Joyce Carol Oates's "Evil Eye: Four Novellas of Love Gone Wrong'' is a dazzling, disturbing, tour de force of Gothic suspense: four odd, compelling, ingeniously narrated tales that gain in power and resonance when read in conjunction with each other.
Mark Edmundson has defined the Gothic mode as "the art of haunting" whose aim is to show that "life, even at its most ostensibly innocent, is possessed." Oates is working right in the center of this tradition, for "Evil Eye'' is both possessed by Gothic — echoing iconic stories from "Rappaccini's Daughter" to "Jane Eyre,'' recapitulating tropes from innocent virgins to poisonous kisses — and in firm possession of the conventions it deploys with confidence and knowing wit. Past sins, traumas, and tragedies exert an unwavering pull over present actions. Personal possessions have bizarre, destructive agency (an "ax [takes] . . . on its own willful life"). Men treat women as possessions. Characters are possessed by strange drives and desires. "Love . . . [is] indistinguishable from possession" , a "virulent infection" that renders the lover "dazed, hypnotized," "haunted."
In three stories, "vulnerable," "childlike" women fall under the spell of older, charismatic, mysterious men; in the fourth, a frail woman is under the sway of her son. While the initial bond usually seems tender and protective, love soon shades into obsession and a "wish to subjugate." And this opens up strange regions of ambiguity. Is the man abusive? Narcissistic? Psychotic? Is the seemingly "frightened and helpless" woman a tragic victim, an ambivalent participant, or an accomplice to the man's evil?
"Evil Eye'' is all the more unnerving because readers will recognize their own relationship woes in these hyperbolic versions of common predicaments. In the tale from which the book takes its title, Marian, like many a disappointed newlywed, discovers her husband is not the man she thought he was; his "unpredictable . . . moods" make her life miserable. Like 16-year-old Lizbeth of "So Near Any Time Always," many adolescent girls would fall for a boy who fashions himself an outsider, a loner. "Upper-middle-class suburban parents" worried by their difficult and refractory teenager will identify with the parents of disturbed, deviant Bart in "The Execution." Women unable to move forward in love because of bad past experiences that scarred them may well empathize with the heroine of "The Flatbed."
But how often, despite our worst fears, is that moody husband actually insane, that teenage loner in fact a psycho-killer, that rebellious, troubled son a diabolical monster, or that reticent girl the victim of horrific incest? Part of the horror of "Evil Eye'' is seeing familiar scenarios pushed to the lurid limit that we can imagine but hardly dare to entertain.
In the extremity of their presentation, the damaged women, "cruel husband[s]," symbiotic siblings, dead babies, absent parents, murderous children, and "mutilated" and "ravage-faced" victims that populate Oates's novellas are both fantastically unreal and terribly familiar. They are simultaneously like characters in fairy tales and straight out of the pages of tabloid journalism (the resentful son who plots his parents' murder could be a Menendez brother or an Adam Lanza).
Like all great Gothic fiction, "Evil Eye'' both mesmerizes and enlightens; it works as entertainment and as cultural critique. Myriad aspects of contemporary American life come under scrutiny: our (over) reliance on psychiatric medication; the craving for celebrity; over-indulgent parents and pampered children; the influence of video games, movies, and music on real-life violence; the role of art in a commercial society; the legal system's definitions of insanity; the private perversions of public men.
Yet even as she gives us the black-clad murderer amped up on Ritalin, playing Metallica, and fancying himself a YouTube star or a character in "The Matrix,'' Oates seems to be parodying the very stereotype she is working with. Stereotypes materializing into life is obviously horrific, but so is our wish to find easy explanations for gruesome violence. Oates seems to be gesturing toward an evil beyond our ability to make sense of it.
If any explanation exists for why and how love goes wrong, Oates implies that it lies in the fragility of our sense of self. It is the lack of a secure identity, the belief that one is "worthless" without love, that allows for others' appropriative manipulation and haunting. The women remain in thrall to their lovers because they think, like Mariana, "without this man, I am nothing," or take pride that their abuser "singled [them] out," or feel, like LizBeth, even when faced with the reality of her boyfriend's malevolence: "He loved me — he would not have hurt me."
Part of the idea here is that modern society is adept at emptying people of any stabilizing substance. Such hollowed people will be happily complicit in being possessed; "like a zombie," what they wish is to be filled with some kind of animation. Perhaps this is why modern readers are such avid consumers of Gothic fiction. How self-denying is it, therefore, to admit that I was myself possessed by these remarkable stories?
Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale and Vassar and the author of "The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.''