American Gothic: Bellefleur by Joyce Carol Oates

Bellefleur - 1st edition
Bellefleur – 1st edition

As I mentioned in my post Stephen King: A Beginner’s Guide I became interested in the work of Joyce Carol Oates because of her association with King. As early as Danse Macabre (1981) King was writing admiringly about Oates’ work. The compliment was returned when Oates introduced King’s speaking engagement at Princeton in 1997.

Bellefleur is the first book I have read by Joyce Carol Oates. She has written a vast number of titles, rivalling King in her output. So many novels it was difficult to chose one to begin. I settled on Bellefleur because it is acclaimed as one of her finest works, and because it is the first book in a loosely connected series of American Gothics.

Bellefleur is a generational epic, telling the story of an American family from late 18th century to the middle of the 20th century. All good Gothic tales require a haunted house, and the central location, the vast, slowly decaying, Bellefleur Manor, a monstrous ‘castle’ built in the mid-19th century on the western shore of Lake Noir in the northern Appalachians, is certainly haunted. it is a fine Gothic creation. There is the room where time flows differently, where one family member vanishes without trace. We meet a boy who perhaps turns into a dog; visit a frozen lake where people, possibly inhabitants of a parallel universe, can be glimpsed, standing upside down, feet on the underside of the ice; see the ‘noir vulture’ – a bird which abducts a baby and devours it in the air; encounter a vampire lover, a psychic child, a family curse.

Bellefleur - current US edition
Bellefleur – current US edition

It might be described as magical realism, but surrealism would perhaps better describe the way time works differently for various characters, some ageing faster than others, even brothers and sisters. Some being astonishingly mature for their ages, other living exceptionally long life-spans. It would be easy to think  these aspects of the novel were down to continuity errors, but the book is too carefully constructed for that. And the very useful family tree in the front of the novel deliberately omits dates after a certain point. The uncertainties which arise add to the unsettling, nebulous, haunted feel of Bellfleur.

The novel covers a vast range of characters and jumps back and forth in time. The complex structure is less daunting that it might be because there is an anchor to which the story periodically returns, the lives of a young married couple, Gideon and Leah. The novel begins with the arrival of an unexpected visitor, Mahalaleel, during a storm nearly a year before the birth of Gideon and Leah’s third child, Germaine. From there Oates ranges through time and family history, gradually connecting together the story of the Bellefleur family over the generations.

The Bellefleur family - illustration from early US paperback edition
The Bellefleur family – illustration from early US paperback edition

Written in heady, rapturously poetic prose, the individual chapters at times read like short stories, tales of related characters, or aspects of the history of the manor itself. Never far from the borders of the supernatural, horrific or fantastical  – there is a drum made of human skin, a dwarf who is an expert with rat poison – Oates gradually reveals the changing fortunes of the Bellefleurs, portraying the sense of entitlement, the wilful blindness, avarice, violence,  corruption and murderous criminality of a family driven by a lust for money, power and status. In their time the Bellefleur’s support slavery, enact bloody revenge, and through the generations exploit those who work for them, and so make their fortune. It is a self-destructive ethos, setting the scene for inevitable tragedy.

Bellefleur is a great Gothic fantasy in every sense. It is a big book, enormous in its scope and ambition and filled with richly imagined characters. Beauty and a sense of wonder co-exist with shocking brutality and stark physical horror. The result is an all-enveloping tapestry of life and death, sex and birth, and everything in-between which either makes life worth living or something to dread.

Bellefleur can be read simply as an amazing story, or, as Oates notes in an afterword, an allegorical ‘critique of America’ written ‘in the service of a vision of America that stresses, for all its pessimism, the ultimate freedom of the individual.’ It is not Fantasy or Horror in the genre sense, but just as much as Stephen King at his best, it is a psychologically driven novel of the fantastique. It is also a politically and socially engaged work which is perhaps more vital now, as the gap between rich and poor gets ever wider, as the entitled arrogance and avarice of the super-rich becomes ever more blatant and extreme, than it was when first published in 1980.

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