JCO’s Gothic Quintet Considered


Matthew Surridge, writing for Blackgate.com, consideres each book in Joyce Carol Oates’s “Gothic” series, in preparation for The Accursed, the final book of the series to be published.

Bellefleur: “Published in 1980, Joyce Carol Oates’ novel Bellefleur is an astonishing gothic tour-de-force, a breathtaking and phantasmagoric book that whirls through generations of an aristocratic New England family. It deals in almost every kind of traditional horror-story trope: a sprawling, crumbling, haunted house; angered spirits of the land; men who take the shape of beasts; at least one innocent heiress who develops a peculiar case of anemia after being courted by a sinister European nobleman. All these things are folded into an overarching tale of greed, power, sex, and tragedy, told in a wild style that almost hides a precise structure of event, theme, and imagery.”

A Bloodsmoor Romance“To some extent this may well be a function of my being not the right reader for this book. While Bellefleur consciously played with the genre conventions of the Gothic proper, Bloodsmoor uses and parodies the conventions of 19th-century romance — romance as we know it, the story of young women looking for love and marriage. And romance as such is not a form that has any intrinsic appeal to me, or whose appeal I understand. I don’t say it’s bad. I’m saying I have no idea what makes romances good or bad as romances.”

Mysteries of Winterthurn“Winterthurn plays with the mystery novel as Bellefleur did the Gothic and Bloodsmoor did the romance. Like those books, it both celebrates and subverts its form, and presents a parable whose themes include America, gender, and God. Unlike those books, it also creates a fully-realised community, the city of Winterthurn, against which background its hero investigates three separate cases. I think it succeeds both as a story and as a work of well-wrought prose. It deftly manipulates symbol and theme, while in its pacing and manipulation of suspense, it might well be called genre-savvy; though not necessarily savvy in the genre one would expect.”

My Heart Laid Bare“It may be worth noting that while My Heart Laid Bare was published in 1998, it was written in 1984. Similarly, The Accursed, under its original title The Crosswicks Horror, was first completed in 1981. Both books were revised in the years since, and I wonder if that might help account for the fact that My Heart Laid Bare has a rather different feel than the other ‘Gothic’ books. Nothing evidently supernatural happens in it. It’s only nominally Gothic in atmosphere, and the narration’s relatively straightforward — it’s told in omniscient third-person, unlike Bloodsmoor or Winterthurn, and is stylistically more restrained than Bellefleur (which admittedly is not saying much). Still, it’s a wild, wide-ranging look at American life in the early part of the twentieth century, incorporating several self-consciously melodramatic touches. It fits in with its predecessors nicely, and overall serves to round off Oates’s Gothic sequence as we’ve had it so far.”

7 thoughts on “JCO’s Gothic Quintet Considered

  1. Mysteries of Winterthurn is a masterpiece. It is also available in a splendid audio version narrated by John McDonough (Recorded Books, Inc./Audible.com). When I took my copy to Professor Oates to have it signed she ran her delicate hand over the cover and said, “this is my favorite among my own works.”

  2. I’d love to reread all of the books in this series before starting the brand new one. Does anyone know if there are plans for putting “Bellefleur” and “A Bloodsmoor Romance” back in print (or in ebook format) now that “The Accursed” has been released? As far as I know, the only book that’s been put back in print so far is “Mysteries of Winterthurn.”

  3. I also wanted to say that it’s so interesting to hear that JCO loves “Mysteries of Winterthurn” so much, it’s one of my favorites as well. I must say that now I regret even more the fact that when I went to a JCO speech and signing that I forgot that book at home, and had to buy a copy of “Blonde” on site for her to sign. Not that “Blonde” wasn’t great, it’s just the one that everyone knows so she couldn’t tell that I’m one of her biggest fans.

  4. The majestic scope of “Bellefleur” is so grand that it seems almost unbelievable that it could all be from the imagination and vision of one person. Of course, since it is from Ms. Oates, that makes it believable–but not a bit less impressive.
    –JW

  5. Pingback: Matthew Surridge on The Accursed | Crossing the Border

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