Joyce Carol Oates is such an immensely prolific writer but whose work I have so far only dabbled in. I've read only a few of her short stories (Where are You Going, Where Have You Been, Haunted), one essay (They All Just Went Away) and only one of her novels, which is really more of a novella (Beasts). Since she is included in The Big Book of Ghost Stories, I thought it was the perfect time to increase my reading of her work by one more short story. In the brief preface to the story a run down of her accomplishments is given--her first published novel was With Shuddering Fall in 1964. "It was followed by more than a hundred books, including fifty novels, thirty-six short story collections, three children's books, five young adult novels, ten volumes of poetry, fourteen collections of essays and criticism, and eight plays." She has also written under the pseudonyms of Rosamund Smith and Lauren Kelly. She's also won all sorts of awards. Imagine starting a reading project with her at the center--that would be quite an undertaking. I'll be satisfied to simply try and read more of her work--more of her novels and short stories in particular.
In my very limited experience I'm used to Oates's work being very gothic in nature and often verging on the macabre and unnerving. Unpleasant things often happen in her stories, so "Night-Side" has given me a slightly different view of her world. The story was first published in the story collection Night-Side in 1977. It is perhaps unnerving in its own way, but deals more with the occult and supernatural than anything overtly graphic or violent. The story concerns two academics who are interested in debunking as frauds those who say they can commune with the dead. Only they are in for a different kind of education--one more than they either bargained for.
The setting is Massachusetts in 1887 and the story is told in diary format written by Jarvis Williams a Harvard lecturer and member of the Society for Psychical Research. He and a fellow member, Perry Moore, one of the more hardened of their group attend séances to discover whether the medium is a conscious or unconscious fraud.
"He (Perry) is, of course the perfect investigator in spiritualist matters since he is detached from the phenomena he observes yet he is indefatigably curious; he has a positive love, a mania, for facts. Like the true scientist he seeks facts that, assembled, may possibly give rise to hypotheses: he does not set out with a hypothesis in mind, like a sort of basket in to which certain facts may be tossed, helter-skelter, while others are conveniently ignored. In all things he is an empiricist who accepts nothing on faith."
Their investigations focus on Mrs A-- of Quincy who Perry believes to be not only a fraud but a not very skillful fraud either. She doesn't take any money and appears quite mild and self-effacing even transparent in her method. The other clients assure the men that when she goes into a trance and speaks through one of her "manifesting spirits"--one who is the "communicator" with those on the other side, that the voices are indeed authentic.
And then an evening of misadventure occurs. The spirit who comes forth is one that Dr. Moore was acquainted with in real life. A man who was murdered or perhaps committed suicide and thus is left in a place where is exists in limbo. Whoever the man was, and whatever the relationship with Perry, it causes him to weep like a child whose heart had been broken. So what does a doctor of philosophy do when his skepticism evaporates and he decides emphatically that there is no death? His colleagues believe Perry to be losing his sanity and soon he loses his life.
What happens when science clashes with the unexplained? When Jarvis is visited by Perry he's not sure whether the encounter is real or not. Neither awake nor asleep he feels his presence--his words which are unvoiced thoughts. And what he hears terrifies him.
So, an interesting story about the unconscious and subconscious and nightmare and reality. Sometimes the unknown is best left not known, eh?
Two more Sundays of ghost stories to go. I'm looking forward to beginning a new project or two--maybe something more to do with short stories, though may have to migrate away from ghost stories for a while. I'll be wrapping up my mythology posts very soon as well, and am already thinking about some other long term project in its place, but more about all that later.