Joyce Carol Oates Talks the Art of Horror

Joyce Carol Oates has been writing since before she could read. She remembers making books by drawing in tablets and coloring and scribbling, and her characters were animals—chickens and cats—immortalized in her first novel The Cat House, which she still has somewhere.


Her very first books were Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Alice’s Adventures Through the Looking-Glass, which also terrified her. Oates believes a lot of horror comes from those first impressions formed during childhood when one is trying to figure out the rules of the world. “Children are particularly susceptible to images of the grotesque, for children are learning to monitor what is ‘real’ and what is ‘not real’; what is benign, and what not…The earliest and most horrific image of my childhood, as deeply embedded in my consciousness as any ‘real’ event (and I lived on a small farm, where the slaughtering of chickens must have been frequent) sprang at me out of a seemingly benign children’s book, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures Through the Looking-Glass,” says Oates, when “Alice escapes the nightmare prospect of being eaten…”

Looking back on her own childhood, Oates says, “Like most children, I was probably afraid of a variety of things. The unknown? The possibility of those queer fortuitous metamorphoses that seem to overtake certain of Carroll’s characters? Physical pain? Getting lost?…My proclivity for the irreverent and the nonsensical was either inspired by Carroll or confirmed by him. I was always, and continue to be, an essentially mischievous child. This is one of my best-kept secrets.”


Oates believes that readers crave dark, scary fiction just the same as happy stories. “This predilection for art that promises we will be frightened by it, shaken by it, at times repulsed by it seems to be as deeply imprinted in the human psyche as the counter-impulse toward daylight, rationality, scientific skepticism, truth and the ‘real,’” says Oates.

Reading horror fiction is a way for one to re-experience childhood, according to Oates, believing completely in what is around them. “One criterion for horror fiction is that we are compelled to read it swiftly, with a rising sense of dread, and so total a suspension of ordinary skepticism, we inhabit the material without question and virtually as its protagonist; we can see no way out except to go forward. Like fairy tales, the art of the grotesque and horror renders us children again, evoking something primal in the soul,” she says.

Oates has received a fair amount of criticism for her horror work. When her serial killer novella Zombie came out in 1995, New York Times critic Steven Marcus chastised her for her “longstanding interest in the extreme, the gruesome, the bizarre, and violent in American life” and believed her protagonist, serial killer Quentin, was supposed to be a representation of American society. That time, Oates wrote back in a letter to the editor that he had misread her novel, but in general, she says, “A writer who has published as many books as I have has developed, of necessity, a hide like a rhino’s, while inside there dwells a frail, hopeful butterfly of a spirit.”


As a female writer, she feels that she is able to hide to a certain extent because of her sex. “Being a woman allows me a certain invisibility,” says Oates. “Like Ellison’s Invisible Man. Because a woman, being so mechanically judged by her appearance, has the advantage of hiding within it—of being absolutely whatever she allows herself to be, in contrast with what others imagine her to be. I feel no connection at all with my physical appearance and have often wondered whether this was a freedom any man—writer or not—might enjoy.”

Oates’s daily schedule mainly consists of writing, revising, and reading. “I haven’t any formal schedule, but I love to write in the morning, before breakfast. Sometimes the writing goes so smoothly that I don’t take a break for many hours—and consequently have breakfast at two or three in the afternoon on good days,” says Oates.

“When I complete a novel I set it aside, and begin work on short stories, and eventually another long work. When I complete that novel, I return to the earlier novel and rewrite much of it. In the meantime the second novel lies in a desk drawer. Sometimes I work on two novels simultaneously, though one usually forces the other into the background. The rhythm of writing, revising, writing, revising, et cetera, seems to suit me.”

Oates interrupts her writing life for chores and hones her observation skills that way, looking for the story. “I enjoy the much-maligned occupation of housewifery,” she says. “I like to cook, to tend plants, to garden, to do simple domestic things, to stroll around shopping malls and observe the qualities of people, overhearing snatches of conversations, noting people’s appearances, their clothes, and so forth. Walking and driving a car are part of my life as a writer, really. I can’t imagine myself apart from these activities.”


Oates’s next collection of psychological horror will be coming out later in 2016—The Doll-Master and Other Tales of Terror. Here’s an excerpt from “The Doll-Master”:


When I was five years old, Baby Emily disappeared from my room.

I was so surprised! I looked under the bed and in the closet and in each of my bureau drawers and then I looked in all these places again as well as beneath the covers at the foot of the bed but Baby Emily was gone.


I ran to my mother, crying. I asked my mother where Baby Emily was. My mother told me that my father “didn’t think it was a good idea” for me to be playing with a doll at my age. Dolls are for girls, she said. Not boys. “Daddy just thought it might be better to take the doll away before you got ‘too attached’…” Guiltily my mother spoke, and there was softness in her voice, but nothing I said could change her mind, no matter how I cried, or how angry I became, slapping and kicking at her and saying how I hated her, my mother did not change her mind because my father would not allow it. “He said he’d ‘indulged’ you long enough. And he blames me.”


In place of Baby Emily who was so sweet and placid and smelled of foam-rubber, my father had instructed my mother to buy me an “action toy”—one of the new-model expensive ones—a U.S. Navy SEAL robot-soldier that came fully armed, and could move forward across the room, empowered by a battery.


I would never forgive either of them, I thought. But particularly, I would never forgive him.





Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque by Joyce Carol Oates

The Paris Review Interviews, Vol. III edited by Philip Gourevitch

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