Joyce Carol Oates and Man… this is Crazy

Joyce Carol Oates has a way of sneaking up on me. 

I was maybe fourteen or fifteen when I checked ‘Man Crazy’ out of my high school library, not knowing anything about the author, her subject matter, her style, her fame, anything. I wish I remember why I checked it out in the first place. My habit in libraries and bookstores, when picking up something that looks interesting by an author I know nothing about, is to read the blurb and then open to a random page somewhere towards the middle. If the writing style looks good to me (I’m not looking at the content necessarily), I’ll take the plunge regardless. I’ve found some fantastic authors this way. Not knowing the first thing about Oates, I guess something similar must’ve happened. That said, I have no idea what lead me to that particular shelf, that particular book, on that particular day. It can’t have been the title that grabbed me—I still think it’s a pretty misleading title, and it’s not one that would’ve appealed to me even then. But there was some mad, magic fate at work that day. Because that book changed everything for me in a way that remains largely unchallenged even now. I’d started reading King and Straub and Koontz, with the understanding that this was what horror/dark fiction for adults is all about. I was so young I’d only recently moved on from Goosebumps, Stine and other YA horror which still hold a special place in my heart. But at that point I didn’t know dark fiction as psych horror was even a thing. If you’re familiar with JCO or with ‘Man Crazy’ in particular, you’ll know what I’m talking about. No ghosts, no ghouls. Instead, the monsters in our heads and the monsters we shake hands with, the ones we let into our homes and into our hearts and into our beds, where they suck the lifeblood out of our souls instead of our throats. Preying on innate vulnerabilities, childhood memories, prejudices. Exploiting psychological cracks. All the places where the damage is so much worse, if for no other reason than because it will not kill you. Instead it murders you in pieces, and then leaves what’s left of you to live. I didn’t know back then that any of this could be accurately and/or emotively captured in books.

So I was fourteen and I was reading about a girl who mauls her own face because she’s so insecure. I was fourteen and I was reading about a girl having underage sex with a man she adores, who literally (if I remember right) describes himself to her as Satan. I had no idea fiction could get this heavy. Or this real. Because again, none of it is about the monster under the bed. It’s all about the monsters we carry with us in our heads, opening the doors to destruction without us even knowing we’re allowing it. I say all this from memory, but I’m pretty sure it stands because even if I have the facts and plot points a little skewed, I definitely remember the effect. It’s written with heartbreaking emotive power. Deep description. Utter agony. True beauty. How such a piece of literature found its way into a humble little high school library, I have no idea. Then again, that particular library was founded by Alan Paton himself. So, you know, maybe it figures. (And for the record, to hell with censorship anyway.) 

I read it about three times I think. I (reluctantly) returned it. I was already writing myself—because I always have, even as a little kid messing around with crayons, trying to describe the images I found in my head. I started writing more, and without realising it I began my first crude attempts at psych horror. I didn’t know I was doing it really. I just knew that I wanted to write something genuine, something true. Something like ‘Man Crazy’. Horror (call it Dark Fiction if you really must) to me has always felt like a genre of true sincerity, because it doesn’t feel the need to sugar-coat anything. It can go as deep and as dark as it wants, and that kind of raw honesty about the human (and inhuman) condition can be incredibly beautiful BECAUSE it doesn’t try to hide anything away. It’s free to Be, right there in black and white and all its multi-shaded plethoras of grey. ‘Man Crazy’ showed me that this kind of depth, this kind of raw truth and stunning soul-speak brutality, was in fact possible. I was hooked on psychological horror as a genre before I even knew it had a definition. All because of that book.

Fast forward about ten years. Reading and writing and making my first serious attempts at becoming a published author myself. I remembered that novel, or certain scenes from it at least, but the title and the name of the author were long lost. 

Fast forward another five or so years. I’m back in the KwaZulu Natal Midlands, my home ground, a place packed with ghosts, visiting my mother for a few days. Screaming inside, because being there has that effect on me. Feeling the way being back in any place that raised you and damaged you and maybe kinda healed you can make you feel. Doing what I always do when the monsters in my own head are threatening to eat me alive: reading, writing. I took a trip into town by myself, ambled into the local bookstore. Scanned the shelves. I had a small amount of cash on me. Enough to buy a reasonably-priced book and a cup of coffee. (Which, you could argue, is about as much money as you ever really need.) I was specifically looking for something cool that would fit the price I could pay. 

I pick up something called ‘Daddy Love’. 

‘Odd title,’ I think. 

Author: Joyce Carol Oates. 

‘Never heard of her,’ I think. 

I do my usual blurb-scan, random-page read. The style is something all on its own. It fits the price. 

‘Yeah screw it why not,’ I think. 

I buy the book. I get a cup of coffee. I sit out by the lake, cross-legged on the deck with the water underneath me and that low, grey Midlands sky overhead. And I start to read. 

Now we’re talking child abduction. Now we’re talking paedophiles. Now we’re talking about all kinds of soul-smashing things, written with heartbreaking emotive power. Deep description. Utter agony. True beauty. We’re talking psych horror on a whole new level. New? Wait… have we been here before…?

‘Daddy Love’ lead me straight back to ‘Man Crazy’, straight back to the raw power of Joyce Carol Oates, and her manner of handling even the most vicious of her human monsters with gorgeous, complex layers of insight and empathy. I’d been looking for ‘Man Crazy’ for over a decade (bear in mind again please that at that time I didn’t remember the title), with no clues to help me beyond a few isolated scenes not even carefully phrased Google searches could make sense of. By the end of ‘Daddy Love’ I was pretty sure this book would sit somewhere in the same circle as the one I’d checked out from the high school library so long ago. A book I’d never been able to forget. One that had taken on a surreal essence in my memory, like something mythological only briefly glimpsed. If anyone had told me I’d dreamed it up, that it had in fact never existed, I might even have been convinced. I looked up a list of other works by this author, Joyce Carol Oates. No titles rang the right bell. I read, painstakingly, each blurb from each work that fit the approximate publication date. And then finally, after all that time and so many hours of lost-needle combing, there it was. ‘Man Crazy’. 

It’s hard to describe how I felt, realising that THIS WAS THE BOOK. Even as someone who has invested all of her adult life and much of her childhood into trying to describe complex emotional states, I get a little lost here. It meant that much. It was like light exploding in my head. It was a very calm, very personal, very total form of elation. Like finding a long-lost version of myself, taking her hands, looking into her eyes. Crossing the bridge back to that fourteen-year-old girl who knew what she wanted to do, but had no idea how to do it. And that stretching, twisted path that lies between the Then and the Now.

That makes TWO TIMES that I’ve stumbled across Joyce Carol Oates with no clue about who she is or what she might mean to me, and had my inner world busted wide open by her works. To me this looks a lot like proof of fate. She’s not exactly an unknown, but for some reason she’d never directly crossed my radar as ‘The Great Joyce Carol Oates’ so many know her as. I don’t know why that is. It’s not like I don’t read avidly, and widely. The truly stunning benefit from this though is that my discoveries of her—both times—were completely independent, natural, organic, without any pre-conceived ideas about her or her art. There was nothing ‘groomed’ about my reaction to her in either instance. I found her and appreciated her all on my own. 

Now my bookshelves are packed with her many novels and short story collections. Now I know exactly who she is. Now my copy of ‘Daddy Love’ in particular has been read so many times that there are coffee stains and lipstick smears on almost every page. But what about ‘Man Crazy’? ‘Man Crazy’ was originally published somewhere in the mid-90s. It’s been out of print for so long that when you ask for it at bookstores, they are guaranteed to tell you they don’t have any copies, of course not, but you’re welcome to buy this other one or that other one by her. It’s not an easy book to find. I ordered a secondhand copy the instant I first rediscovered it, and the post office lost it. We won’t talk about the battle that ensued, because I lost. And that was enough to keep me from trying via that route for a good while to come. I’m okay with believing that maybe at that time, it just wasn’t meant to be.

So it’s with ENORMOUS EXCITEMENT that I now say I recently found a secondhand copy, and paid top freaking dollar (call it three times the price of the book itself) to make sure it gets couriered DIRECTLY TO MY DOOR. I’m not exactly rolling in money, but this one is not allowed to get lost. This one will make its way back to me, and I don’t care how much I have to pay to make sure that happens. Understand that it’s been more than twenty years now since that fated day in the library, as an insecure school-girl hiding in books, looking for something meaningful to get lost in. Understand that the protagonist in that story had a lot in common with me at that time. Understand that since then, much has changed. Understand that the way I feel about finally re-reading it isn’t too far off the way you might feel about meeting up with a childhood best friend you still cherish with all your heart, even though you may barely know each other now. In short: beyond my love, I have no idea what to expect.

‘Man Crazy’ is finally on its way back to me. I’m shivering inside. It feels like a full circle, finally closing. I remember so little of this book. I only remember how it guided me, how it changed me. How it held my hand and showed me things I didn’t know I was allowed to see.

Joyce Carol Oates has a way of sneaking up on me. And it means the world to me, every time.


About karenrunge

~Writer, Artist, Horror Film Addict~ Stories out with Shock Totem, Grey Matter Press, Books of the Dead Press, Pseudopod, among others. HWA Member.
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