The Ineluctable Agon of Desire: Joyce Carol Oates’s Suspense Fiction

By Rob LathamJanuary 8, 2021

The Ineluctable Agon of Desire: Joyce Carol Oates’s Suspense Fiction

Cardiff, by the Sea by Joyce Carol Oates

A SIGNIFICANT PORTION of the huge literary output of Joyce Carol Oates has been cast in a Gothic mode. The author has openly acknowledged her debts to Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft, writing movingly about how their fiction, with its focus on “the interior of the soul,” links personal fears and anxieties with visions of cosmic dread. In a 1998 essay on “The Aesthetics of Fear,” she laid out a wide-ranging view of horror literature as a cathartic genre: by evoking “an artful simulation” of an emotion that is “crude, inchoate, nerve-driven and ungovernable,” such fiction helps readers confront their own “recurring and compulsive nightmares.” As her fine 1996 anthology American Gothic Tales, which traces a lineage from Charles Brockden Brown to Stephen King, makes clear, Oates sees the grotesque and uncanny as central to the American literary tradition.

Oates’s own engagement with this tradition was evidenced in her early collection Night-Side (1977), which gathers 18 stories (including the title tale, an evocative exploration of occult research) that treat themes of haunting, dark obsession, and morbid diablerie. Many subsequent collections — such as Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque (1994), Demon and Other Tales (1996), The Collector of Hearts: New Tales of the Grotesque (1998), The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares (2011), and The Doll Master and Other Tales of Terror (2016) — have been organized around similar topics, with a number of stories explicitly harkening back to classics in the field: “Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly” (in Haunted), for example, is a retelling of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898) from the perspective of the ghosts, while “Death-Cup” (in Corn Maiden) cleverly invokes Poe’s ambiguous doppelgänger story, “William Wilson” (1839). These allusions function not as mere pastiches but as canny reimaginings, in which Oates unpacks the subtexts of the originals with subtlety and a shrewd eye for psychological nuance. Her short fiction has been celebrated within the field: “Fossil-Figures,” a tale of macabre vengeance, won a World Fantasy Award in 2011, while the collection in which it appeared, Corn Maiden, won a Bram Stoker Award from the Horror Writers of America.

Perhaps Oates’s most abiding theme — of thwarted, enslaving, or embittered love — has always cast a Gothic shadow: her widely anthologized 1966 story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” features a gloating, sorcerous seduction, while early novels such as With Shuddering Fall (1964), Wonderland (1971), and Do with Me What You Will (1973) showcase characters driven to the brink of madness by sexual passion, requited or not. Her 1996 short novel First Love: A Gothic Tale turns an unsparingly brutal story of sexual abuse into a rich meditation on themes of vampirism and demonic possession, while Beasts (2001) analyzes the masochistic impulse that drives obsessive love, twisting erotic need into febrile fantasies of abasement and devourment. Oates’s fascination for tales of love gone wrong has led to several narratives about serial killers whose transgressive urges emerge out of sexual loneliness and a perverse yearning for human connection: her Stoker Award–winning novel Zombie (1995), for example, inspired by the sanguinary career of Jeffrey Dahmer, features a murderer who attempts to create a slavish companion whose love can never be retracted or revoked.

Oates’s most sustained engagement with the horror genre can be found in her so-called “Gothic Saga,” which to date includes Bellefleur (1980), A Bloodsmoor Romance (1982), Mysteries of Winterthurn (1984), My Heart Laid Bare (1998), and The Accursed (2013). Historical tales that self-consciously echo past masters of the field, as well as evoking and updating archaic forms such as the sensation novel (à la Wilkie Collins), these are rich and rewarding works that weave occult elements — hauntings, psychic powers, ancestral curses — into densely layered portraits of everyday life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While the earliest installments in the series, though coinciding with the boom in horror publishing during the 1980s, did not enjoy a wide crossover audience, the more recent books have been warmly embraced within the field, with Stephen King calling The Accursed “hypnotic.”

Since the 1990s, Oates herself has cultivated close connections with the horror field, building bridges between the genre and the larger literary marketplace. Indeed, she is probably the genre’s most distinguished ambassador in the halls of mainstream publishing, issuing manifestos on the centrality of terror to the modern imagination and defending Lovecraft against his many detractors as an author with an authentically spiritual and tragic sensibility.

Given the boldness with which she has advanced this cause, it is curious that Oates sought to cloak her first foray into psychological suspense (a major offshoot of the Gothic) under a pseudonym. Her 1987 book Lives of the Twins was scheduled to be released as by “Rosamond Smith,” but shortly before publication, Oates’s cover was blown, causing some consternation among her agent and editors. Somewhat miffed by the dust-up herself, the prolific author characteristically turned the incident into a lengthy meditation for The New York Times Book Review, in which she argued that professional writers often come to feel trapped by their public personas, yearning to escape from them out of an “instinct for freedom and newness.” She rather coyly implies that her own resort to a pseudonym was an expression of just such an impulse: “It may be that, after a certain age, our instinct for anonymity is as powerful as that for identity; or, more precisely, for an erasure of the primary self so that another (hitherto undiscovered?) self may be released.”

At the same time, she goes on to admit that “the great majority of writers who use pseudonyms […] are genre writers,” because crime stories and spy thrillers and science fiction bear a low-art stigma: they are “only ‘entertainment’ after all.” A subsequent essay, published in Writer’s Digest in 2001, suggests that avoiding such a stigma may have been part of her own motive for deploying a nom de plume:

I wanted to write under a pseudonym because I really wanted to have a separate identity for those novels — suspense, mystery, thrillers. They tend to be leaner and shorter than my other novels. They don’t have as much sociological or political detail, they’re more cinematic.

In other words, unlike her celebrated novels of social realism, such as the National Book Award–winning Them (1969) or the Pulitzer Prize finalist What I Lived For (1994), her suspense stories aren’t works of serious literature. Yet despite losing her incognito, Oates continued, for over a decade, to produce novels under her transparent alias, eight in all, with the last two bylined “Joyce Carol Oates writing as Rosamond Smith.”

In 2004, she adopted another pseudonym, Lauren Kelly, for three more suspense novels, but soon she abandoned all such pretense, releasing a series of story collections with subtitles that frankly acknowledge their genre roots: The Female of the Species: Tales of Mystery and Suspense (2006), The Museum of Dr. Moses: Tales of Mystery and Suspense (2007), Give Me Your Heart: Tales of Mystery and Suspense (2011), High Crime Area: Tales of Darkness and Dread (2014), DIS MEM BER and Other Tales of Mystery and Suspense (2017), Night-Gaunts and Other Tales of Suspense (2018), and now Cardiff, by the Sea: Four Novellas of Suspense. Her novels Jack of Spades: A Tale of Suspense (2015) and Pursuit: A Novel of Suspense (2019) could easily have been published as by Smith or Kelly but were released under her own name. Jack of Spades, in fact, has a clever premise that turns on a mystery writer’s pseudonym, with a fake moniker emerging as a kind of nemesis that hounds the hapless protagonist.

It is hard to say whether Oates simply tired of the pretext of anonymity or if she has now fully embraced her suspense writing in the same way as she has her horror fiction. Perhaps she came to see that the key themes of the best suspense fiction — the ineluctable agon of desire, the psychic thrall of criminality and violence — have been at the core of her work from the beginning. Her third novel, Expensive People (1968), features the first-person narrative of a teenage killer, while her sixth, Do with Me What You Will, powerfully traces the legacy of crime within a fractured family, with the kidnapping of a child leading inexorably to madness and murder (the short story that seeded the novel was nominated for an Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers of America). This noir thread running through Oates’s career was recognized in 2019 when Hard Case Crime republished her 1976 novella about a mad slasher’s killing spree, The Triumph of the Spider Monkey.

Oates has often been drawn to infamous criminal scandals, giving some of her novels a “ripped from the headlines” quality: Zombie, as noted, was inspired by the sordid exploits of Jeffrey Dahmer, while My Sister, My Love (2008) reimagines the murder of JonBenét Ramsey and the exceptionally creepy Daddy Love (2012) riffs on prominent cases in which abducted children have been raised by their kidnappers and abusers. Even her invented felonies show a fascination for the mechanisms of investigation and punishment characteristic of the suspense genre: American Appetites (1989), for example, is an almost forensic anatomy of an ambiguous killing, in which the essential opacity of human motivation runs up against the juridical strictures of arraignment and trial. The author’s engrossment in the subject has even led to an edited volume in the “Akashic Noir” series of anthologies, Prison Noir (2014).

While the exigencies of the suspense genre, with its focus on psychic interiority, might suggest that Oates’s crime thrillers do indeed scant the “sociological or political detail” that characterizes her novels of social realism, the 11 Rosamond Smith and Lauren Kelly books are actually deeply observed social documents. Many of them traverse the same terrain as Oates’s “straight” novels: the class and gender landscape of suburban New Jersey and exurban New York, shading into the rural hinterlands of western Pennsylvania. Take Me, Take Me with You (2003), for example, traces a trauma with roots in the hamlet of Strykersville, an

old, inland city on the Erie Barge Canal. Population 22,000. It appeared to be economically depressed as if under a bell jar, no oxygen, arrested in a long-ago time, the early 1960s perhaps. […] Here were railroad tracks that looked unused, vacant lots, aging commercial buildings — grain mills, small factories — and weatherworn stucco rowhouses …

Several of the novels feature characters who have escaped such dismal environments for business or academic success, only to have — as in the classic Gothic — the repressed past return to stake its claim. In Take Me, Take Me with You, the daughter of a convicted murderer becomes a research star at Princeton, at least until a scheming figure from her lost youth reappears and drags her into a loveless obsession. In Snake Eyes (1992), a corporate attorney, afflicted by some nameless childhood guilt, embraces the cause of an imprisoned killer who, when released, torments his benefactor remorselessly. Furtive, ambivalent impulses vex Oates’s heroes: again and again in these stories, sheltered, brainy loners — a widowed arts administrator in Soul/Mate (1989), a bachelor book collector in You Can’t Catch Me (1995) — find themselves caught up in evil intrigues that terrify but also secretly thrill them.

In a few of the books, the allure of an artistic calling seems to offer liberation from the psychic traumas of mundane life only to, perversely, draw the protagonist into ever deeper horrors. The heroine of Blood Mask (2006), for example, is taken in as a ward by her bohemian aunt, who runs an artists’ colony in Upstate New York, but her yearning for a transcendent life among these quirky creators only serves to enmesh her in a cynical web of deception and violence. In The Barrens (2001), perhaps the best of Oates’s pseudonymous thrillers, the protagonist’s photographic hobby draws him into a circle of artists that includes a serial killer, for whose crimes he becomes a suspect; the ensuing game of cat and mouse is highly reminiscent of the work of Patricia Highsmith. Indeed, in their engrossing tension and atmosphere of creeping dread, Oates’s “Smith” and “Kelly” books bear comparison with the best of such classic suspense writers as Margaret Millar, Ruth Rendell, and Minette Walters.

And through them all runs the theme Oates returns to forever: the transgressive force of erotic compulsion, the urge to possess and control, which is yet so close to surrender. As the killer in The Barrens thinks of his latest victim, “He was in love with her, a sick, draining love. To be free of that love, he had to kill her.” For her part, the heroine of Take Me, Take Me with You feels herself “veering out of control” as she succumbs to her seducer’s wiles. “There’s a strange happiness to it,” she muses, “in the reckless instant you surrender.” In Pursuit, an unremittingly grim study of marital abuse, a young wife knows that her husband’s fierce passion is a threat to her, yet she cannot escape its centripetal pull: “She is astonished by his love for her and by his desire for her, which she observes as one might observe a raging fire from just a few feet away, dangerously close.” It was a bad mistake, she thinks, “to have given in to happiness. She will be punished now.” This ruthless punitive logic drives many of these breathless tales, giving them the gripping undertow of nightmare.

Cardiff, by the Sea is a good place to start for those new to the author’s suspense writing. The book gathers four long stories that are typical of Oates’s output in the field, featuring haunted protagonists rediscovering buried pasts, obsessive romantic and familial relationships that abruptly flare into violence, and absorbing evocations of place, ranging from a secluded seaside town in Maine to a leafy college campus in Upstate New York. Shimmers of the supernatural — vengeful ghosts, hidden psychic powers — hover on the margins, though these could be mere projections of disintegrating minds. While some of Oates’s thrillers verge on classic noir in their hard-boiled tone, the novellas in Cardiff, by the Sea have a more languid, melancholy air, strongly reminiscent of the work of Daphne du Maurier. But there is nothing cozy about them; their rambling, moody scene-setting may serve to lull readers, but the spell is soon shattered by eruptions of violence as dark and ugly as in any splatter movie.

The title story, originally published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine (which has been running Oates’s crime fiction since 1992), is the longest in the volume, an ingeniously coiled spring whose release, in the final pages, has a brutal, concussive impact. The heroine is a recognizable type from the author’s suspense novels: a naïve young woman, academically sheltered, with a mysterious past that emerges gradually from the shadows to claim her, body and soul. The precipitating incident is a phone call from a probate attorney telling Clare Seidel, a young art history professor at Bryn Mawr, that her deceased grandmother has left her a bequest of land and property in Cardiff, Maine. This marks the first contact Clare has had with her biological family, having been given up for adoption at the age of three to a couple in Minnesota. Soon she discovers that she was the sole survivor of a domestic holocaust in which her father murdered his wife and two other children before killing himself. Or did he? After traveling to Cardiff and meeting with the remnants of her original family (including a sinister pair of aunts whose chattery squabbling provides some comic relief), Clare becomes convinced that a miscarriage of justice occurred in her long-lost youth and devotes herself to avenging it. To give away more of the plot would undermine the impact of the final scene, which is truly shocking but which, upon reflection, seems wholly inevitable.

The second story, “Miao Dao,” has a very similar ending (knife, blood), but the reader is now more prepared for it. The heroine this time is rather cannier, an adolescent girl from a fractured home whose mother takes up with a new boyfriend whose creepy attentions young Mia is forced to fend off. Alienated and fearful, Mia becomes obsessed with a pack of feral cats that infests a vacant lot in her suburban cul-de-sac, adopting one first as a pet and then as a kind of totemic spirit that can protect her from her stepfather’s harassment. The conclusion has a satisfying ironic grimness reminiscent of Roald Dahl’s contes cruels or Saki’s little gem of the macabre, “Sredni Vashtar” (1912).

The third tale, “Phantomwise: 1972,” continues the theme of sexual predation, now transplanted to a college campus. Nineteen-year-old Alyce Urquhart falls into a desultory affair with her philosophy tutor, which leads to an unwanted pregnancy that shatters her life plans — since, as the title indicates, the story is set before the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade. (Oates’s complicated handling of the abortion issue has some of the tragic dimension of her superb 2017 novel A Book of American Martyrs.) Alyce finds a benefactor in the college’s poet in residence, who hires her as his assistant, but his motives are not exactly pure, as becomes clear when he dotingly compares her to Alice Liddell, the aesthetic/erotic inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s most famous creation. Oates has always been an astute analyst of the abiding power of misogyny, never more dangerous than when it pampers and infantilizes. Caught up in these subcurrents of toxic masculinity, Alyce flails and goes under. The ending is bleak and terrible.

The final story in the book, “The Surviving Child,” is something of a roman (or novella) à clef, its events inspired by the suicides of two of Ted Hughes’s domestic partners, Sylvia Plath and Assia Wevill. Oates has long been obsessed with Plath’s life and career, and has never been shy about crafting unflattering portraits of famous male poets, as evidenced by the controversy provoked by her 2013 story “Lovely, Dark, Deep,” which some commentators felt crudely libeled Robert Frost. In this new story, the Hughes figure is Alexander Hendrick, a pompous, thin-skinned martinet who oversees an opulent arts foundation, and whose first wife, the controversial feminist poet Nikola Kavanaugh, asphyxiated herself, along with their infant daughter, by running a car in a locked garage. Their young son, Stefan, miraculously survived this tragedy and now manifests quasi-occult powers of invisibility and clairvoyance — or so it seems to Alexander’s new fiancée, Elisabeth, another of Oates’s meek academics who has come to live at the family’s forbidding Massachusetts estate. This is the least satisfying of the four stories, its build-up to the climactic revelation being a bit too mechanical and its du Maurieresque echoes — especially of her 1938 novel Rebecca, the classic tale of a beleaguered second wife — being rather too overt. Still, the mystic bond that develops between Elisabeth and Stefan as they seek mutual refuge from a tyrannical patriarch is handled with delicacy and conviction.

In a career that has spanned six decades and has seen the publication of almost 80 novels and probably close to 500 short stories, Oates’s invention has never flagged. Even second-rank works like “The Surviving Child” offer shrewd insight into human character and relationships, and her best fiction continues to break new literary ground. Moreover, the range of genres the author has mastered is quite striking, and probably unique among major American novelists. With her 2018 book Hazards of Time Travel essaying dystopian science fiction, perhaps the only form Oates has not attempted is a Western, and that could very well come tomorrow. In the meantime, she has produced, over the past three decades, a veritable feast of taut, noirish thrillers and acute psychological suspense stories that will fill many a night’s worth of avid reading.


Rob Latham is a LARB senior editor.

LARB Contributor

Rob Latham is the author of Consuming Youth: Vampires, Cyborgs, and the Culture of Consumption (Chicago, 2002), co-editor of the Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction (2010), and editor of The Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction (2014) and Science Fiction Criticism: An Anthology of Essential Writings (2017).


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