From Our Authors | February 28, 2017
Contributors on Craft: Nathan Oates on gothic horror, "a problem of the mind"
Nathan Oates’s gothic story “Mile Point Road” appeared in TMR 36:2 and is currently showcased in our viProse section. You can read this fine “haunted” story here. We talked with Nathan about his ongoing interest in the gothic genre.
The Missouri Review: How does “Mile Point Road” interact with the conventions and expectations of the horror genre?
Nathan Oates: Certain elements of the story are directly from the gothic horror genre—the moment of terror in the dark hallway, the incident with the attic door, the repeated image of the threatened children, the sudden transformation of a loved one into a stranger—and these found their way naturally into the story, which, after all, is about a haunted house. At the same time, I don’t think of the “horror” as the point of the story. The real tension, for me, arises from the narrator’s instability and the increasingly blurry boundaries between his perceptions and reality. I wanted to write about a character whose life is coming apart, which is a trope of many horror narratives, but my character is still in a comparatively safe and comfortable position. After all, he’s not at some massive, haunted hotel in the remote wintery mountains of Colorado, as in The Shining, a narrative I was certainly thinking about while writing this story. The main trouble for the narrator is in his mind: specifically, his loosening grip on the boundary between the real and the nightmare. This is the state reading a great story induces, at least in me, and the narrator experiences a similar, albeit far more intense, disorientation to what a reader feels when we fall into a well-made short story.
TMR: Is horror a new genre for you? What genre do you normally write?
Oates: My first book of stories, The Empty House, is almost entirely in the tradition of literary realism. More recently, as in for the past five or so years, I’ve been interested in stories that blur the boundary between literary conventions and other genres. Horror is one, but I’m also very interested in mystery stories, and speculative stories. I believe ardently that one should write the stories you want to read, and many contemporary writers I admire—George Saunders, Kelly Link, Julia Elliott, Ben Marcus, Brian Evenson—blur or even dissolve genre boundaries in ways that have been extremely productive and exciting for the contemporary short story.
TMR: What draws you to the gothic genre?
Oates: In some ways, the gothic feels like the most natural story form and is surely one of the oldest: when I imagine people gathered around a fire, telling stories, it’s gothic, ghost stories I imagine them telling. The gothic is also a natural story form in that it’s about the boundary between the observable world of verifiable experience, and the unseen and inexpressible realm of feelings and dreams. All stories grapple with the exchange between the visible world and the unseen. We live our lives between worlds even in the most basic sense of our experience of consciousness: our inner life, our secret, hidden self, responds to and is developed in relation to the “real” world of things and objects in space around us, but it is also independent from this world in some important way. The same is true of our dreams: they are built on our experiences in the waking world, but they are not limited to those experiences; they carry us to exhilarating, or sometimes terrifying, new spaces of the imagination. This is a problem of the mind, of being alive, and of storytelling that has always interested me. So many of the writers I revere have written gothic stories at some point, including writers who were incredibly important to me as I was learning to write: Henry James, Edith Wharton, George Saunders, Margaret Atwood, and many others. One of my favorite stories is James Joyce’s “The Dead,” which is, in its way, a ghost story.
Then there are the other ways in which the gothic story has been used to examine questions that are otherwise difficult to grapple with without descending into political didacticism. For example, many of the great British and Irish gothic stories are directly about oppression in the class system. Social class, and class conflict, and class exploitation—these are issues I’m very interested in, and which the gothic story allows into the narrative without swamping it. “Mile Point Road” is in part about class: the family in the story are not wealthy themselves, Matt is a teacher and his wife is a freelance editor, but they are able, through familial wealth, to stay in what in America is an equivalent of a manor house. The house itself is haunted by the horrors that class privilege allows: the ghosts the narrator imagines are children who were systematically abused by some patriarchal figure. These issues can be, and have been, directly engaged in politically driven fiction, but I find my own political attitudes tend to spill into didactic hectoring unless constrained by some sort of narrative form. And the gothic form, along with the speculative, is one I’m currently most interested in exploring the possibilities of.
TMR: You wrote a lot of gothic work in high school inspired by your own fears. What brought you back to the genre?
Oates: I wrote “Mile Point Road” and the other stories in my second collection, almost entirely after my first book of stories, The Empty House, won the 2012 Spokane Prize and was set to be published, which it was in early 2014. As I mentioned already, most of the stories in that book are realist literary stories, and publishing my first book, which I’d been trying to do for almost a decade, was a relief, and a release: I felt more confident, better able to try new forms that have always interested me, but which I was always afraid would turn out simplistic and formulaic, or would fail in some way to be serious art. I also think the new confidence I felt to write stories, such as ghost stories, which I’d loved when I was younger, was just a consequence of coming to the end of my long apprenticeship. I always loved the gothic, but didn’t feel I had the skills, once I understood how much there was to learn, to do it in a way that wouldn’t be derivative. Hopefully, I’m able to write something in this tradition that is pleasurable and interesting. It’s certainly been a lot of fun, which is usually a good sign. Though one has to be careful not to conflate the enjoyment of the author with the enjoyment of the reader.
TMR: What’s your favorite work by another writer in the gothic genre and why?
Oates: Shirley Jackson’s stories are often terrifying, even in those when nothing terrible seems to explicitly happen. She manages to tap into an anxious, largely unconscious space that sticks with me long after I’ve finished the stories. More contemporary writers are Christopher Coake, whose novel You Came Back is a great example of contemporary gothic, as is Sarah Waters’s haunted English manor house novel, The Little Stranger, and Dan Chaon’s story “The Bees.” I like that they are largely realist fiction—all have complex, layered characters, vivid landscapes that the reader can inhabit—that are infused with an eerie, troubling strangeness that warps our perceptions just enough to see the other, hidden world that might lie on the other side, or might only reside in our minds.
TMR: Do you see a difference between horror and gothic? What is the difference?
Oates: I think of horror as an element, and, eventually, as a commercial offshoot of the gothic. My understanding of the gothic is that it is a literary approach that contains more than just moments of dread, though horror and dread are, of course, vital components. I also believe, though by no means am I an expert, that what is marketed as horror fiction is really an approach to writing what are essentially gothic stories, with perhaps more emphasis on the terrifying moments than might be found in, say, Henry James or Edith Wharton. In my own writing I am drawn to the greater ambiguity in the gothic form.
TMR: What are you working on now?
I’ve recently finished a second collection of stories, all of which combine literary narrative techniques with another genre: gothic, mystery, speculative. “Mile Point Road” is the title story. Some of the writers, like “Mile Point Road,” hew more closely than others to a genre tradition. There is a speculative dystopian story, and a murder mystery story, while others edge closer to the strangeness of writers like Donald Barthelme. Still others are largely realist, quietly incorporating elements of genre fiction.
Nathan Oates teaches writing and literature at Seton Hall University. His debut collection of short stories, The Empty House, won the 2012 Spokane Prize and was published in 2014. His short stories have been published in Antioch Review, Missouri Review, Witness, and elsewhere and included in the anthologies Best American Mystery Stories 2008, Best American Mystery Stories 2012, and Forty Stories. He is currently at work on a novel and a new collection of short stories.
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