Writer Wednesday: Joyce Carol Oates

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Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?I wrote a TOO SOON column over at Where the Long Tails Ends about Scary Moment in Books and Movies, and if I had been thinking properly, I would have included Joyce Carol Oates’ story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”. While generally not considered a horror story, the story of 15 year old Connie who is home alone when two men arrive to take her away is genuinely chilling. And because Oates is an amazing writer, she is smart enough to set up the story in a way that you can interpret the events happening in our world or in a world where the Devil himself has come for Connie. I tend to go back and forth every time I read the story, but the information is there for either interpretation.

The real fun – if you can consider such a story to be fun – comes from the dialogue. Take this scene, for instance, where Arnold Friend – one of the men who has come for Connie – is trying to talk her out of the house:

“Honey—? Listen, here’s how it is. I always tell the truth and I promise you this: I ain’t coming in that house after you.”

“You better not! I’m going to call the police if you—if you don’t—”

“Honey,” he said, talking right through her voice, “honey, I’m not coming in there but you are coming out here. You know why?”

She was panting. The kitchen looked like a place she had never seen before, some room she had run inside but that wasn’t good enough, wasn’t going to help her. The kitchen window had never had a curtain, after three years, and there were dishes in the sink for her to do—probably—and if you ran your hand across the table you’d probably feel something sticky there.

“You listening, honey? Hey?” “—going to call the police—”

“Soon as you touch the phone I don’t need to keep my promise and can come inside. You won’t want that.”

It’s powerful stuff, and considering that the majority of the story is a conversation between Connie and Arnold Friend, it’s a testament to Oates talent for writing that the story works as effectively as it does. As the reader, you know that if Connie leaves her house with Arnold, her life – that is, if she still has one – will never be the same. When Connie asks what it is he’ll do to her, he responds:

“Just two things, or maybe three,” Arnold Friend said. “But I promise it won’t last long and you’ll like me the way you get to like people you’re close to. You will. It’s all over for you here, so come on out.”

I won’t tell you if Connie comes out or not, I don’t want to rob you of the experience that Oates so carefully constructed. But I would be remiss if I didn’t at least warn you that “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” is one of those stories that will stay with you for a long time.

Don’t believe me? Find out for yourself right here.

6 thoughts on “Writer Wednesday: Joyce Carol Oates

  1. I first read Joyce Carol Oates in, I think, the 6th grade. “Marya: A Life”. I was completely captivated and Marya has never left me. I have loved Oates ever since. I haven’t read “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” but, I’m ordering it right now.

  2. I need to explore more of her other work. She’s been so prolific it’s a little overwhelming.

    Let me know what you think of the story. It really is an exceptional short story with a heck of a punch.

  3. Whoo. That was a nice, creepy little Rod Serling start to my day. I find that the older I get, the things which really hold my attention are the ones which are simplest in concept, yet executed perfectly. Must be a subtlety thing.

  4. Scott: I know what you mean. Oates positively nails it with this one.

    Nick: I haven’t read that one yet. Thanks for the link. I’ll get back to you with my thoughts. I appreciate that Oates gives you just enough hints for Friend being the devil, or you can read it as him just being a man. It’s great writing.

  5. WOW! Like I said, I have been reading Oates for a long time. I always get so engrossed in the characters and the story that, after reading this short, I wonder how much rich symbolism I have been missing. I’m not one to read a book more than once (with the exception of a few addictions), but I think I will be picking up a few oldies now. Oates really seems to be making strong implications here that as we seek out more a more worldly lifestyle and distance ourselves further from God, we make ourselves more vulnerable to evil.

    I do wonder how much of what seems like symbolism in this story, actually is. Is Arnold Friend a symbol of evil or evil incarnate? Is he written to represent the devil or is he actually the devil? The cryptic use of the numbers leads me to feel she is being purely symbolic and Friend is actually just a man. Reminds me of a serial killer, really. But, the way he moves and talks and his eyes of glass… so evil and haunting. Ummmm… what’s with the numbers? Anyone?

    She is truly one of my all time favorite writers. She is so good at taking real life and completely believable characters and terrifying you with them.

    Thanks for sharing, Chris. I didn’t realize the link contained the whole story… I was trying to order the book. =)

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