in 1998 and tells a sinister tale of crime, transgression and tragedy without resorting to the fantastic. (One gothic novel remains: THE CROSSWICKS HORROR and Oates has said it will probably come out within five years.

In the mid-80s, according to Johnson, "Oates returned powerfully to the realistic mode with ambitious family chronicles (YOU MUST REMEMBER THIS, BECAUSE IT IS BITTER, and BECAUSE IT IS MY HEART), novels of female experience (SOLSTICE, MARYA : A LIFE)" as well as her series of pseudonymous suspense novels.

Joyce Carol Oates The author doesn't really know where to begin in tracing her literary influences, "There are so many. I've tried to be influenced by Poe, but I am probably more deeply influenced by Kafka. Though James Joyce was a thorough realist who would not have wished to write about counterworlds, except as hallucinatory fancies of his characters, I feel a writerly kinship with Joyce,"

In her introduction to TALES OF H.P. LOVECRAFT, a collection Oates edited, she saw Lovecraft as "arguably the more beloved by contemporary gothic aficionados" than Poe, who is "now a canonical figure in American literature."

"I'd first read Lovecraft when I was a young adolescent, which is perhaps the best time to read Lovecraft," she admits. "Now, I admire him for his style, his monomaniacal precision, the 'weirdness' of his imagination, and the underlying, intransigent tragic vision that informs all of his work. He's an American original, whose influences on subsequent writers in the field (Stephen King, for instance) is all-pervasive."

Joyce Carol Oates next novel, BLONDE, will be published in April 2000 by Ecco/HarperCollins. She describes it as "a long, somewhat experimental work told posthumously by the individual whom we know (or believe we know) as 'Marilyn Monroe.' But I see her as Norma Jeane Baker, the private person; in the novel a disembodied presence who relives her life and comments upon it, as a spirit might for whom past, present and future are simultaneous. There is a fair amount of nightmare horror in this life, as there was in Norma Jeane's historic life; her premature unnatural death remains a mystery, one which I approach by way of 'gothic' elements. Whether I've over-emphasized the dark side of Marilyn Monroe's life, or presented it fairly, will perhaps be a matter of controversy."

Controversial or not, there is little doubt that Joyce Carol Oates will again illumine the darkest heart of society and the deepest mysteries of the soul with her powerful mastery of the storyteller's art.


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