By Joyce Carol Oates
After reviewing JCO’s most current effort, The Sacrifice (the review of which will appear here soon) elsewhere, we couldn’t help admiring her for her fearlessness in tackling any number of subjects. Everyone’s seen photos of Oates at different stages of her life, including her goth period. Always she strikes viewers as quiet, thoughtful, proper, a woman concerned with the higher things of life. Her heart-shaped face, her pursed lips, therein stirs the soul of a gentle person. Yet, as her readers know, she can get right down there in the sty of life and muck about with the best and rudest of them. So, why not take on serial killers? Why not, indeed, especially if you can do it with JCO’s panache.
Nowhere is her ability to burrow into the mind and heart of most any type of normal and deviant person as illustrated as in Zombie (pub. 1995). If you’ve never thought of Oates as a blood and guts writer, or you have found some of her works ponderous (though we never have), there are several books of hers you may want to check out, such as Zombie.
So, what to say about Zombie? Let’s ask you to recall young Dr. Frankenstein and his grand and fatal adventure. Hubristic young man that he was, he set out to create life, only to create an abomination that he pursued to the top of the world.
Shelly’s book is about Dr. Frankenstein and his dilemma. Similarly, Oates’s Quentin tries to create life, a zombie, a serf beholden to him in every way. Of course, he fails at each attempt. But he carries on, determined.
Oates’s book is not as much about killing, though there’s plenty of it and she devotes a large portion to Quentin planning and carrying out the capture of Squirrel, his name for a high school boy who infatuates him. It’s more about Quentin: how he thinks and feels and looks; about his habits and his habitat; about how he relates to others; how he blames his victims for not responding as they should to his amateur lobotomizing; how he manipulates people, exemplified by how he treats his kindly grandmother. Not unsurprisingly, he is very human, except he is a sociopath gone over the edge into full-blown psychopathic behavior.
Quentin is that unique breed of killer, the serial killer. These killers fascinate more than other murderers because their acts strike us as utterly incomprehensible and arbitrary. Murders of passion, revenge, and those incidental to other crimes like robbery, we understand these. The serial killer is different. He kills for no reason that is logical to us. We search for reasons but none seem satisfactory, not even that of illness. We simply can’t put ourselves into the place of the serial killer, as we can with other types of murderers. Psychiatrists and psychologists explain serial killers but we find it difficult to connect emotionally with these killers. So, we turn to fiction for this missing link. Most fail us. But, thankfully, some serve us well, like JCO’s Zombie. Skillfully rendered in every respect.