By JOYCE CAROL OATES (Dutton; 1995)
Joyce Carol Oates is one of America’s most distinguished and prolific writers, the recipient of quite a few high-profile awards and untold critical adulation. Yet Oates has an evident attraction to dark and scary material–horror, in other words, though her work would never, ever be classified as such.
Over Oates’ four-decade career she’s turned out quite a few books that flirt with the genre, including the novels THE MYSTERIES OF WINTERTHURN, BEASTS, RAPE: A LOVE STORY and BLACK WATER, and the collections NIGHT-SIDE and HAUNTED (which, in typical highbrow fashion, was subtitled “Stories of the Grotesque”). Then there are the many commercial thrillers she put out under her Rosamond Smith pseudonym. And then there’s ZOMBIE.
ZOMBIE can be seen as Oates’ answer to AMERICAN PSYCHO, a relentless first person look into the mind of a serial killer. You won’t find any mention of the dread word horror anywhere in the book’s packaging, but it’s about as dark as this author gets, with several graphically described episodes of sex and violence. No, the book does not outdo the aforementioned AMERICAN PSYCHO (or even most splatterpunk novels) in sheer grossness, but does succeed in invoking a profoundly dark, depraved universe.
The inspiration for ZOMBIE’S protagonist Quentin, or “Q__P__”, was clearly the late Jeffrey Dahmer, surely the most infamous mass murderer of our time. Q__P__’s day-to-day existence–mooching off his parents while attending college classes and picking up gay men, most of them black–closely parallels Dahmer’s. So does his killing methodology. Dahmer was reportedly obsessed with creating a zombie he could lord over, and tried many different methods of doing so (drilling holes in his victims’ heads, etc.). Zombification is also Q__P__’s main concern, and he too tries it out on several victims before singling out a teenage boy he dubs “SQUIRREL” as his ideal zombie.
Much of the book’s second half is taken up with Q__P__’s methodical stalking and eventual kidnapping of SQUIRREL, who Q__P__ believes is secretly teasing him. Some of the book’s most distasteful passages occur in this portion, which at times moves into the queasy territory of Dennis Cooper (whose novella FRISK contains depictions of gay-themed perversion that border on pornographic).
But Oates holds our attention with solid writing and a real understanding of the inner workings of psychosis. ZOMBIE isn’t like her other books, which are usually highbrow in the extreme. Its language and syntax are unique to itself, convincingly depicting the thoughts and feelings of a sparsely educated homicidal nut (had Jeffrey Dahmer ever kept a diary, this is very likely how it might read).
As a narrator Q__P__ is prone to run-on sentences, selective capitalization, racist and misogynistic rants, crude drawings, and the “&” symbol, with which he likes to begins sentences. Often he’ll devote an excessive amount of description to a seemingly trivial event, such as a visit to the dentist that affects Q__P__ in a way he doesn’t appear to entirely understand.
Oates, however, clearly understands this character all too well. Her willingness to take us into the head of this sick fuck without judgment or apology puts her in the league of many similarly-minded horror scribes–regardless of whether she or her publishers like it or not!