Friday, August 27, 2004


Joyce Carol Oates' story "####: Six Hypotheses" in the Sarrantonio-edited fantasy anthology Flights is a taut, nicely-told horror story about a family either going insane or being haunted by some sort of demon.

The semi-experimental structure of the story reminded me of House of Leaves-and some of Douglas Winter's tales. Oates' story is divided into six Hypotheses about the death of the Loving family ("Loving" in this case being a lame play on words, noted as such in the narrative). Each section probes at the deaths from a different hypothetical angle while telling the reader just a little more about events leading up to the deaths.

There's not much to say on a structural level because, while somewhat unusual, Oates' approach has been done before--and here it's applied to very traditional Amityville Horror-type subject matter. I'm not saying Oates' story is a cliche--it's a well-wrought horror story using a structure just familiar enough for the reader to be comfortable with it. In fact, you could argue that the simple fact of the cut-up--of dividing the story into sections with subtitles labeled "Hypothesis 1" through Hypothesis 6" doesn't warrant the label "experimental." You could, with a little work, take out the subtitles and stitch the story back together again with minimal damage done.

Which is a round-about way of saying that the story is much more traditional than it might at first appear.

What I like about the story, in any event, is not its structure, but its style, which shifts just slightly as the story focuses on different characters. These tonal shifts, within the more objective tone of a nameless omniscient point of view that presents the hypotheses, are much more interesting than the structure of the story or, even, its resolution, which is fairly typical. How we get there, however, is so skillfully done that I don't think most readers will mind the echoes of other stories and novels.

What exactly is the family terrified of? Why have they become withdrawn and nervous and anxiety-ridden?

Third month of the #### contagion. Humid midsummer. The bog is fraught with reptilian/insect life. Thrumming through the night and much of the day. The drunk-looking moon swings overhead. Big Fitzie [the father] isn't going to abandon his family, spends nights away in Philly the two-hour commute to and from is treacherous when you're sleep-deprived, can't keep your fucking eyes open. Can't sleep in the Dream House but can't sleep anywhere else, either. Shattering into pieces is Big Fitzie. He'd begun to see the things, too. Awake-seeming he has seen. Flying/pecking/jabbing/stabbing black fissures in the air like tears in fabric. Can't focus on the things directly only elliptically. Afterimage not the things themselves. In the corner of Big Fitzie's disintegrating brain.

Oates' use of specific detail is startling after the Powers story, and especially the generic Asaro story. (Although the order of the stories in Flights thus far makes sense--two imaginary world fantasies followed by a real-world fantasy followed by a horror story--each time getting a little closer to "reality".) More little sparks of detail that make the story real:

In the bog amid the twittering cries of late summer, slow unfurling coils of water snakes. Licorice black, with creamy-pale bellies and eyes unperturbed as glass.


[The baby was] A bundle of frantic shorted-out neurons. Kicking and shrieking red-faced gasping for breath like a tiny pig being smothered and both parents exhausted and sleep-deprived staggering through their daytime lives like somnambulists.

In short, in the hands of a lesser writer, this story would be more susceptible on the basis of the ideas/plot alone of being rendered mediocre. Instead, it's a very accomplished horror story that, despite its echo of familiarity and a perhaps mundane ending, overcomes those defects to give the reader a little shiver of fear, of recognition, and of delight.

(A little dissenting monkey simultaneously clambers up to my shoulder and whispers in my ear, "But this is the kind of stuff Oates can turn out in her sleep." But I'm not going to listen to that monkey. That monkey is evil. That monkey is in league with the ######s in Oates' story.)


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