Joyce Carol Oates at Her Scary Best with Daddy Love

The last couple of Joyce Carol Oates books that I read I haven’t loved (Two or Three Things I Forgot to Tell You and My Sister, My Love), and one from last year, Mudwoman, I couldn’t even finish. I had been particularly looking forward to Mudwoman because it was billed as a horror novel, my favorite, but I got one hundred pages in and nothing had really happened—I hated it—so I had to put it away. I was disheartened and did not immediately put her newest titles on hold because I was afraid of being disappointed. Oates has been my favorite writer for about twenty years, and I didn’t want anything to threaten her status. But then I heard what Daddy Love, her newest, was about—familiar JCO territory—and I had to read it.


Daddy Love starts off with every parent’s nightmare, their child being abducted, but instead of being a slam, bang beginning, the novel starts incredibly slow with the abduction being told and retold three times by the mother with slight variations. I knew that Oates had a purpose for this—she’s an experimental writer—but I don’t think today’s editor would have the patience to let a first-time writer get away with this. Those three chapters would probably be labeled repetitive, and if the writer wanted to be published, he or she would have to cut these and beef up the more seamy material in the book.

Daddy Love represents the whole horrific experience of a child abduction. A parent who has a child ripped from his or her arms would most likely repeat that last memory with the child over and over again, trying to figure out how the event could have been prevented (if they allow themselves to remember it). These three repeating chapters and the cover of Daddy Love serve as fair warning to how dark the material of this novel is, and there’s plenty of time for the reader to get out of it.


Once the mother has exhausted herself, trying to figure out how she could have prevented the abduction of her five-year-old son, the novel jumps to Daddy Love, a charismatic part-time reverend who pedals his good looks and women’s attraction to him in order to get them to cater to him and his sons. Daddy Love carefully hunts for each of his victims, believing that God reveals the special boy to him and he is saving the child from an awful parent. The child must be old enough so he can take care of his needs, but he must be young enough so he’s attractive to Daddy Love and his mind can be molded. Daddy Love’s latest son Deuteronomy has become too old, and that’s why the reverend got rid of him and sought out Robbie, who Daddy Love renames Gideon after carefully breaking him through one of many tortures. The problem with Daddy Love is that the torture never ends.

Daddy Love turned into a freezer book for me. I got to a part of the novel where I knew what was going to happen, but I couldn’t face it for a week. This wasn’t cliché, it was just what inevitably had to occur based on how Oates portrayed Daddy Love and Gideon’s relationship.

Here’s where I had to stop for a while:

“In some of the watercolors, which were more brightly colored than the drawings, and less ominous, the boy was in a canoe-shaped vessel that floated above the earth. All about him, stars and moons in a nighttime sky.

Inside the canoe-like vessel with the boy was an animal resembling a dog. Sandy-colored, with erect ears and a long curved furry tail.

A friendly animal! This was a relief. This was in contrast to the sinister tone of the drawings.

…Gideon called her ‘Missy.’ Gideon loved loved loved Missy.

Missy was Gideon’s responsibility, utterly. Gideon fed her twice daily and kept her plastic food-dishes clean. He kept her water-dishes filled with fresh water. He brushed her coat, which was a warm beautiful sand-colored coat that tended to snarl, with a special dog-brush. Especially, Gideon was zealous about keeping her from barking at the wrong time.”


I think the most powerful part of the book is the ending, where what should be a happy resolution of a child being reunited with his parents isn’t. Robbie/Gideon has suffered irreparable damage at the hands of Daddy Love, and the return to his parents is rocky and filled with anxiety for son, mother, and father. A huge vacuum was left in Robbie’s parents’ lives after his abduction, but once he’s returned their days are filled with moving households, therapy, and questions: Who is Robbie now? What’s he thinking? What does he remember of his early life? and Will he ever be the same? And what Oates conveys is that these abducted, abused children are marked for life if they’re lucky enough to escape their captors.

Joyce Carol Oates and cat.
Joyce Carol Oates and cat.

The Ruins Is Scarier as a Book than a Movie

There’s a Friends episode where the characters Rachel and Joey exchange their favorite books to show each other how great their choice is. Joey’s favorite book is Stephen King’s The Shining while Rachel’s is Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Both end up enjoying the other’s pick, but there’s a funny scene where Rachel has to put The Shining in her freezer because it’s so scary. That’s what Scott Smith’s book The Ruins always reminds me of—a freezer book—because it is just that scary. The first time I read that novel, I would have to close the book at times and physically put it away from me to keep me from reading more. It wasn’t because the book was bad or the plot was lagging; it was because the story was so scary that I would need a little recovery time.

I’ve avoided watching the movie version of The Ruins for a while. Smith’s first book A Simple Plan was made into a devastating movie of the same name that was directed by Sam Raimi, one of my favorite moviemakers. Both of those works have the power to depress me for days after reading or seeing it, and I think that shows how well Smith is able to tap into the human psyche and show the darkness that exists within. Maybe I was afraid the same would happen with The Ruins, but that instead of depression, I would just experience pure adrenaline from fear for days on end. Or maybe I was just frightened that the movie wouldn’t live up to the book.

In The Ruins, a pair of American boyfriends and girlfriends (the girlfriends are best friends) are on vacation in Mexico, after graduating from college. It’s their last hurrah before settling down to jobs or graduate school and the serious task of being a grown-up. While on vacation, they meet people of different nationalities but similar age and become a loose-knit group that parties together. The German among them has lost track of his brother, with whom he came on vacation. They had a fight, and his brother chased after a female archaeologist that he became infatuated with and followed her to a dig site at some ancient Mayan ruins. He wants to go find his brother. The Americans decide to help their German friend find his brother, along with another who they simply call the Greek in the movie (real Greek, not fraternity Greek), and they think maybe they’ll have a little adventure along the way.

What makes the book work so well is the idea of a stranger in a strange land and what can happen when the strange land doesn’t play by the same rules as the strangers. When the Europeans and Americans go to the Mayan ruins, which are looked over by bloodthirsty plant life, they lose their usual tools—cell phones and other technology—and the plant life actually ends up using those against them. They also come across ancient rites and rituals that they don’t understand and fall subject to without knowing about them. In the movie version of the book, this concept is muddy and comes out wrong. Rather than the group coming across as naïve innocents who stumble into becoming a sacrifice, they’re portrayed as—well, spoiled Americans. At one point in the movie version of The Ruins, one of the characters says with righteous indignation, “Four Americans on vacation don’t just disappear,” and immediately I didn’t want to root for these people.

Another big flaw in the film, I think, is trying to physically portray the evil plant life, a vine with poppy-like flowers that creeps and uses mimicry to play the characters off one another, dividing and conquering. The special effects don’t come off as very terrifying—instead, the vines end up looking silly, like they were taken from a scene in the 1970s’ version of the TV series Land of the Lost. This is too bad because the plant is horrific in the book version; it’s what made the book so scary and eerie.