In her “Afterword: Reflections on the Grotesque” to Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque, Joyce Carol Oates writes:
“I take as the most profound mystery of our human experience the fact that, though we each exist subjectively, and know the world only through this prism of self, this ‘subjectivity’ is inaccessible, this unreal, and mysterious, to others. And the obverse—all others are, in the deepest sense, strangers.”
She reflects on the lure of the grotesque, the charm of the vampire as evidence that evil can be as seductive as it is repulsive—that it can render us not just victims but accomplices in its destruction. There is a sense of horror or dread bound up in the grotesque, a sense of perversion in which we can feel how something good begins rotting.
The stories in her collection include range the gamut of grotesque topics, including dolls, haunted houses, child abductions, rape, sexual violence, white cats, repetitive games and game worlds, murder of a child.
I’ve excerpted a bit of “Extenuating Circumstances,” my favorite short story from this collection below. You can download the entire PSF using the link.
Because I feared loving him too much, and in that weakness failing to protect him from hurt.
Because his crying tore my heart but angered me too so I feared laying hands upon him wild and unplanned.
Because he flinched seeing me. That nerve jumping in his eye.
Because he was always hurting himself, he was so clumsy falling off the swing hitting his head against the metal post so one of the other mothers saw and cried out Oh! Oh look your son is bleeding! and that time in the kitchen whining and pulling at me in a bad temper reaching up to grab the pot handle and almost overturning the boiling water in his face so I lost control slapping him shaking him by the arm Bad! Bad! Bad! Bad! my voice rising in fury not caring who heard.
Because that day in the courtroom you refused to look at me your face shut like a fist against me and your lawyer too, like I was dirt beneath your shoes. Like maybe he was not even your son but you would sign the papers as if he was, you are so superior.
(Read the remainder of Joyce Carol Oates’ story below. )
“Extenuating Circumstances” is structured as a legal apologia, with first person narrator confessing why she killed her child, and addressing it to the (absent) biological father.
Like a legal document, each paragraph begins with the word “Because…” followed by an extenuating circumstance.
The first paragraph: “Because it was a mercy. Because God even in His cruelty will sometimes grant mercy.”
Oates adds dread and suspense in both the formal framing and the resolute punctuation. Although some paragraphs include questions to the father, no statement ends with a question mark. The lack of question marks propels the dread forward, giving us the sense that the answer does not matter, the conclusion having already been acted upon. Like the verdict of our culture on single mothers.
It’s a fantastic story—and a fictional model for writing the grotesque in motherhood under patriarchy. There is a continuing sense that the mother is damned no matter what she does—damned by the child, damned by the role, and damned by the man.