In the moments when I have been most scared or in fear of my life, the world appeared slightly distorted, and there was an inkling of unease in my stomach. It happened fast – the world is safe, and then it isn’t. The world is normal and then it’s foreign. Because of this, the stories that scare me the most are the ones that begin as normal then unravel and delve into happenings the characters aren’t ready for, much like Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”
The story was introduced to me three years ago by a tutor I had at my alma mater a little before Halloween. I’d heard of Oates, but had never read any of her work until “Where Are You Going.” I haven’t read any of her work since, but rereading this every year around Halloween is good enough at the moment.
The story begins by describing Connie, an All-American Teenager Girl. She likes rock music, goes to the mall with her friend, to the movies, and to the drive-in restaurant where they flirt with boys. As Oates puts it:
“They must have been familiar sights, walking around the shopping plaza in their shorts and flat ballerina slippers that always scuffed the sidewalk, with charm bracelets jingling on their thin wrists…”
Her home life though is less than desirable. Her mother wishes Connie was more like her sister June, unattractive June who cleans, works, and saves her money. When her mother speaks of either one, her tone is approving with June, and disapproving when talking about Connie. She looks down on her daughter for her silly daydreams and vanity. Because of this, Connie, like many teenagers, leads a double life.
“Everything about her had two sides to it, one for home and one for anywhere that was not home: her walk, which could be childlike and bobbing, or languid enough to make anyone think she was hearing music in her head; her mouth, which was pale and smirking most of the time, but bright and pink on these evenings out; her laugh, which was cynical and drawling at home—‘Ha, ha, very funny,’—but high-pitched and nervous anywhere else, like the jingling of the charms on her bracelet.”
Instead of going to a family gathering, she stays home alone and dances to the radio in the empty house.
Then Arnold Friend arrives. He pulls up in his gold jalopy and steps out. He’s fit and has a handsome face behind those sunglasses, but then again, he’s unnaturally pale. The slang he speaks is slightly outdated. The way he walks, too. It’s like he stuffed his boots to seem taller. And he seemed young at first, but the longer she looked, the more she realized he was older, at least thirty. Connie goes back and forth on whether or not to trust him, and she’s faced with a predator she’s not prepared for.
The types of horror stories I’ve preferred since I can remember had human beings as the monsters. If the human being isn’t possessed, a ghost, or a campy killer who seems to never die, it was even scarier. More than spiders or creatures from black lagoons, the idea of a flesh-and-bone person being a monster scares me because humans are everywhere. They can be sisters, husbands, friends, or your coworkers. They’re three dimensional people who can care and love and flirt while committing mass genocide across a continent.
This is why Arnold Friend is so terrifying. He is presented as flirtatious and attractive, but slightly off, then dangerous and threatening. He even knows her name before she has the chance to tell him. Connie’s attracted to him, despite distrusting him, but the longer she talks with him, the more untrustworthy he is until Connie is truly scared. The whole time, regardless of how he looks, he is human. He is human when he flirts with her, and he is human when he threatens her family, and all Connie can do is scream into the phone as Friend advances closer to the porch on the other side of the screen door.
Every time I’ve come across an untrustworthy person, they’ve entered my life in a similar fashion. They appear as a harmless, innocuous person who isn’t a part of my life except for the fact that he or she happens to be in the same room or vicinity for a limited time. The longer I speak to them, their facade disintegrates, my gut curls inwards, and instincts etch these two words into my retinas: GET OUT.
It’s the feeling I have reading this story every time. Unease grows and my arm hairs point outward in all directions the further I get into Connie’s predicament because the story gets at that great big fear – that somebody will appear and twist knots into my life in a matter of minutes. They’ll appear innocent only to burn me. A fear nearly as big is the fear of losing, just as Connie loses. She hangs up the phone, pushes the screen door open, and walks straight into Friend’s arms, compelled by the need to keep her family safe, and by the idea that she has no other choice but to go to him, a helplessness and acceptance of what’s to come. That is what’s truly terrifying – there’s nothing she can do but accept it, and be her own audience as she does.
“She watched herself push the door slowly open as if she were back safe somewhere in the other doorway, watching this body and this head of long hair moving out into the sunlight where Arnold Friend waited.”
High Lonesome: New and Selected Stories 1966-2006
Joyce Carol Oates
Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (May 29, 2007)