by Joyce Carol Oats
The only other of her nearly 50 books that I’ve read is a memorable novella called Zombie, which is a disturbingly intimate first person narrative of a serial killer who is at the peak of his game. Good stuff. Beasts, also a novella, which is why I chose to read it (not a big Oats fan), is not quite as powerful.
Beasts is two things: a cliché and a weak gothic horror novella, both of which have been done a thousand times before with far greater affect.
The cliché: The setting is 1975 at a small liberal arts college in culturally uptight New England. The protagonist is a young budding poet whose parents just divorced, leaving her adrift in a world of intellectual, sexual and emotional predators. By predator I mean a good looking, uber-bohemian college professor who turns the girls in his poetry class on by wearing dirty jeans instead of slacks and tweed, smoking a lot while he effortlessly and offhandedly lectures about art and “going for the jugular” in poetry, you know-keeping it real, and reading them titillating D.H. Lawrence filth.
So this young woman becomes infatuated by the anti-establishment college professor and of course he ravages her like a beast (that smells like cigarettes and ). Wait, the cliché is not complete. He has a sultry French sculptress wife who also ravages the student. Yes, a threesome in the mid-70s. It goes on for a while as we explore the, “entwined boldness and vulnerability of young women” (LA Times).
The gothic horror: Turns out this couple has done this to multiple girls. And they tend to dope them up in order to photograph them performing sexual acts for a porn magazine. Ah, the posh New England elite unwittingly becoming the objects of trashy porn mags. Also, throughout the novel there is an arsonist who keeps trying to burn buildings on campus. This may shock you, but that little tidbit becomes quite meaningful as the novel reaches its climax.
Don’t read it.