Where Are You Going, Where Have you Been?, by Joyce Carol Oates
Read it here in about an hour.
Thinking about meanings and endings…
I’ve been reading quite a bit of Oates recently, in honour of Halloween month. This short story is typical of her writing: there’s something sinister, something dangerous, and plenty of ambiguity. If you read a lot of her work you’ll see common themes, such as strained relationships (especially mother-daughter), and young females in perilous situations after ignoring warnings; both are present here.
The story was written in 1966, long before the term ‘serial killer’ were coined. It was inspired by a killer named Charles Schmid, who was known as The Pied Piper of Tucson, presumably because he lured his victims into the Arizona desert.
In this story 15 year-old Connie, a typical teenager, stays at home alone instead of attending a barbeque with her family, and is subsequently terrorised by a man in a car. That alone is a terrifying concept – Connie is helpless inside her house – but even worse, the man doesn’t seem quite human. First of all, he knows things: her name, where her family is, who they’re with, what they’re wearing. He looks odd. He says his ‘sign’ is an X. Connie thinks ‘His whole face was a mask’. He stands and walks in a funny way, as though not used to his own body. When she tries to phone for help, she hears a ‘roar’ in her ear.
The ending is sudden – finishing right at the moment when something’s about to happen to Connie – also typical of Oates. And it’s ambiguous. Does Connie get into the car? What happens to her? Is the man a serial killer, or a demon? I think the very first line in the story answers part of this: ‘Her name was Connie.’ Past tense, and with a sense of finality.
There’s something biblical about this story. I interpret the man to represent the devil. Reminiscent of the serpent in the Garden of Eden, he lures Connie out of the house with a mixture of promises and lies (he offers her love and a good time, he says that her family don’t love her). He makes threats (‘wait till your people come home and then they’re all going to get it’), and gives her compliments (‘My sweet little blue-eyed girl’), although some of his sweet-talk is ambiguously threatening too (‘I’ll have my arms tight around you so you won’t need to try to get away and I’ll show you what love is like, what it does’). And Connie does leave the house; the temptation, or his power, is too great. The description of the ‘vast sunlit reaches of the land behind him and on all sides of him’ in the final paragraph suggests she’s going somewhere like purgatory or hell, to me – but wherever it is, she’s definitely leaving Eden.
Oates is a prolific writer of short stories. If you love ambiguity and abrupt endings, I recommend her.