The title for the latest set of tales by Joyce Carol Oates should serve as a warning label to potential readers. “Evil Eye” is a collection of dark novellas, each depicting an example of “love gone wrong” – horribly wrong. While each novella is accurately described as a love story, the forms of love between Oates’ characters venture into the realm of gothic horror, mingling the genres of sweet and scary until the tales resemble something like real, messy life.
A young woman mourning the recent loss of both parents in a fatal car accident enters into a marriage of convenience and, she hopes, salvation. Marianna is our first protagonist in the title story “Evil Eye.” She has fallen in love with a renowned arts and humanities professor who seems to be attracted to broken women who are “missing a part of their souls.”
Professor Austin scoops up the newly orphaned 20-something Marianna and sweeps her away like a wounded bird. They marry and Marianna becomes his “fourth wife,” a title that dismays her only briefly. Yet soon, Austin begins acting odd, short of temper and abusive. Readers are kept in the spooky and suspenseful dark until the very last words, until a visit from “the first wife” ends in blood.
Oates continues to dabble in dark secrets, turning to teenage love in her novella “So Near Any Time Always.” Lizbeth is a bookish young girl, shy and underdeveloped for her late teen years. Boys don’t look at her, but past her to the other girls, pretty girls.
A new boy in town, Desmond Parish, latches himself emotionally and nearly instantaneously to Lizbeth after their “fated” meeting at a public library. Lizbeth believes him when he says they are “soul mates” and ignores warning signs of obsession. This isn’t a “Twilighty” teenage love story, encouraging young girls to feel blind devotion for bad boys. “So Near Any Time Always” is a cautionary tale of just how wrong young love can go when dangerous secrets remain untold.
“The Execution” uncovers all of the secrets hidden between a mother, a father and their mentally unstable son in a courtroom and through flashbacks. Oates constructs this tale carefully, as if she is building a case, or two, of her own. The protagonist and defendant is the criminally insane son, Bart, who has attempted to murder both of his parents with an ax.
Bart and Louisa, mother and son, share a love that can outlive murder, maybe. After her son’s ax attack, Louisa is left a widow with an eye socket that “resembled melted wax,” a hunched spine and a feeding tube. Oates pushes the boundaries of motherly love to their max with this gruesome crime. Yet in the telling of their story, Oates’ narrative drifts to art, histories, and tragedies. In doing so, she shows her readers how very ancient and universally human the love is between a mother and child. There are no bounds to this love. Oates recasts Michelangelo’s “Pieta” with Bart and Louisa, reversing the roles so that the son holds the broken mother. She shatters any idealized notion of the warm and fuzzy feeling of love.
“The Flatbed” is a love story and a deeply disturbing short made up of exquisitely painful details of child abuse. Ceille is an adult woman with a successful career in the art industry. She has left her famous family name behind to become her own individual success. From a distance, it would appear that Ceille has indeed, succeeded. Yet, when a man known only as “N” falls in love with her, and the two become intimate, their relationship comes to a halt when Ceille’s phobia regarding sexuality becomes evident. She was a victim of horrific child abuse that left her body and mind scarred. Ceille doesn’t want to be another statistic in this “generation of victims.” She offers a strong model of resilience for young women who have suffered abuse. Through Ceille’s story, Oates gives this generation of victims a gift: revenge.
A proper definition for the word love is as slippery and ambiguous as the future of Oates’ seemingly doomed characters. They all appear to be under a spell, floating through a mist with rosy eyes until their idealized idea of love goes horrifically wrong. In the same vein as Poe, Oates makes the reader feel as if an evil eye is trained upon them with the passing of each hour and the turning of each page.