Where Are We Going, Where Have We Been?

Where Are We Going, Where Have We Been?
by Damien Angelica Walters

The first book I read by Joyce Carol Oates wasn’t by Joyce Carol Oates at all. It was a creepy thriller called Soul/Mate, written by Rosamond Smith, about a psychopath who becomes infatuated with a woman and kills anyone he thinks stands in the way of her happiness.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, and I’m not exactly sure when I found out, Rosamond Smith is a pseudonym of Joyce Carol Oates. I do know that when I did find out, I’d already read Zombie, which is also about a psychopath, several other non-horror novels, and many of her short stories.

And though I’ve read a great deal of her work, I know I haven’t read it all. To call her prolific is an understatement. She’s written more than fifty novels, and I’m not sure how many short stories, novellas, and plays. And there’s her nonfiction as well.

What draws me to her work is that even in the novels and stories that aren’t exactly horror, there’s a darkness lurking around the corner that makes it clear she writes with the heart of a genre author.

Her horrors might not be monsters lurking beneath the bed, but they’re the skeletons hidden in the closet, the breakdown or toxicity of familiar, and usually familial, relationships, the things you know will happen to the characters after the story is over. She explores the latter masterfully in one of her most horrific, and most widely known, stories, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” The first time I read it, I was left with a powerful sense of dread. That same feeling occurs every time I read the story.

Joyce Carol Oates

In “The Corn Maiden,” another well-known story, an eleven year old girl is kidnapped by her classmates who are preparing to sacrifice her as the Corn Maiden. They manage to keep the girl in a basement by convincing her that the world has ended. To say anything else would hit spoiler territory, but it’s a heartbreaking, terrifying story.

My favorite story, though, is “Black Box,” about a woman recalling a visit to her aunt and uncle’s house when she was eleven. The title is a solid black rectangle, and similarly redacted sections pepper the story. Everything about the visit and her relatives is off-kilter, and knowing that something terrible happened but never knowing exactly what makes it so much worse.

The story leaves me with a horrible feeling of despair, and I’m never sure if I want the narrator to remember or not. I suspect the former will shatter her, but I think the latter is doing so by degrees. It’s just an incredibly chilling piece of fiction.

What her work showed, and continues to show, me is that horror wears many faces. It does not need to be overt. It does not need to be monsters and bloodstains and whispers in the night. It can be all too human, it can be unseen, it can hurt the heart as well as the body. And, most importantly, instead of forcing your story to fit the genre, you can change the shape of the genre to fit your story.

Damien Angelica Walters is the author of Sing Me Your Scars (Apex Publications, 2015), Paper Tigers (Dark House Press, 2016), and the forthcoming Cry Your Way Home (Apex Publications, 2017). Her short fiction has been nominated twice for a Bram Stoker Award, reprinted in The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror and The Year’s Best Weird Fiction, and published in various anthologies and magazines, including the 2016 World Fantasy Award Finalist Cassilda’s Song, Cemetery Dance Online, Nightmare Magazine, and Black Static. She lives in Maryland with her husband and two rescued pit bulls. Find her on Twitter @DamienAWalters or on the web at http://damienangelicawalters.com.

1 thought on “Where Are We Going, Where Have We Been?”

  1. Right on. I first read a Joyce Carol Oates story (“The Bingo Master”) in the iconic DARK FORCES anthology waaaay back in the proverbial Day. Few writers can unsettle me the way she does, and I’ve read a LOT inside and out of genre. As you say, the “trick” is to forget the market and go for intensity of emotion and psychological realism—something you’re very skilled at.

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