Read a few books by Joyce Carol Oates, and you’ll begin to see a few recurring themes: the woman loves to write about traumatic and/or depraved experiences (often of a sexual nature), then make her protagonists crawl painstakingly out of them. Thing is? She’s really, really good at it.
Set in the 1970s, this novella is about Gillian, a student at a small women’s college in Massachusetts who is in love with her poetry professors, an alpha male who excels at manipulating his young female students. She isn’t the first student at the school to become obsessed with Andre and Dorcas, the professor and his artist wife; rumors swirl around the eccentric couple, who let a student into their inner circle each year. As Gillian is gets closer to the couple, she begins to lose herself in a perverse secret world that’s filled with drugs and violent, sexual art.
Beasts was a pleasant surprise for me; I love dark books, but rarely do I read anything so richly Gothic in nature. It was such a strange world to be drawn into; there are secondary story lines that don’t have much to do with the main plot, but their existence serves to create a sustained, deeply unsettling feeling throughout the book. Oates’s writing is seductive and creepy, and although the end is extreme, it just works.
*Side note: I got to see Joyce Carol Oates in New York, and she signed several of my books, including Beasts. I could not take my eyes off of her: she looks like a character straight out of an early Tim Burton movie, and her handwriting looks like something from the past to boot:
Very cool. 🙂
Beasts was released by Carroll & Graf on January 1, 2002.