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Evil Eye: Four Novellas of Love Gone Wrong: A Book Review

Updated on December 13, 2016
wingedcentaur profile image

The first step is to know what you do not know. The second step is to ask the right questions. I reserve the right to lean on my ignorance.


Today we're going to quickly take stock of Joyce Carol Oates's "Evil Eye: Four Novellas of Love Gone Wrong," to see what the book is all about. As usual, you may take it for granted that, since I am writing about the book, here, I like it. Let me also say, as usual, that the purpose of my writing this review is not to convince you(whoever 'you' may be) about how good I think this book of four novellas is---but it is really good, in my opinion.

No, the purpose of this review is to do my best to show you what you will be in for, should you decide to either buy or borrow this book from the library, take it home and read it.

The question is: What kind of book is this? What kind of writer is Joyce Carol Oates? What is it about the way she pursues her craft of writing that is so laudable---and particularly as it pertains to the particular book in question?

1. It is fiction, of course.

2. We are looking at a collection of four novellas---stories that are too long to be considered 'short' and by far not long enough to be considered even 'short novels.' Actually, most of you should have no problem finishing the book in one sitting; its only two-hundred-sixteen pages long. The writing itself is a pleasure to consume, which should make the book seem like its even shorter than it is---very crisp, clean prose. If you cannot tell by now, know that she is another author whose work I have always been profoundly intrigued by.

3. What genre of writing is this? What genre of writing is Mrs. Oates most known for? Since the word 'love' appears in the subtitle, should we, therefore, assume that we are looking at a collection of love stories: stories of romance with tragic endings?

The answers are: 'yes,' 'no,' 'sort of,' and 'not exactly.'

Make sense, man! What in blue blazes are you talking about?

First of all, what genre of writing are we looking at?

We are looking at crime stories not 'mystery' or 'suspense' stories.

Of course, that is not a complete answer. What is a crime story? A 'crime' story, as I like to define the term, is a story in which the perpetrator of the crime is known from the start. There is no 'mystery' about 'whodunit,' as in the mystery story. A 'suspense' story is one of those 'race-against-time,' frenetic action tales, you know what I mean.

Joyce Carol Oates's "Evil Eye" is 'crime' fiction, not mystery or suspense. There is no puzzle and no race-against-time stuff.

With a crime story, the question is if and how the perpetrator will get away with the crime, often murder, but not always. How will the perpetrator navigate all the obstacles in his way in both the commission of the crime (logistical, emotional, psychological, physical, etc.), and in getting away with it (whether this entails physically getting away or just avoiding official suspicion)?

In thinking about this, I have to modify my statement, somewhat, about Evil Eye being 'crime' fiction. It is true that the book concerns crime, usually murder (motivated by twisted love, to be sure), and there is no question about who the perpetrator and his motive is. But only the logistics on the front end are given some concern, not those on the back end.

What I mean to say is that the stories do concern themselves, somewhat, with preparations to commit the crimes, but not the logistics of getting away with them. That is because the stories are ended before that can become a consideration, if you follow what I'm saying. I suppose you really could say that the stories concern themselves with 'poetic justice,' if you will.

But even this description does not quite capture it all! The first story in the collection, Evil Eye, can, as I read it, be considered what I shall call Danger Fiction.

What does that mean? What is this word I have coined, 'Danger Fiction,' supposed to signify in the context of a book of four novellas of love gone wrong?

What I mean is that this first novella in the collection is not what I would call an overt 'crime' story. There is no murder and there is not quite, even the suggestion of murder or any other crime. But the tale does indeed take on a suggestively sinister quality toward the end.

Let me try to make myself clearer, without giving too much of the story away. Evil Eye concerns the protagonist, a young woman in her late twenties who is newly married to a man decades older than herself. The man is wound up really tight, set in his ways, irritable and unpredictable, petty... Let's just say that the gentleman is not an easy fellow to live with. As proof of this, we are given to understand that she is wife number four!

The couple get a visit from the man's first wife and her niece. Having been the old eccentric's first wife, she is around his age, a couple of years older actually. The woman is missing an eye; she makes no effort to hide it; she merely decorated around it.

Anyway, when the ex-wife gets the current wife alone, she tells her some things about the man, the great Austin Mohr. First of all, we are never told how the first wife lost her eye; I had the feeling, reading this story, that the self-absorbed, arrogant Austin Mohr had had something untoward to do with it. This caused a sense of dread and suspicion in me that is never settled one way or another. In fact, Mohr tries to convince his young bride that the woman is NOT missing an eye, and that maybe she was imagining things. Trust me, we're in creepyville here. Anyway, that is what I mean by "danger" fiction. There are sinister implications to be drawn all over the place but none are ever set to rest one way or another.

At one point in the story we are told that the reason the first wife always brings her niece along to these visits with Austin Mohr, her fist husband, is "to show him she has not been broken by him. He pretends not to remember, it is funny---yes?" That could mean either a range of things or one thing terrible which comes to mind!

The older woman pleads with her much younger predecessor to save herself from "destruction" before it is too late.

Moving on...

The second novella is called "So Near Any Time Anywhere." This is a kind of 'danger' fiction in that the immediately shown story does not feature a crime, per se, but does show an attempted, possible crime. We are told, quite clearly, though, that one of the characters did most definitely commit the crime of murder in the past, for which he spent a modest few years in juvenile psychiatric detention.

A high school student thinks she has found the perfect boy. To say that he is not what he appears is an understatement. When he had been fourteen, he murdered his younger sister. He spent six years in psychiatric detention, was declared 'cured' of his 'mental defect,' released, becomes the perfect guy that our young teenaged protagonist initially falls hard for. The relationship becomes creepy when the young man goes into stalker mode and its all downhill from there.

He tries to force her into his car, ostensibly to go on a ride with him. Was the intent aggravated kidnapping or did he really just want to talk?

The third novella is called The Execution, and if I'm not mistaken, this is based on a true story.

Anyway, it is about a young man in college, who murdered his father, with an axe, and tried to do the same to his mother---severely and permanently wounding her but not quite finishing her off. Now the reason he did this is quite vague. The very vagueness of the motivation for such a hideous crime, makes the story even more disturbing.

The father is killed in the attack and the mother is incapacitated, rendered unconscious. She, in fact, goes into a coma. When the killer's mother comes out of her coma, she vehemently denies that it was her son who attacked her and her husband. Her testimony ultimately saves her psychotic son's bacon. He is acquitted of murder and attempted murder.

One wonders if the mother truly does not remember who attacked her or if she is simply protecting her son.

The last novella is called Flatbead, and is more of the classic revenge story. 'Justice' is not delivered by the formal criminal justice system, but by an outraged boyfriend and his Fists of Death! With the old man beaten to death, our young woman seems to have been freed from the pain of the past, and she appears, truly, to be able to love the man she's with.

Thank you for reading.


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    • wingedcentaur profile imageAUTHOR

      William Thomas 

      4 years ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things!

      Thank you for visiting, lululemon. I will check out the link. Oates may very well have based her story on the true crime. That one sounded familiar to me as well.

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      I stumbled on your page because I thought "The Execution" was based on a true story as well. I found the story on Christopher Porco who murdered his father with an ax, attempted to kills his mother, and did not get sent to jail even after his mother named him because she wouldn't testify against her son. It seemed familiar to me too. Here's the link:


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