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Oates, Joyce Carol

Entry updated 25 September 2023. Tagged: Author.

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(1938-    ) US author who has also written as by Fernandes, Lauren Kelly and Rosamond Smith. Her immensely prolific career – at least seventy-seven novels; somewhere approaching 1000 short stories, many of them long and ambitious, most but not all assembled in forty or more collections; plus fifty plays and much other work – has in itself been a barrier to her proper appreciation. In recent years, however, despite its almost unassimilable and unremitting growth, with around seventy new volumes published in the first two decades of the twenty-first century, that oeuvre has become recognized – none too soon – as a necessary part of the story of American literature. Her roots are various, though in the context of this encyclopedia her affinity to the Gothic strain in that literature (see Gothic SF; Horror in SF) is of specific interest.

Oates began publishing short fiction professionally in 1957 (see Longevity in Writers), and though she has never grouped her short sf into a single volume, she has incorporated much of her sf into her assemblies of tales of the grotesque – a term she frequently uses, in homage to the most visible early influence on this sector of her work, Edgar Allan Poe – in several collections, including The Hungry Ghosts: Seven Allusive Comedies (coll 1974); The Poisoned Kiss and Other Stories from the Portuguese (coll 1977) as by Fernandes, original stories not in fact from the Portuguese; Night-Side: Eighteen Tales (coll 1977); Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque (coll 1994), which includes the densely informative "Afterword: Reflections on the Grotesque", whose violations of daylight are seen as ultimately visceral; The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares (coll 2011); and others. The most interesting of her later collections are perhaps Wild Nights!: Stories about the Last Days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James and Hemingway (coll 2008), Beautiful Days [see above], Night-Gaunts and Other Tales of Suspense (coll 2018), Cardiff, by the Sea: Four Novellas of Suspense (coll 2020), Night, Neon: Tales of Mystery and Suspense (coll 2021), The Ruins of Contracoeur and Other Presences (coll 2021) and Zero-Sum: Stories (coll 2023). Over and above the most recent of the stories mentioned above, many earlier tales of interest may not yet have been collected.

Oates wrote relatively little sf as such until the twenty-first century; a story like "Family" (December 1989 Omni), a Ruined Earth tale conveyed with Gothic familial violence, is exceptional among her earlier work for its sense of fitness as sf, for she was long unenchanted by the thought of extrapolation for its own sake, a distaste for raw cognition, which may sometimes undermine the savagely transgressive burden of her harsher tales; and which may also help explain the relative unadventurousness of her nonfiction. In "Ladies and Gentlemen" (December 1990 Harper's), the captain of a cruise ship (see Ship of Fools) informs his elderly passengers that their children have instructed him to abandon them on an unknown Pacific Island. "The Radio Astronomer" (Spring 1993 Antaeus), though not sf, poignantly encompasses the confusions of a stroke victim within an sf-like anguish at our species solitude, as does The Man Without a Shadow (2016), whose protagonist has been afflicted with profound "partial retrograde and permanent anterograde amnesia", and whose short-term memory vanishes after seventy seconds; his own sense of his affliction, which he copies down frequently, may stand in for an underlying terror common to much of Oates's oeuvre:

The annihilation is not the terror.
The journey is the terror.

Though still somewhat stiff-jointed, "Commencement" (in Redshift: Extreme Visions of Speculative Fiction, anth 2001, ed Al Sarrantonio) is, on the other hand, a genuine Near Future Satire; "*BD* 11 1 86" (Fiction Issue 2005 Atlantic) applies a somewhat melodramatic dramatic irony to the musings of a young man bred, unbeknownst to him, as a body donor whose brain is about to be shut down for the inevitable Identity Transfer; the illuminating intensity of "EDickinsonRepliLuxe" (Fall 2006 Virginia Quarterly Review) almost sufficiently conveys the existential torment of the Computer (or imprisoned AI) that animates a Near Future replicant of Emily Dickinson (1830-1886); but the Gothic SF terror inspiring a tale like "A Hole in the Head" (Fall 2010 Kenyon Review), whose cosmetic surgeon protagonist engages in trepanning and high-risk illegal Botox-like injections, focuses on states of extremity rather than speculation.

Increasingly, tales of sf interest have been interspersed into the flow. "The Memorial Field at Hazard, Minnesota" (2014 Yale Review), which is almost as savage as Michael Blumlein's "Tissue Ablation and Variant Regeneration" (Spring 1984 Interzone), similarly devises a punishment fitting the crimes committed by an American president. "Undocumented Alien: Very Rough Draft Report PROJECT JRD" (in Conjunctions: Other Aliens, anth 2016, ed Elizabeth Hand and Brad Morrow) indicts a government experiment during which a Nigerian illegally in America is surgically transformed, almost as a side-effect, into a Parody of an Alien from Ganymede (see Jupiter); his state of extremity is registered, devastatingly, from without. "Fractal" (in Conjunctions 68: Inside Out: The Architectures of Experience, anth 2017, ed Brad Morrow) is set in the (fictional) Fractal Museum near Portland, Maine, which is bigger inside than out (see Mark Danielewski; Horror in SF; Mathematics) [for Little Big here and Posthumous Fantasy above see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. The mother and child who visit are diced into different realities, to her profound anguish. "The Experimental Subject" (6 June 2017 is a novella-length tale in which a human female is impregnated with chimpanzee semen (see Apes as Human) and is about to give birth as a Slingshot Ending points to an unknown outcome. In "Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God" (14 October 2019 New Yorker), images of catastrophic Climate Change penetrate, like broken blood vessels, an ostensibly sublunary tale, and "The Redwoods" (Winter 2020 American Short Fiction) is a Posthumous Fantasy whose premise, taken literally, unfolds to the protagonist's death-struck eye true versions of an untrue life. The AIs in "MARTHE: A Referendum" (April 2020 Elle as "MARTHE"; vt in Zero-Sum: Stories coll 2023), which is set in 2069, must decide whether or not to abandon the last surviving human and turn their attention more profitably elsewhere. "Bone Marrow Dance" (July 2021 Ellery Queen's Magazine) again weds Medicine and horror, with a bone marrow transplant into a dead man.

In their strengths and weaknesses, Oates's earlier novels of interest can show the marks of the Mainstream Writer of SF; though her twenty-first century work qualifies this sense, during much of her career she has seemed more comfortable, and of considerably more relevance, as a copious author of novels of fantasy and horror, including the Gothic Quintet comprising Bellefleur (1980), A Bloodsmoor Romance (1982), featuring some strange Inventions, Mysteries of Winterthurn (coll of linked stories 1984), My Heart Laid Bare (1998) and The Accursed (2013). The last of these, set in early twentieth-century Princeton, New Jersey, features Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924), Jack London, the young Upton Sinclair and Mark Twain in an America – indeed in the planet as a whole – whose anxiety- and Sex-ridden dysfunctionality is exposed by the Devil, who at one point manifests as a hoax Sherlock Holmes, and who is ultimately revealed to be in fact the Christian God (see Religion). The tale complexly reflects the influence of H P Lovecraft (see Horror in SF), who is explicitly homaged in the slightly later "Night-Gaunts" (5 October 2017 The Yale Review); authors cited in the text for provenance include Edgar Allan Poe, Mary Shelley and Robert Louis Stevenson. Middle Age: A Romance (2001), a singleton, is a Mysterious Stranger tale whose intruding artist figure, after his inexplicable Suicide, haunts the town in which the tale is set. Blood Mask: A Novel of Suspense (2006) as by Lauren Kelly conveys the grotesqueries of bio-art to supernatural extremes. The dignified protagonist author of Jack of Spades: A Tale of Suspense (2015) is subject to a nuisance suit for plagiarism while being haunted by his eponymous Doppelganger, who writes violent pornography; Stephen King is explicitly homaged. In Hazards of Time Travel (2018), which is Oates's first explicitly sf full-length novel, a disobedient young women is sent via Time Travel back eighty years from the Dystopian America she inhabits to the small 1950s Wisconsin town of Wainscotia (see Wainscot Societies), where she becomes involved in the psychology department of the local university, which is dominated by the doctrinal teachings of B F Skinner, a world she finds complexly taxing, especially in the early pages of the tale, whose attention to Young Adult story constraints does not prevent a sense that 1950s adolescents lived in what could be likened to Skinner Boxes. This does nothing to diminish a sense that for Oates 1950s Wainscotia was a model and breeding ground for the dystopias we may soon face.

All Oates's novels as by Rosamond Smith, beginning with Lives of the Twins (1987), deal with twins, doubles, Doppelgangers and impostures, sometimes verging into the supernatural. Her three novels as by Lauren Kelly are thrillers with elements of horror. These pseudonymous titles foreground their generic nature, but her work as a whole is in truth so often so intensely told, and its exorbitant storylines so often violate realistic premises, that much of her oeuvre may best be approached in terms of its rendering of motifs and effects typical of Fantastika, if frequently without the gear. [JC]

Joyce Carol Oates

born Lockport, New York: 16 June 1938



Gothic Quintet

  • Bellefleur (New York: E P Dutton, 1980) [Gothic Quintet: hb/Susan Stillman]
  • A Bloodsmoor Romance (New York: E P Dutton, 1982) [Gothic Quintet: hb/James McMullen]
  • Mysteries of Winterthurn (New York: E P Dutton, 1984) [coll of linked stories: Gothic Quintet: hb/Kathy Jacobi]
  • My Heart Laid Bare (New York: E P Dutton, 1998) [Gothic Quintet: hb/Kathy Jacobi]
  • The Accursed (New York: Ecco, 2013) [Gothic Quintet: hb/Allison Saltzman from Giovanni Boldini]

individual titles (selected)

collections and stories (selected)

works as editor

about the author

For some time no reliable and up-to-date bibliography was readily available of Oates's enormous list of works. Publisher's checklists, though seeming to claim comprehensiveness, variously omitted many titles. The University of San Francisco site dedicated to her works was incomplete as presented online, not seeming to aspire to anything like full coverage. But Randy Souther's independent iteration of that project, The Glass Ark: A Joyce Carol Oates Bibliography [see under links below], provides a full checklist, significantly including all published stories (though oddly listed under "articles"), whether or not assembled in any of Oates's numerous collections. Other material is also presented here.


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