The term “mundane gothic” is an immediate oxymoron. Gothic art and architecture are defined by their elaborate construction, excessive style, and often grotesque elements. There is nothing mundane about the construction of Notre Dame, the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, or the films of Mario Bava. But, Joyce Carol Oates proves that the terms do, somehow, fit together. Throughout her prolific career, Oates has returned many times to the Gothic horror genre, even creating her own Gothic saga (featuring Mysteries of Winterthurn and Bellefleur, amongst others); but her version of the genre is distinct, because it is rooted in reality.
There is a perfect example of this in one of her most famous short stories, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” The narrative begins with Connie, a 15-year-old just coming to an understanding of her own beauty. She argues with her mother and sister—both of whom find her to be vain and selfish—and spends her nights out with friends, flirting with boys. It could be the life of any young, privileged suburban woman, interesting only in its familiarity, which soon gives way to dread. When Connie opts out of a family barbeque and stays home alone, she finds herself holding court with a young man named Arnie, who mysteriously shows up on her driveway. What seems an inappropriate flirtation becomes a nightmare as Arnie displays intimate knowledge of her life, using this knowledge to blackmail her into riding with him.
Reading the story for the first time gives the impression of a dream that turns sour. The first half is slow, easy—a youthful summer night. When Arnie enters the narrative, it dissolves into pure horror—who hasn’t dreaded being home alone, in broad daylight, while a stranger threatens your life for no clear reason? The terror of this moment is heightened all the more by Oates’ familiar setting and characterization. We are not witnessing a damsel being stalked through castle halls, or a fiend at the door of a decaying manor; this is America, in the suburbs, where many of us grew up. Yet, the story is still utterly Gothic. It is haunted, psychological, maddening; there are hints of the supernatural in Arnie’s behavior; and the themes of sexuality fit the bill with their promise of corruption.
This use of the Gothic genre defines much of Oates’ work. Some of her stories are more obvious in their tropes—the sexual manipulation and eerie winter campus setting of Beasts; or the calm, rational, and terrifying Zombie, written from the mind of a serial killer similar to Jeffrey Dahmer. Her short story collection Haunted consists of mundane Gothic stories in which young girls encounter perversions in an abandoned building, familial murder cover-ups, and the most grotesque Thanksgiving shopping trip of all-time. Without supernatural elements or overtly romantic stories, Oates creates uncanny atmospheres of gloom that are fraught with high passion and take place in settings that we have all been before.
Most of Gothic fiction exists in foreign lands and towering castles, with feverish love stories and characters that are simply good or evil—the trappings of fantasy. Oates brings this frenzied atmosphere into the light of modern America, into city apartments or quiet suburban houses where madness and dark emotion materialize, often leading to brutality. Even in her less horrific tales, these elements rear their heads as readers are introduced to sexually psychotic lovers, obsessive admirers, and parents who kill their children out of shame. Familiar settings become places of death and insanity, but almost never feature the supernatural. Oates instead focuses her powers of dread and horror on human monsters.
Oates’ career began in the ’60s, during a time of ugliness and upheaval in America. The prideful and smiling façade of the ’50s was crumbling with the rise of free love, the Civil Rights Movement, and Vietnam—some of the many historical events that served to knock down our idea of a “perfect America.”
Oates’ fiction captured these sentiments at the start, and continues to do so today. Her tales of human suffering, cruelty, and injustice are certainly Gothic in their intensity, but they are far from fantasy. Nearly everything she writes about is true (and some of her stories are even based directly on news reports). She uses Gothic trappings to expose, examine, and bring about awareness. The settings of Oates’ fiction may be mundane, but they instill her stories with an unforgettable power. Oates shows us horror, and through horror, truth.