There's something a little unnerving about Joyce Carol Oates's work. I felt it when I read her story Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been earlier this year, and I felt it particularly in her story, "Haunted", which I came across in The Mammoth Book of Modern Ghost Stories edited by Peter Haining. According to the Wikipedia (yes, I know, not the best place for research, but still a starting place for orienting myself),
"...Oates built up a literary corpus that mixes Gothic estrangement with high social observation. Her works contain the typical elements of this type of tale: unconscious forces, seduction, incest, violence, and rape, sometimes to the point of sensationalism."
Right from the beginning of the story you know something bad is going to happen to someone. Oates may or not be explicit about it, but there is darkness lurking just below the surface of the story. "Haunted" takes place in 1987 in a small, rural town, which could be Anywhere, USA (though perhaps it's upstate New York where she was raised?). The story is narrated by a woman who's life is mostly behind her, but she looks back on one summer when she was thirteen that remains vivid in her memory. Uncertain of why, she decides to write down the events. Perhaps to make sense of them? Though to be honest, I'm not sure either she or the reader comes to any concrete conclusions when she finishes. The story seems more like a fairy tale.
"Once upon a time the fairy tales begin. But then they end and often you don't really know what has happened, what was meant to happen, you only know what you've been told, what the words suggest."
Oates teases the reader with suggestions of things to come in the story, but when they do, it isn't exactly how you expected them, though they might be worse than you thought. Melissa and Mary Lou are the daughters of farmers, becoming close friends as they live outside the small town unlike the rest of their classmates. Almost like sisters, Mary Lou is the pretty one and Melissa, while not ugly, is the plain one. Mary Lou is a shade wilder, though Melissa usually follows along in whatever trouble Mary Lou goes looking for. Mary Lou would like nothing more than the dump the town and get away, but Melissa is seemingly content to keep the status quo. This isn't a ghost story exactly, but haunted houses can be occupied by more than one type of ghost.
The haunted house in this story is the old Minton Farm. No one knows why, but Mr. Minton killed his wife and then killed himself. The land had been sold off ages ago, but the house and other buildings remained, empty and dilapidated, falling down from lack of care. Boarding up the windows and doors and a plethora of no trespassing signs isn't enough to keep curiosity-seekers away, and of course Melissa and Mary Lou are often drawn to it. Sometimes it's best not to ignore warnings, as the price that's paid might be horrific. The introduction called this a story of "crime, punishment and the inexplicable that lures the narrator--and with her, the reader--into a situation of almost unbearable terror."
I won't tell you what happens to Mary Lou and Melissa. It's creepy and creepier. I read this for the chill factor, and chilling it actually was, but I know there is more to what Oates was doing than I've mentioned here (I know she writes often of young women and being a victim among other things). For a while I thought what happened in the Minton house was a dream or fantasy gone awry, but what's so very creepy about it, is I think it (fictionally speaking) actually happened. I'm not sure I want to, but it's a story I think I could read again and get more out of it. Is all Joyce Carol Oates's work like this? I saw that another reader wrote that Oates writes with a "disquieting intensity" and she was spot on in her characterization. I want to read more, but I'm almost afraid to.