Published in 1980, Joyce Carol Oates’ novel Bellefleur is an astonishing gothic tour-de-force, a breathtaking and phantasmagoric book that whirls through generations of an aristocratic New England family. It deals in almost every kind of traditional horror-story trope: a sprawling, crumbling, haunted house; angered spirits of the land; men who take the shape of beasts; at least one innocent heiress who develops a peculiar case of anemia after being courted by a sinister European nobleman. All these things are folded into an overarching tale of greed, power, sex, and tragedy, told in a wild style that almost hides a precise structure of event, theme, and imagery.
The book was the first in a set of five projected ‘gothic’ novels. Oates has published three more since: A Bloodsmoor Romance in 1982, The Mysteries of Winterthurn in 1984, and My Heart Laid Bare in 1998. The last of the novels, The Accursed (originally to be titled The Crosswicks Horror), is set to come out in late March of 2013. To get ready for its appearance, I want to take a look at each of the first four novels, all of which play with genre in different ways. I’ll start this week with Bellefleur, which I think is a tremendous accomplishment, and a great work of the fantastic.
Before getting into the book, a bit of background on Oates: born in 1938, her first book, a collection of short stories called By the North Gate, was published in 1963. The next year, her first novel followed, With Shuddering Fall. Bellefleur was her twelfth novel; she’s written almost 50 novels for adults, as well as plays, poetry, short stories, and Young Adult fiction. Among the long list of literary awards she’s won are the National Book Award for Fiction (for them in 1970) and the 2012 PEN Center USA Award for Lifetime Achievement. Genre awards of note include two Bram Stoker Awards — in 1996 for Superior Achievement in a Novel, for Zombie, and in 2011 for Superior Achievement in a Fiction Collection for The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares — as well as a World Fantasy Award in 2011 for her short story “Fossil-Figures.” Her stories have appeared in ten of the Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror Stories anthologies.
So Oates is and was no stranger to genre fiction of various kinds. Yet Bellefleur opens with a prefatory ‘Author’s note’ suggesting a dispiriting lack of faith in the readers of 1980:
This is a work of the imagination, and must obey, with both humility and audacity, imagination’s laws. That time twists and coils and is, now, obliterated, and then again powerfully present; that “dialogue” is in some cases buried in the narrative and in others presented in a conventional manner; that the implausible is granted an authority and honored with a complexity usually reserved for realistic fiction: the author has intended. Bellefleur is a region, a state of the soul, and it does exist; and there, sacrosanct, its laws are utterly logical.
It’s a statement both well-put and (I presume) ironic. I’m not old enough to remember the climate of literary opinion in 1980, so I don’t know how many readers actually needed to be told that “imagination’s laws” had to be respected, or that the fantastic could be given the authority and complexity of realism. But in making outright claims that the story might have made for itself, in using the particular style it does, even in its use of the third person, it sets up a tone for the book as a whole. As I read it (and the book), it’d be wrong to call it tongue-in-cheek or to say that it doesn’t take itself seriously; in fact, like many of the characters, it takes itself with an extravagant seriousness. It is ironic, I feel, but only in that it incorporates irony into a means of approaching a deeper seriousness. It’s an immersion, then, in a certain tone and approach, identifying the book’s method before the story itself begins.
Here’s the actual opening paragraph of the book itself:
It was many years ago in that dark, chaotic, unfathomable pool of time before Germaine’s birth (nearly twelve months before her birth), on a night in late September stirred by innumerable frenzied winds, like spirits contending with one another — now plaintively, now angrily, now with a subtle cellolike delicacy capable of making the flesh rise on one’s arms and neck — a night so sulfurous, so restless, so swollen with inarticulate longing that Leah and Gideon Bellefleur in their enormous bed quarreled once again, brought to tears because their love was too ravenous to be contained by their mere mortal bodies; and their groping, careless, anguished words were like strips of raw silk rubbed violently together (for each was convinced the other did not, could not, be equal to his love — Leah doubted that any man was capable of a love so profound it could lie silent, like a forest pond; Gideon doubted that any woman was capable of comprehending the nature of a man’s passion, which might tear through him, rendering him broken and exhausted, as vulnerable as a small child); it was on this tumultuous rain-lashed night that Mahalaleel came to Bellefleur Manor on the western shore of the great Lake Noir, where he was to stay for nearly five years.
This is a paragraph of one sentence. You can almost overlook that in its inventiveness; it’s extravagant, so much so that one almost misses the careful control exercised through the deployment of a complex battery of grammatical devices, dashes and parentheses and colons and semi-colons and the inevitable comma. Much of the book is written in this style, rich and dramatic. It could have become wearying, but to me never does due to Oates’s command of language, and the effects she brings off. Compare it with the Author’s Note, especially the intricate second sentence: the difference between the two gives a sense of the variety of musical and tonal effect her style allows. The Note is stately, measured, thoughtful; the opening paragraph is a headlong rush, frantic, violent. The wildness of its style in fact almost masks its careful planning. Grammatically it’s finely-tuned, building and dropping eloquently. And more than that, with a remarkable subtlety it introduces themes and characters that will shape and echo through the work.
Ostensibly leading up to the introduction of Mahalaleel, who turns out to be a huge and beautiful tomcat, the sentence-paragraph in fact establishes Leah and Gideon Bellefleur, perhaps the two most significant adult characters of the book — specifically, it establishes them as passionate people, filled and driven by emotions, madly in love with each other and yet also prone to rages and anger and fights. Easy to overlook that the opening words present all this matter in the context of another character, Germaine, not yet born. Germaine will be Leah and Gideon’s daughter (or Leah’s, at least, for there is some ambiguity about Gideon’s involvement; and there is ambiguity also about the biological gender the child is born with), and though the book only covers a few years after this paragraph, even as an infant Germaine drives the plot and drives Leah’s will to power.
But that first wondrous sentence also sets up much of the imagery that threads its way through the book: birth and sex and gender, to start with, even in its diction: it is precise and strange that Leah (implictly) doubts Gideon is equal to “his” love — her love, that is, which the grammar of the language in this case subsumes to a collective his. That confusion works with the “groping, careless, anguished words” of the angry lovers to suggest that a concern with what can and cannot be spoken. The “still forest pond” to which Leah compares her love turns up elsewhere in the book, as her nephew Raphael becomes so attuned to just such a pond that he seems to vanish into it, forsaking name and language and rationality; if it also recalls the “dark, chaotic, unfathomable pool of time” of the opening words, then it looks ahead to what we come to learn about haunted Lake Noir, where ghosts are seen walking upside-down under winter ice, a place that might be (according to the erudite speculation of another of Leah’s nephews) a spot where tears in space and time open onto another world.
There is a concern with time, fathomable or unfathomable; the opening ‘many years ago’ recalls a fairy-tale like ‘once upon a time.’ And indeed, chronology in the book is treated with an exhilarating casualness, as the narrative moves restlessly across two-hundred years, skipping decades between sentences, presenting pieces of ongoing stories which the reader must carefully assemble. With time comes a recurring stream of images related to music, and so here we find winds like spirits contending “with a subtle cellolike delicacy.” Animals, foxes and bears and vultures and dogs and horses, echo through the book; and so this is a paragraph that introduces the tomcat Mahalaleel. Bellefleur Manor shapes the story as well, the home of the book’s eponymous cursed family, so the paragraph concludes with the great house, situating it in its lands — or at least with respect to its neighbouring lake, the aforementioned Lake Noir (which later in the book will form an implicit contrast with Mount Blanc, a nearby peak of uncertain height where at least one mystic thinks he will see the face of God).
Above all, perhaps, that opening paragraph tells us that there are spirits in the air. Spirits therefore tied to the natural world. Spirits also that contend and war; but spirits that are called up by love. These spirits, inarticulate as they may be, and unknowable, their existence doubted by many of the Bellefleurs, are there in the opening lines of the book because we as readers must accept them, must come, I think, to understand much of the action of the novel as implicitly shaped by their elemental quarrels of love and death. Of course, those quarrels also give the novel properly gothic themes; and that adjective ‘ravenous,’ signifying a love too great for the body, looks ahead to a gnomic phrase that runs through the peculiar reveries of Bellefleurs across generations: The jaws devour, the jaws are devoured.
The actual plot of the book is paradoxically simple. The Bellefleur family, a wealthy American clan of French descent with ancestral lands in upstate New York, are in decline, having lost much of their wealth and power over the past two or three generations. Young Leah Bellefleur, married to her cousin Gideon, conceives a child, Germaine, whose birth inspires her to dream of restoring Bellefleur’s greatness, to regather their land and make themselves a force in the world again. Over the course of the book, Leah strives to regain what has been lost. But from the start disaster is foreshadowed, and it is no surprise when, at the point of her final success, everything collapses in a violent act of revenge. Ultimately, though, the story of Leah and Germaine becomes only a way into the deeper story of the book, the history of the Bellefleurs back to the late eighteenth century, with the matter of the ‘present’ only the last and perhaps inevitable movement in a much larger symphony of narrative.
The book is, at least in part, about power, and aristocracy, and sadism. The wealthy Bellefleurs are reflected (and mirrors and reflections make another set of recurring images in the story) by a poor family named the Varrells, and in part the book is about their wars and the deaths each clan inflicts on the other over the course of their generations-long feud — which is only finally explained late in the book, a revelation that calls into question all notions of legitimacy and right. In all their dealings, the Bellefleurs are imperious, prideful, and, one comes to feel, more than a little petulant. In Oates’s telling, it’s as though wealth and power are also infantilising, impairing a mature sense of empathy; and as though the Bellefleurs’ wealth is a prison for themselves, cutting themselves off from the land about them that is the source of their wealth, creating a symbolic fortress and walled garden from which the youngest generation must seek an escape.
Given all this, it’s perhaps no surprise that the book’s also in part about America (and I cannot help but think that the absence of any mention of Canada in a book about a family of French descent just south of the border is therefore pointed). It is about the way power works in America, in terms of class and race and gender. The history of the Bellefleurs reflects and intersects the history of their chosen country, at the same time as they remain apart from it — self-declared aristocrats, in an ostensibly democratic country. As I read the book, their existence suggests a counter-narrative to the sense of America as democracy; for all the gothicism of their family history, they represent another aspect of the country, one in which the exercise of power is strongly and precisely demarcated.
The wealth and power of the Bellefleurs create a kind of fantasyland even as the land from which they have alienated themselves inflicts visitations and spirits upon them: a collection of odd gnomes, one of whom becomes Leah’s manservant; a monstrous vulture that performs a terrible act of violence; dreams and visions of ghosts; floods and storms. But their castlelike manor cannot protect them. As the book ranges back and forth through the years, presenting story after story a bit at a time, the macabre and the supernatural seem to acquire a greater weight, shaping and infiltrating both the manor and the Bellefleurs themselves. Mirrors that do not reflect what they ought to. A room in which a man lives years overnight, and then vanishes entirely. A drum made from a dead man’s skin. A clavichord that makes inexplicably harsh music. Leah’s desire to regather Bellefleur’s power, sparked by the sight of her daughter Germaine, takes its place as only one among any number of uncanny obsessions, fears, and desires inspired by the inhuman forces swirling in and about Bellefleur Manor.
So the novel is in part about the Bellefleurs’ relations to land; is about ownership of land, and what that means, and what right means with respect to land, to human society, to God. But the density of story that the land fosters can be explained, and understood, only in time. And it is in the way the novel uses time that it shines. Time becomes a kind of structural element of the novel. All times are present in Bellefleur Manor at any given moment. Any action, at any point in the tale, resonates with other actions taken at other times. And we don’t understand all these actions at once. We are not told everything in linear sequence; instead Bellefleur is, appropriately, filled with mysteries and odd connections that will strike us only with much re-reading. This is a story covering two hundred years, and it is a story made up of many stories, many characters in many generations. The shifting across time allows Oates to create a narrative density, a hyper-detailed portrait of the Bellefleurs and their curses; one of her characters creates elaborate quilts, and there is an early manuscript note by Oates describing these “quilt[s]” as “Paradigm of the novel.”
The play with time creates an intricate structure of many bright and oddly-juxtaposed fragments; like a quilt, like a mosaic, like a stained-glass window in a Gothic cathedral. Oates moves easily both within the overall scheme of the book, divided into five parts like a Jacobean revenge tragedy (and I note that the last part is in fact titled “Revenge”), and also within her individual chapters — years and decades dissolve as she sets up mysteries to be solved later, as she passes from character to character, as she contrasts Leah’s obsessive rebuilding of the Bellefleur empire with the peculiar visionary Jedediah Bellefleur who left his family in the early nineteenth century to live an ascetic existence on the slopes of Mount Blanc. The architecture of the book, every bit as elaborate and fearsome as the architecture of Bellefleur Manor, is daring. A family tree at the front of the book is our only map for these labyrinths of narrative. Stream-of-consciousness gives way to lists of symbolic objects, lists of hauntings, lists of horses ridden by generations of Bellefleurs. The story of the Bellefleurs is thus built up, a piece at a time, through their possessions and dreams and fancies. It is unpredictable and exhausting, as one tries to track all the dense information Oates provides, relapsing inevitably into a fugue state as imagery connects and resonates and recurs.
The book’s apparent wildness masks an icy control, though, without which the novel wouldn’t work. Because Oates has worked out all the details of all her characters, and how they fit together, and how to reveal these things in order to create the effects she wishes, the novel’s daring technique adds to the success of the work. The structure heightens not just the emotional effect but the thematic power of the novel, reflecting the characters’ perception of time, their isolation, the almost incestuous atmosphere of Bellefleur Manor.
The tone and imagery fit nicely into the structure. The confusion of times, the intense subjectivity, brings out the heated Gothic feel of the book. And the detailed interlocking of event and character, strung out over hundreds of pages, creates a highly-machined sense of story, a kind of Summa Gothica that not only seems to consolidate the traditional elements of the Gothic but finds what makes those elements live; in what their emotional resonance consists, in what their symbolic freight. And then, having done that, finds new things that can be done with them.
Still, with all that said, Bellefleur is a great book because of its humanity. Oates writes with a quiet wisdom, creating unlikely yet compelling characters, making their very implausibilities and monstrosities things both truthful and almost lovable. So character is at the core of the work, outsized and flawed characters brooding over northern wilderness for generations, seeking God and power, failing mostly but succeeding in unlooked-for moments and sometimes in disastrous ways. The richness of the book can be measured in the number of characters it brings to life, and the cleverness of its structural approach is vital in that task: not only do we get to know all these characters, we get to know (usually beforehand) what their descendants think of them, we get to know of their legends and mysteries and who cannot be thought of without a shudder.
It is, in all, an inspiring accomplishment. Literally: the profusion of hints, dreams, wild onrushing sentences, dramatic moments, audacious transitions — of sheer story — can draw a reader into a kind of imaginative sympathy like few books I know. Bellefleur is the sort of novel one studies closely to better understand not only for itself, but for what it shows can be done with language and narrative. It’s exhausting, but rewarding; if it is a book about power, it is also itself of great power, a power beyond all the dreams of all those Bellefleurs that populate its pages.
Matthew David Surridge is the author of “The Word of Azrael,” from Black Gate 14. His ongoing web serial is The Fell Gard Codices. You can find him on facebook, or follow his Twitter account, Fell_Gard.