High Crime Area: Tales of Darkness and Dread

Joyce Carol Oates

The Mysterious Press: New York | 2014 | 247 pages | $23.00

Reviewed by Sally Cobau

Flight and Fear—Joyce Carol Oates’ Vision of our Weaknesses


I don’t know how she does it.  Joyce Carol Oates has been writing for decades, yet each story, novel, or nonfiction piece she writes has the feeling of breathtaking freshness.  I use the word “breathtaking” intentionally here because anyone familiar with Oates’ work knows about the visceral, “on-the-edge” quality of her work.  She is a stylist, using grammar to suit her needs, and she gets her point across whether it be examining madness, paranoia, violence, flight, or fear (what I would call her favorite subjects).

I don’t want to call Oates our modern-day Poe, but there are some similarities.  At a time when literary novelists seem adverse to scouring the darkest parts of ourselves (there are exceptions such as Gillian Flynn and her wildly popular Gone Girl) and only go so far towards examining violence and destruction in our culture, Joyce Carol Oates plunges head on, fearlessly delving into unspeakable topics (such as rape).

High Crime Area (Oates’ latest book—a collection of stories) is no exception.  In fact, the opening story “The Home at Craigmillnar” features a protagonist right out of Poe. 

Like the “Tell Tale Heart,” the narrator is unreliable and though we sense from the beginning that something is “off,” the true depth of the character’s warped sensibility isn’t revealed to the end. 

Simply stated, an orderly at a nursing home is the first to discover the dead body of a hated nun.  One “clue” marking the deranged nature of the death is a soiled cloth covering the woman’s face.  As the story unfolds the reader learns of a deeper relationship between the nun and the orderly.  Also the reader learns that the nun ran an orphanage where abuse was rampant.  The orphanage itself could be out of a horror story—a place where children are ruthlessly treated and even killed in the guise of morality.

Oates doesn’t shy away from examining institutional power structures (nursing homes, mental institutions, orphanages) that perhaps have a (dark) hold on our collective unconscious.  Aren’t we all a little afraid of being vulnerable to the intentions (whether good or bad) of those who can “cure,” “educate,” “appease,” and “rehabilitate” us?

The “power-play” involved in the student-teacher relationship is explored in several stories in this collection.  In “High” an older professor named Agnes seeks drugs from a former student whom she taught when he was in prison.  The boundaries between student and teacher are clearly blurred as the teacher practically stalks her former student (the teacher is desperate for a fix).  But Oates also hints at a more complex dynamic at work, and that is of the voyeuristic teacher, “devouring” her student. 

Oates writes, “Agnes was fascinated by this “Joseph Mattica”—not only his writing ability, but also his personality, and his presence.”  This preoccupation with the “other” is a recurring theme in Oates’ world where characters try to cling to their sense of self, just as they attempt to gain life/energy from observation (though not through useful or purposeful communication).

This dynamic of student/teacher gets more complicated when Oates focuses on race.  She begins the story “High Crime Area” this way:

Detroit, Michigan, 1967

One of them is following me.  I think it must the same (male black) figure I’ve seen in the past.  But I could be mistaken. 

The story continues with the narrator–a young teacher—getting increasingly alarmed as she imagines being followed by a former student.  The teacher gets so worked up she considers using the gun she has hidden in her purse.  The story goes into the character’s mind and shows the illogical steps and conclusions she comes to, as well as her desire to be the “good” teacher. 

In the end, the former student escorts her to the library (and we see that he actually becomes her protector).  When they arrive at the library, the student disappears.  Oates writes, “When I turn, Ezekiel has vanished.  As if he has never been.”  Joyce Carol Oates is suggesting that what we fear is not what we should fear.  That perhaps the biggest thing we should fear is ourselves (the teacher—the “I” in the story--is the one with a gun, after all).

This idea of vanishing runs throughout the book.  Mostly this vanishing is internal—what we think to be real is not and our illusions vanish; what we tell ourselves is scary, is not.  On the other hand, what we imagine to be benign might be evil.  Maybe we all have a drop of the insane in us—Oates, at least, seems to suggest this. 

As I read these stories, I thought about the Netflix series a friend of mine had recommended—American Horror Story.  Although I only watched one episode, I was struck by the way Oates used a lot of the same tropes of the horror genre in her stories—though she didn’t go overboard as the series did (in my opinion) using every device known to scare us to death—twins, a man with a scarred face, a haunted house.  Yet, these stories do take on some delicious elements of the horror genre, and it seems to be timely that Joyce is entering this dark, horrible world.

Some people say that Oates writes too much.  There is no doubt that she’s prolific.  But I remember the way I felt amazed—simply stunned—by the creepy, now-classic story “Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been.”  It’s hard to believe that that short story was published in 1966.  It’s now 2014, and Oates is still at the top of her game.  Bring it on!   

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