Joyce Carol Oates has always drawn heavily on the gothic, finding truth in horror and horror in truth. Her best-known, much-anthologised short story, ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’, a fixture on college English syllabuses since its publication in 1966, is a deeply unnerving tale about a high school girl who is stalked, raped and perhaps murdered by a man who may or may not be the devil while her family is out at an afternoon barbecue.
Oates’s vision is no less savage in Night-Gaunts, her new, six-story collection. The longest story, ‘The Experimental Subject’, is a visceral account of the grooming, drugging and assault of a college student, Mary Frances, who is unknowingly impregnated with ape semen by scientists hoping to create the first human–chimp embryo, or Humanzee. The narrator, N_ (whose name is ‘unpronounceable – Chinese? Korean? Vietnamese? – too many consonants crowded into a single syllable for the non-Asian ear to grasp’), is pressured by the scientists to inseminate Mary Frances while pretending to date her. She is selected for breeding because of her vulnerability and physical unattractiveness. Her ‘stolid mammalian figure’, ‘sturdy thighs and legs’, ‘sizable breasts’ and mouth ‘large as a pike’s mouth’ are evoked frequently and in fetishistic detail.
The story aims to unsettle and it succeeds, forcing the reader to become an intimate witness to Mary Frances’s degradation by N_ as well as to his own self-degradation via a pantomime of stereotypes. N_’s nationality is unspecified beyond ‘the birth-country he had not glimpsed in more than