Monday, October 22, 2012

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 22: There Is No Death


"Hey, what's with all these Brits!" I imagine you saying. Screaming, really. "Aren't you an American!? All's you ever write about's BRITS!" Then you throw your plate of cold, sauceless spaghetti against the wall. Well, point taken. I've noticed it myself, and in fact you didn't mention that not only are many of the horror writers I've been covering lately been British, they've been old as well, relatively speaking. All I can tell you is...well, screw you, is all I can tell you. What the hell business is it of yours? Eat your cold and undressed spaghetti, you fuckers. And Pugmire's an American, and for all I know so is William Scott Home. I mean for Chrissake.

Joyce Carol Oates, as best I can tell, has been writing horror fiction for just about her entire career, off and on, and that career, as you may know, is what can only be regarded as formidable. She's written sixty novels, twenty-four story collections, nine collections of plays (no idea how many actual plays that comes out to), sixteen books of non-fiction, ten collections of poetry, five young adult novels, and three children's books. She is fucking absurd, this woman. And by the way, she's actually taken some heat over the years for being so productive, the argument being -- and other breathtakingly prolific writers have heard similar complaints -- that by cranking stuff out at such a breakneck pace, the quality must therefore suffer, and that if she reined back a little and wrote one book instead of seven, she could take the necessary time to make that one book super-good. I don't understand quite how these people can know that when Joyce Carol Oates finishes a novel, she goes "Pffft, good enough. Next!", but they seem pretty convinced of it. Personally, I'm in awe of her, and when I joke about it to my wife, or note the absurdity of seeing one shelf of new releases at my local Barnes & Noble end with her new novel, and the next shelf of new releases just below beginning with her new collection of stories, it is my sniveling, clammy, hunched and shuffling way of stomping down on my envy of her immense creativity.

And, as I say, she's been writing horror just about this whole time. I myself have only read six and I'd say three-quarters of her books, and even from that tiny sampling of her total body of work, a full three and three-quarters of those books were horror, or horror-affiliated in some way. One of those books was Zombie, her first person novel about a serial killer not unlike Jeffrey Dahmer (this ripped-from-the-headlines approach is fairly common in Oates's work -- among others, she's written a novel based on Chappaquiddick and told from the point of view of a Mary Jo Kopechne stand-in, called Black Water (read that one), and another based on the murder of JonBenet Ramsey, called My Sister, My Love (didn't read that one)), won the 1996 Bram Stoker Award for Best Novel. She's written a number of Gothic novels, Gothic being the haunted, suicidal great aunt of horror, and one of her two novels pegged for release in 2013, The Accursed, is another Gothic novel that sounds to be even more tilted towards horror than usual, and was originally announced under the title The Crosswicks Horror. Along the way, she's won many mainstream awards, including the National Book Award, and has been floated as a possible recipient of the Nobel Prize. Though neither Oates nor any other currently living American fiction writer with dreams of bringing home that particular honor should hold their breath.

Along with Zombie, which I think represents about as accurate an imagining of the mind of a serial killer as it's possible for a sane person to manage, my primary experience of Oates's horror fiction is through her short stories. I read the majority of her 1998 horror collection The Collector of Hearts, and, listen: I don't only admire Oates, I'm also a fan of her writing. But as I clawed my way through that book, before finally losing my grip with about 70 pages to go and spiraling into the abyss, I felt that Oates was posing a little bit. I did not realize then how committed she was to the genre -- I had some sense of it, but did not understand the extent -- but so many of the stories seemed unwilling to fully be of the genre, and as a result read as vague "Literary" exercises, devoid of any grip or life or even stylistic charge. This wasn't some new approach to horror, as I'd hoped it would be, but a pale imitation of what I already knew. I remember very little of what I read now, apart from the title story and another one about abortion the title of which escapes me now, and also have come to a much fuller understand of what Oates is about, have read another collection of her horror and suspense stories called The Museum of Dr. Moses and Other Stories, and about that one, to paraphrase something Carl Showalter once said of Jose Feliciano, I got no complaints. She was, perhaps, merely off her game with that one, but at the time it did give me significant pause.

Oates started her full and public embrace of horror in 1977 with the publication of Night-Side, her first story collection devoted to the genre. The title story of that collection (the first of today's selections! Finally!) is one of her most famous horror offerings. It's very consciously classical piece told in the epistolary form by Jarvis, a student of Dr. Perry Moore, who himself is an expert, and hardcore, debunker of spirit mediums, in the service of the "Society" (which sounds sinister in its vagueness, but isn't). The story takes place in the late 1880s, and chronicles Dr. Moore's sudden reversal of philosophies from a presumably atheistic disdain for the very idea of the spirit world, to manic belief that essentially everything he once debunked is in fact true. This reversal is spurred by an encounter at a seance performed by Mrs. A_______ that is very personal and apparently of such a specific and overwhelming nature, from Moore's point of view, that he's left with no option but to regard his life up to that point as a lie. From Jarvis's perspective, nothing more impressive happened to Moore than anything they've both witnessed and dismissed any number of times at other seances conducted by other spirit mediums that didn't impress or convince them in the least (including Mrs. A_______, who they've visited before, and are in the middle of investigating). But it drives Moore mad, and his newfound belief that "there is no death," as well, you suspect, some serious guilt over what led Brandon, the man whose spirit speaks to him, to suicide (the implication, very strongly, is that Dr. Moore and Brandon were lovers, and that Moore was terrified of being discovered, so he ended the relationship).

"Night-Side" is a very heavily philosophical ghost story, with the stakes of what Moore believes or doesn't believe, and why he does or doesn't believe, as well as Jarvis's own take on everything, being literally life and death, and being filtered through passages like the following musings from Jarvis's diary:

We inhabit a lighted sphere, then; and about us is a vast penumbra of memories, reflections, feelings, and stray uncoordinated thoughts that "belong" to us theoretically, but that do not seem to be part of our conscious identity...It is quite possible that there is an element of some indeterminate kind: oceanic, timeless, and living, against which the individual being constructs temporary barriers as part of an ongoing process of unique, particularized survival; like the ocean itself, which appears to separate islands that are in fact not "islands" at all, but aspects of the earth firmly joined together below the surface of the water. Our lives, then, resemble these islands...

Oates is seriously wrestling with the questions raised here. I don't know what her own philosophical and theological beliefs are, but "Night-Side" seems to finally take a stand of uneasy belief in the afterlife. Uneasy, because there is no strong conviction offered for what that afterlife might actually be comprised of. Maybe it's just aimless, despairing wandering. In any case, Oates has some fun with the certainty of the debunkers, at least late-19th century debunkers, who might theorize that, spirit mediums being phony, perhaps their tricks could be chalked up to the medium possessing strong telepathic powers. Of course, this joke cuts both ways, from our enlightened 21st century perspective: Dr. Moore, pre-conversion, may be viewed as naive and arrogant for being so positive that the seances he witnesses are bullshit yet remain convinced that telepathy is real, but where does that leave the story's ambiguity as we, now, are positive that all of its phony? Furthermore, in his debates with post-conversion Moore (gentle debates, due to Moore's increasingly fragile mental state), Jarvis uses the very fair argument that Moore had seen other clients of Mrs. A________ react exactly as Moore was now, and Moore was unmoved. But when it happens to you...is it hypocritical, or genuinely, yet indefinably, different? I don't expect to ever have to answer that question, but it's one that fascinates Oates.

The other story I read for today, "The Bingo Master," may be Oates's most reprinted horror story, at least within the world of horror anthologies (it was originally published in Kirby McCauley's Dark Forces anthology). If forced to state a preference between it and "Night-Side," I'd have to go with "The Bingo Master," despite the fact that it's very much in keeping with what be regarded as Oates's typical themes and concerns, and also its strong resemblance to another horror classic -- classic to my mind, anyway -- one that I bring up often enough that it must be getting boring, but the contents of "The Bingo Master" make it unavoidable in this case. What I'm getting at is, I really wish more people would read "The Last Act" by Roald Dahl so that my constant referrals to it won't seem so crazy. But here, I really do have no choice. That story was about a desperately lonely and unhappy widow trying, and spectacularly failing (with no little assistance towards the end, there) to rebuild some kind of happiness by stepping back out into the world of dating. Which sounds like a simplistic way of describing it, but anyway. Something very similar is happening in Oates's "The Bingo Master." The protagonist of this story is Rose Mallow Odom, a cynical, ostensibly above-it-all, small-town-Alabama spinster whose failed writing career and gawky appearance have hardened her to the world, not in any sort of hateful or misanthropic way, but she sort of cloaks herself in a second-rate Dorothy Parker personality, which anyway mostly exists in her head -- you don't get the sense that she presents herself to other people this way, other than through the copious handwritten letters she sends to her many friends who have left tiny Tophet, Alabama and gotten on with their lives, in some cases fulfilling some measure of the artistic ambitions that Rose, herself, has long since given up on. Rose's situation now, though, as the story opens, is that she has made the, to her, flighty, but steely, decision to "divest myself of my damned virginity," and she spends her Thursday nights (Thursday, because on those nights the library is open late, and she can lie to her father and aunt, with whom she lives, that this is where she's going so late) hunting for men, or, rather, trying to figure out how one even begins doing such a thing. Rose is touchingly hopeless -- sometimes, she actually does end up spending her evening at the library -- but she is loathe to give up. To do so would be to admit to herself her own undesirability to herself, which she expressed jokingly in one of her letters this way, in describing the difficulties inherent in her newly formed plan:

As my famous ironing-board figure is flatter than ever, & my breasts the size of Dixie cups after last spring's ritual flu & a rerun of that wretched bronchitis, it will be, as you can imagine, quite a challenge.

While it's not a one-to-one match-up, if you've read "The Last Act" perhaps you can see in what way "The Bingo Master" will come to resemble it. Mind you, I'm in no way claiming that Oates ripped off Dahl's story (she was quite possibly directly inspired by it, but I don't know), because, for one thing, "The Bingo Master" seems a good deal more personal to Oates than "The Last Act" did to Dahl (let's pray that's the case, anyway). The unhappiness of women, the humiliation of women, a certain kind of female wallflower's uncertain and grasping stumble towards some kind of happiness, and the horrible dangers they can uniquely face along the way, seem to drive Oates's horror and suspense fiction more than any of the other ideas she's used to fuel her genre work (and not a tiny bit of her non-genre work -- see Black Water). I've rarely seen this kind of material approached more movingly than here. At one point, Rose is approaching a singles' bar she'd heard about, only to see all the other patrons waiting in line to get inside to be almost twenty years younger than herself, and dressed completely differently: "She looked dressed for church, which she hated. But however else did people dress?" In this way, "The Bingo Master" also resembles Elizabeth Jane Howard's "Mr. Wrong," with the major difference being that Rose approaches the world differently, she's less meek than that story's heroine, and less willing to accept -- not forever, anyway -- her unhappy lot.

All of which leads her to Joe Pye, the Bingo Master, a local and very popular entrepreneur, a figure of some provincial controversy, but nonetheless something of a small-town celebrity. Even Rose, when she surprises herself (this is, in fact, where the story begins) by attending Pye's bingo hall one night, finds him irresistible (he is "[e]ven beautiful, if you are in the habit -- Rose isn't -- of calling men beautiful"), and shockingly, to her, after she wins a round of bingo, with a prize of $100, Pye seems drawn to her. At one point, Pye's goatee is described as "Mephistophelean." So.

All the stuff about Joe Pye's impact on Tophet, AL, as a businessman is very much like something Stephen King might write, and when you add Dahl's "The Last Act" and some fascinating hints that "The Bingo Master" is also, along with everything else, concerned to some degree with the same questions that consumed Oates's own "Night-Side" (just how Mephistophelean is Joe Pye, and if the answer is "very," what does that mean? These are questions that are not asked in "The Bingo Master," but which I nevertheless feel got asked, if you follow me) might make this story seem like an unwieldy jumble, but it isn't. It's a very controlled piece of fiction, heartbreaking, even in some ways infuriating, powerful, less traditionally horrifying, less traditionally frightening, than "Night-Side," but here Oates is somehow more confident in the effects she can achieve, in how smart she can be without having to wave her hands for attention, and how she can write a horror story that can quietly linger in the reader's mind for days afterwards. Good stuff.

5 comments:

John said...

Not sure whether this might count as "Night-Side" spoilers or what,...


...but my memory of the story is that it posits an afterlife that's really only a transient state. Some frail disembodied remnant of consciousness survives for a time after the body dies, but soon fades into nothingness. So, ultimately, it's the afterlife itself, rather than death, that proves illusory.

bill r. said...

That's not what I got. I gathered it was a somewhat Godless afterlife, and not exactly pleasant, but not that it ended -- which I'd say is part of what was so unpleasant about it. Brandon, whose spirit spoke to Perry, had been dead something like 20 years by the time he made contact at the seance.

John said...

Yeah, I gotta read it again one of these days.

Anonymous said...

Dumb story. "The Bingo Master" might be horror to a spinster, but that's about it. It's lame. I was honestly mad that it was included in Dark Forces. Joyce Carol Oates is NOT horror. I don't know why people think she is. "The Bingo Master" is honestly one of the worst stories I have ever read. Utterly pointless.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the reviewer above me about "The Bingo Master". It started out promisingly, but the final part (it's not an ending) was a complete disappointment. There's no resolution. It's not even an open ending. This is not a horror story by any measure, but it could have been. What a waste.

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