Joyce Carol Oates’s latest book is a horror.
As in horror story, frightening, alarmingly realistic. The monsters in Daddy Love are people, not fantastical creatures from the deep or outer space. They are human. They prey on little boys.
Daddy Love is a sort of answer to what were to happen if Jack had not escaped Room. But where Emma Donoghue’s novel manages to turn a story of abduction and release into a joyously life-affirming story, Oates does the opposite, playing off the media’s frenzied coverage of pedophilia and the sensational aspects of highly publicized abductions like Jaycee Lee Dugard’s.
Robbie Whitcomb is a happy, precocious five-year-old boy living in Ypsilanti, Michigan with his mother Dinah and father, Perry “Whit” Whitcomb, a popular disc jockey. Whit is mixed race, a source of pain for Dinah’s mother Geraldine. But Geraldine is a mere irritant to this young, happy family, until the day Dinah and Robbie run errands at the local mall.
They emerge in twilight. The mall parking lot is ill-lit, deserted, the perfect place for a pedophile searching out new prey. Chester Czechi, aka Chester Cash, aka Daddy Love, smashes Dinah’s skull, then pulls Robbie from her, throwing him into a nondescript van. When Dinah attempts to fight, grabbing for the van door, Cash runs her over. Dinah is permanently disabled, her face disfigured. Robbie is gone. The Whitcomb family is destroyed.
Known for her astounding literary output in multiple genres, Oates has written horror for some 40 years, all of it stamped with her indelibly unique style. Sentences are clipped; dialogue lacks ellipses. Atrocities are played out in secret rooms, closets, remote farmhouses. The perpetrators are merciless, yet capable of invisibility, allowing them to slip through society unnoticed.
The former Chester Czechi is one such monster. As Chet Cash, he’s a religious widower, farmer, and artist who earns the admiration and sympathy of his neighbors. As Reverend Chester Cash, he’s an itinerant preacher whose mesmerizing sermons move impoverished African-American congregations to empty already thin wallets. Living off these pocketed donations and ill-gotten life insurance from a sham marriage, Chet Cash returns to a dilapidated farmhouse in Kittitanny Falls, New Jersey, where his real self emerges: Daddy Love.
In Daddy Love’s mind, all women are “females”, useful only for giving birth to boychildren and for doing the heavy cleaning. Females are otherwise a worthless annoyance, kept at bay by Chet’s polished wall of charisma. Dinah, with her slender build, is especially reprehensible for her insufficient figure, surely incapable of nursing the infant Robbie, and her smoking, which she does furtively, far from her beloved child. Chet finds men only slightly more engaging, useful for falsely hearty socializing allowing him to pass as one of the guys.
Daddy Love likes children. Specifically, prepubescent boys. He’s had more than one, each abducted, renamed, and brainwashed to the point of Stockholm Syndrome. Daddy Love’s “sons” are physically and sexually abused, a status Oates handles deftly, using minimal language to convey maximum violence . Each boy grows increasingly dispirited and lethargic, even as they grow physically—and Daddy Love doesn’t like adolescents. They are dispatched, replaced. Robbie is the youngest child he’s ever taken.
As Dinah slowly recovers, regaining some ability to function independently, the couple searches fruitlessly for Robbie. Whit becomes active in numerous organizations for abducted children. Their marriage founders, yet they stay together, their child’s room untouched, their lives a monument to loss. This realism is key to Daddy Love’s horror: there are no vampires, no zombies, nothing slithering from beneath the bed. The horror lies in the quick run to the mall, in the boy with the gun, schoolyard bound, in the men flying the planes into buildings, the religious zealots buttoning shirts over vests of explosives.
Robbie, now christened Gideon, is a clever child who copes with his horrific circumstances by splitting, much like his captor. Though he has trace memories of his biological parents, he identifies strongly with Daddy Love, even as he lives in terror of him. He is the meek “Son” who wants nothing more than to please Daddy Love. To that end, he keeps their farmhouse clean, does laundry, and becomes adept at macramé. Daddy Love takes the credit for the purses and wall hangings, selling them through a local boutique.
Gideon is another creature entirely. He considers “Son” a weakling. Daddy Love’s abuse does not happen to him, but to “Son”. Gideon is angry, and uses his native intelligence to watch, wait, and occasionally wreak havoc. He knows what happened to his predecessors. He eyes his captor with wary hatred.
Without giving away the ending, I will say it is no fairy tale. One must be careful what one wishes for, lest they more than hoped for.
* * *
During the winter of 1976-77, someone—invariably thought a male—abducted at least four children in and around suburban Detroit. These children were all held for several days before being killed, their bodies dumped in ditches and roadsides. The boys were sexually assaulted. Joyce Carol Oates was living in the Detroit area at the time, teaching at the University of Ontario. I was nine years old and lived less than a mile from where one of the bodies was found.
None of the bodies showed any sign of struggle, leading an increasingly terrified citizenry to assume the kidnapper was somebody children trusted: a priest, perhaps, or a teacher. Maybe a police officer. Somebody whose car a child would not hesitate to get into when offered a ride during that especially freezing winter. He was dubbed the Oakland County Killer.
Every Thursday afternoon, an officer from the Southfield Police Department visited my elementary school. We were led out of our classrooms to a large carpeted area, where, on happier days, we sat crosslegged and watched The Lorax while munching bagels.
There were no bagels when Officer Ron came. I never learned his last name, but I will never forget his face as he instructed us never, ever, to get into anybody’s car but our parents. “Not even mine!” He cried. “Not even me!” If a car stopped and the driver offered us a ride, we were taught to run screaming.
Now and again a news item surfaces: authorities think they’ve finally caught the Oakland County Killer. Each time, DNA evidence proves the authorities wrong.
I was so certain Oates based Daddy Love on the Oakland County Killer that I emailed her and asked. Ever gracious, she immediately responded she had not, but remembered the killer well. Nonetheless, I read Daddy Love through the lens of the child instructed to run screaming.
In fiction, even horror fiction, there is closure.
The Oakland County Killer remains at large.