Cannonball Read V: Zombie by Joyce Carol Oates
Zombie by Joyce Carol Oates might be the most perfect horror novel ever written. It is a masterpiece of suspense that never tries to misdirect you. What you read is what you get, and that’s what’s so terrifying about it.
Oates uses the Poe device of the self-proclaimed unreliable narrator to create a piece of Hitchcock-style suspense. We know the bomb is underneath the table and the narrator will not escape, but he doesn’t know that. He really believes his plans are not only foolproof but logical and just.
Quentin P. is a disturbed young man. He is already a registered sex offender for his previous attempts at sexual conquest. Quentin knows he likes teenage boys and will do anything within his power to create a perfect sex slave. He has a master plan that can’t possibly go wrong more than one time, right?
The genius of Zombie is Oates’ refusal to pull any punches. You keep reading this novel because you cannot believe that Quentin will go through with his plan. Then he comes up short and starts the exact same plan again. Zombie is relentless in its pursuit of truth in this Dahmer-inspired tale. Quentin will pursue his obsession at any cost and for any small reward he can get out of it.
Zombie is a short novel and a quick read at that. There is not a lot of text on any page to reflect the mental capacity of Quentin. Name, locations, and entire paragraphs are redacted as if you’re reading Quentin’s diary after the evidence at the trial is released in the public records. The sentences are short, blunt, and succinctly descriptive. It only takes so many words to describe what he has in mind for his young victims and yet he provides increasingly terrifying variations on the same actions.
The suspense comes from knowing there is no way Quentin’s plan can succeed. That is proven early on in the novel. What makes Zombie a true masterpiece of suspense is Oates’ choice to double down on the insanity. Quentin’s failure leads to a second attempt to do the exact same thing to his next victim with only a minor change. Every misstep is not so much corrected as it is repeated.
If you trip on the third step that’s just a little higher than it should be every time you go up the staircase, it doesn’t make a substantive difference if you lead with your left foot or your right foot. In Quentin’s twisted mind, that third step will magically not be a problem because, this time, he’ll count to three before stepping on it; then he’ll count to four or change his socks for the fourth attempt.
It takes a brilliant mind to create such a believably disturbing yet compelling narrator. Joyce Carol Oates finds a sense of brevity in Zombie that’s as profound as her novels several times its length. The suspense generated by a cycle of self-destructive choices that only change in superficial ways make the novel an experience you can’t just shake off.
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