Saturday, June 2, 2018

A Bloodsmoor Romance - Joyce Carol Oates

Amidst the guests, however, no one was more pleasing to the eye, or excited more comment, than the five Zinn daughters of local fame. As we advance more intimately upon the sisters, we will not shrink from taking note of countless small imperfections, and some major faults, so it is well to remember that, observed and judged from a distance, as doubtless guests to the Kiddemaster Hall were wont to do, Constance Philippa, and Octavia, and Malvinia, and Samantha, and even Deirdre, did strike the eye as uncommonly attractive young ladies, though they lived in a society in which Beauty - whether of face, or form, or manner, or attire - was very much a requisite, for the female sex. 

Cover art for A Bloodsmoor Romance by Max Ginsburg

I'm straying far and wide from the world of assassins, spies and hardboiled detectives, in putting the light on this 1982 novel from Joyce Carol Oates. What a strange and weird book this is! Reading this novel I wondered who the intended audience for this "old-fashioned" novel would have been back then. It's written in a deliberate homage to Victorian-era novels, or Romances (think Little Women) as they were called. It forces the reader to slow down and accept the story on the narrator's terms. That narrator being an unnamed, elderly maiden, relating the intimate details, events and fates befalling the five Zinn sisters mentioned above. The setting is Bloodsmoor, PA, in the last 20 years of the 19th Century. It wouldn't have been the typical reading fare for the early 1980's by any stretch. This novel is almost a dare to any publisher accepting it for marketing to supermarkets, airports and and malls back then.

I've read a few of Oates's novels before, including Bellefleur, which this novel is a cousin to, as part of her Gothic period of novels. Bellefleur is another long, and more difficult, novel than A Bloodsmoor Romance, and just as weird. This novel is far more accessible for a patient reader than Bellefleur is, and I would recommend to anyone possibly interested in reading Bellefleur that they should probably read A Bloodsmoor Romance first. Both novels are historical family sagas loaded with bizarre and often supernatural events and turns of plot.

And as plots go, this novel follows the fates of the five Zinn sisters named above. It kicks off with a dramatic abduction of Deirdre by a sinister black hot-air balloon after an afternoon party to celebrate the engagement of the eldest Zinn daughter, Constance Philippe. Deirdre's shocking abduction remains unsolved. It also serves as a stain of sorts on the Zinn family itself. It's almost assumed to be her own fault that she's taken away in such a daring fashion. Deirdre is the youngest of the Zinn sisters, and the oddest. She's often beset by nightmares and visions and haunted by invisible voices. It seems to make sense that she be snatched away into mystery. Her kidnapping has an inevitability about it, and it launches the narrative detailing the diverse directions the other sisters take in their lives.

So what happens? Well, Constance Philippe disappears on her wedding night, Malvinia elopes with a European blackguard and becomes a scandalous actress of the stage, Octavia (the good sister) marries an older man to tragic consequences, Samantha follows her father's vocation into a life of science and curiosity wholly unbecoming of a young woman of her time. And Deirdre returns as Deirdre of the Shadows, a notorious medium.

But that's just the tip of the iceberg for our sisters! The turn of events include kidnappings, seances, ghosts, murder, a time machine, kinky sex, strange deaths, a sex change, erotic asphyxiation, secret marriages, disguises and more than a few family secrets revealed along the way. Just your average Victorian melodrama!

I think, given the popularity of shows like Penny Dreadful and The Alienist, this novel was about 35 years ahead of its time. I can completely see a Netflix miniseries based on this book. But until that happens, I'll just tell you to read the book first. You'll probably like it as much as I did.