Authors: Joyce Carol Oates
Also by Joyce Carol Oates
Rape: A Love Story
The Female of the Species: Tales of Mystery and Suspense
The Museum of Dr. Moses
A Fair Maiden
Give Me Your Heart: Tales of Mystery and Suspense
The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares
Evil Eye: Four Novellas of Love Gone Wrong
High Crime Area: Tales of Darkness and Dread
a Tale of suspense
joyce carol oates
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Copyright © 2015 by The Ontario Review, Inc.
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Author photograph © Charles Gross
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Published simultaneously in Canada
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The Mysterious Press
an imprint of Grove Atlantic
154 West 14th Street
New York, NY 10011
Distributed by Publishers Group West
For Otto Penzler
We stand upon the brink of a precipice. We peer into the abyss—we grow sick and dizzy. Our first impulse is to shrink from the danger. Unaccountably we remain.
Edgar Allan Poe, “The Imp of the Perverse”
1 The Ax
Out of the air, the ax. Somehow there was an ax and it rose and fell in a wild swath aimed at my head even as I tried to rise from my squatting position and lost my balance desperate to escape as my legs faltered beneath me and there came a hoarse pleading voice—“No! No please! No”—(was this my own choked voice, unrecognizable?)—as the ax-blade crashed and sank into the splintering desk beside my head missing my head by inches; by which time I’d fallen heavily onto the floor, a hard unyielding floor beneath the frayed Oriental carpet. I was scrambling to right myself, grabbing for the ax, desperate to seize the ax, in the blindness of desperation my hands flailing, and the voice (my own? my assailant’s?) high-pitched and hardly human-sounding—“No!
”—a fleeting glimpse of the assailant’s stubby fingers and dead-white ropey-muscled arms inside the flimsy sleeves of nightwear, and a grunting cry as of triumph and fury commingled; and again the terrible lifting of the ax-head, the dull sheen of the crude ax-blade, and the downward swing of Death once begun unstoppable, irretrievable plunging into a human skull as easily rent as a melon with no more protection than a thick rind, to expose the pulpy gray-matter of the brain amid a torrential gushing of arterial blood.
And still the voice rising disbelieving
No no no no no.
2 “Jack of Spades”
Five months, two weeks and six days before, it had begun innocently. There was no reason to suspect that “Jack of Spades” would be involved at all.
For no one here in Harbourton knew about “Jack of Spades”—even now, no one knows. Not one person who is close to Andrew J. Rush—my parents, my wife and children, neighbors, longtime friends of mine from high school.
Here, in this rural-suburban community in New Jersey where I was born fifty-three years ago, and where I have lived with my dear wife, Irina, for more than seventeen years, I am known as “Andrew J. Rush”—arguably the most famous of local residents, author of bestselling mystery-suspense novels with a touch of the macabre. (Not an excessive touch, not nasty-mean, or disturbing. Never obscene, nor even sexist. Women are treated graciously in my mysteries, apart from a few obligatory
performances. Corpses are likely to be white adult males.) With my third bestseller in the 1990s it began to be said about me in the media—
Andrew J. Rush is the gentleman’s Stephen King.
Of course, I was flattered. Sales of my novels, though in the millions after a quarter-century of effort, are yet in the double-digit millions and not the triple-digit, like Stephen King’s. And though my novels have been translated into as many as thirty languages—(quite a surprise to me, who knows only one language)—I’m sure that Stephen King’s books have been translated into even more, and more profitably. And only three of my novels have been adapted into (quickly forgotten) films, and only two into (less-than-premium cable) TV dramas—unlike King, whose adaptations are too many to count.
So far as money is concerned, there is no comparing Andrew J. Rush and Stephen King. But when you have made, after taxes, somewhere in excess of thirty million dollars, you simply stop thinking about
as, perhaps, a serial killer simply stops thinking about how many people he has killed, after a few dozen victims.
(Excuse me! I think that must have been a callous remark, which I’m sure would provoke my dear Irina to kick my ankle in reprimand as she sometimes does when I misspeak in public.
I did not mean to be callous at all
but only just “witty”—in my clumsy way.)
However flattered I was by the comparison to Stephen King, I refused to allow my publisher to use this statement on the dust jacket of my next novel without first seeking permission from King; my admiration for Stephen King—(yes, and my envy of him)—didn’t blind me to the possibility that such a statement might be offensive to him, as well as exploitative. But Stephen King didn’t seem to care in the slightest. Reportedly he’d just laughed—
Who’d want to be the gentleman’s Stephen King, anyway?
(Was this a condescending remark from a literary legend, tantamount to brushing away an annoying fly, or just a good-natured rejoinder from a fellow writer? As Andrew J. Rush is himself a good-natured individual, I chose to believe the latter.)
As a thank-you, I sent several signed paperback copies of my best-known novels to Stephen King, at his home address in Bangor, Maine. Inscribed on the title page of the most recent was the jest—
Not a stalker, Steve—
Just a fellow-writer!
With much admiration—
ANDREW J. RUSH
Mill Brook House
Harbourton, New Jersey
Of course I did not expect to receive a reply from such a busy person, and indeed I never did.
The parallels between Stephen King and Andrew J. Rush! Though I am sure they are only coincidental.
Not unlike Stephen King, who is said to have speculated that his extraordinary career might have been an accident of some kind, I have sometimes harbored doubts about my talent as a writer; I have felt guilt, that more talented individuals have had less luck than I’ve had, and might be justified in resenting me. About my devotion to my craft, my zeal and willingness to work, I have fewer doubts, for the simple truth is that
I love to write,
and am restless when I am not able to work at my desk at least ten hours a day. But sometimes when I wake, startled, in the night, for a moment not knowing where I am, or who is sleeping beside me, it seems to be utterly astonishing that I am a published writer at all—let alone the generally admired and well-to-do author of twenty-eight mystery-suspense novels.
These novels, published under my legal name, known to all—
Andrew J. Rush.
There is another, curious similarity between Stephen King and me: as Stephen King experimented with a fictitious alter ego some years ago, namely
so too I began to experiment with a fictitious alter ego in the late 1990s, when my career as
Andrew J. Rush
seemed to have stabilized, and did not require quite so much of my anxious energies as it had at the start. Thus,
Jack of Spades
was born, out of my restlessness with the success of
Andrew J. Rush.
Initially, I’d thought that I might write one, possibly two novels as the cruder, more visceral, more frankly horrific “Jack of Spades”—but then, ideas for a third, a fourth, eventually a fifth pseudonym novel came to me, often at odd hours of the night. Waking, to discover that I am grinding my back teeth—or, rather,
my back teeth are grinding of their own accord
—and shortly thereafter, an idea for a new “Jack of Spades” novel comes to me, not unlike the way in which a message or an icon arrives on your computer screen out of nowhere.
While Andrew J. Rush has a Manhattan literary agent, a Manhattan publisher and editor, and a Hollywood agent, with whom he has long been associated, so too “Jack of Spades” has a (less distinguished) Manhattan literary agent, a (less distinguished) Manhattan publisher and editor, and a (virtually unknown) Hollywood agent, with whom he has been associated for a shorter period of time; but while “Andy Rush” is known to his literary associates, as to his neighbors and friends in Harbourton, New Jersey, no one has ever met “Jack of Spades” whose
thrillers are transmitted electronically and whose contracts are negotiated in a similar impersonal fashion. Dust jacket photos of Andrew J. Rush show an affably smiling, crinkly-eyed man with a receding hairline against a background of book-crammed bookshelves, who more resembles a high school teacher than a bestselling mystery writer; no photos of “Jack of Spades” exist at all, it seems, and where you would expect to see an author photograph on the back cover of his books, there is startling (black) blankness.
Online, there are no photos of “Jack of Spades,” only just reproductions of the writer’s several (lurid, eye-catching) book covers, a scattering of reviews, and terse biographical speculation that makes me smile, it is so naïve, and persuasive—“
Jack of Spades” is said to be the pseudonym of a former convict who began his writing career while incarcerated in a maximum security prison in New Jersey on a charge of manslaughter. He is said to be currently on parole and working on a new novel.
Alternatively, and equally persuasively, “Jack of Spades” has been identified as
criminologist, a psychiatrist, a professor of forensic medicine,
a (retired) homicide detective, a (retired) pathologist
who lives variously, in Montana, Maine, upstate New York and California as well as New Jersey.
“Jack of Spades” has also been identified, most irresponsibly, as a
habitual criminal, possibly a serial killer, who has committed countless crimes since boyhood without being apprehended, or even identified. Invariably, his true name, like his whereabouts, is “unknown.”
No one wants to think that “Jack of Spades” is
only a pseudonym,
indeed of a bestselling writer who is no criminal at all but a very responsible family man and civic-minded citizen. That is not romantic!
It has been increasingly difficult to keep such a complicated secret, especially in a hyper-vigilant era of electronic spying, but through four novels by “Jack of Spades” and negotiations for the fifth I have managed to maintain a distance between Andrew J. Rush and “Jack of Spades.”
That’s to say, my mainstream associates know nothing of my
-self. And how distressed they would be, to learn that Andrew—“Andy”—Rush of all people has established a secret writerly identity without their knowledge! It’s as if a happily married wife has discovered that her husband has been unfaithful to her for years—while never giving the slightest hint that he isn’t entirely happy with their marriage.
Oh Andrew—how could you! This is so, so shocking
. . .
In the early hours of the morning when I am wakened jolting from sleep, lying beside Irina who trusts me utterly, it is words like these that make my heart clench with guilt.
. . .
and the novels of “Jack of Spades” . . . so shocking, depraved . . .
Yes, I have to concede: if I had not penned the
novels of Jack of Spades myself, I would be repelled by them.
Of course, my/our identity has not (yet) been revealed. I am determined that it never will be.
It has been my fantasy that Jack of Spades would kill to retain his identity—though of course, Andrew J. Rush would never dream of harming anyone. (Perhaps this isn’t entirely accurate: I have probably dreamt of “harming” some persons who deserve punishment. But I would never in waking life countenance any
punishment outside the criminal justice system
and when I am interviewed, I state that, given the vicissitudes of our criminal justice system in the United States, in which racism is rampant, I do not believe in capital punishment.) Of the two, it is Jack of Spades who thinks more highly of himself as a writer, or “visionary”; Andrew J. Rush has a more modest hope of being admired as an excellent writer of entertaining murder mysteries. Yet, Andrew Rush won an Edgar Award for best first mystery novel some years ago, and has been nominated for other awards, while Jack of Spades has never been singled out—so far—for any distinction.
Well, perhaps that is not entirely true. Online lists of
Best of Noir, Most Extreme Noir, X-Rated Noir,
etc., have often included titles by Jack of Spades, and it is fair to say that Jack of Spades has an underground, cultish following of a few thousand persons, at a modest estimate.
Why I feel such anxiety about my secret being revealed, I don’t really know; it isn’t as if I am a common criminal, after all! My IRS payments on the money accrued by “Rush” and “Jack of Spades,” though complicated, involving not one but two accountants, are meticulously executed; I am not defrauding the U.S. government of a penny. (In one of his early novels Jack of Spades describes in lurid detail the evisceration of an IRS agent who has pried into the private life of a psychopath billionaire—but Andrew J. Rush is only repelled by such sensationalist prose.) Indeed, I love my quiet, blandly predictable suburban life, as a more or less conventional “family man”—I am a Brooks Brothers type, and often wear a necktie, for I like the feeling of snugness around my neck, as of a self-styled noose; it is “Bohemian” of me—(my family teases)—to wear Birkenstocks, and to go a few days without shaving so that I resemble, in a blurry mirror, one of those action film stars whose heavy jaws are covered in glinting quills, like atavistic predators. I have been a good, dutiful, if sometimes distracted son to my aging but still quite fit parents, who live in downtown Harbourton, in the red brick and stucco house on Myrtle Street where I grew up, and who are touchingly proud of their “famous bestseller” son whose books they read with much pride and enjoyment; I have been a good, dutiful, if sometimes distracted husband to Irina, whom I’d met when we were undergraduates at Rutgers in the early 1980s; my three now-grown children would surely attest that I have been a very good, even “terrific” (their word) dad, with whom (probably) they have never felt entirely comfortable, for what writer is reliably
for his children, even when they require him? And what husband is continually, over the years,
for his wife, even when he adores her?
These are open secrets, so to speak. Of the kind we dare not articulate, for fear of wounding those close to us.
(As Jack of Spades has no one close to him, still less no one whom he adores, he wouldn’t worry in the slightest about revealing any secrets!)
Though I am a very even-tempered individual now in my early fifties, I am sure that, as a boy, I was afflicted with a severe case of “ADD”—“Attention Deficit Disorder.” When I was in grade school it was virtually impossible for me to sit still at a desk, and to keep from talking to, and occasionally pummeling, my classmates. Though teachers seemed to like me, overall, and to praise my schoolwork, I could not have been an easy child to have in a classroom for I felt at times as if red ants were inside my clothes, stinging and biting. I felt compelled to jump out of my seat, and scratch my body everywhere, and scream—such words I scarcely knew—curses, obscenities! (But I never did, of course. By the age of ten, I’d learned to—literally—bite my tongue, as well as the interior of my mouth; I learned to grind my back teeth, to force calmness upon me.) My parents scolded me when I “had the fidgets” (as they called it) but I do not believe that I was ever physically disciplined, or severely reprimanded.
Also, I was prone to accidents! Tripping and falling, scraping my knees, spraining an ankle, or a wrist; running too quickly downstairs, falling and cracking my head against a banister; near-drowning in the swimming quarry in Catamount State Park when I’d dived—(or been pushed by an older boy)—off the high board when I was twelve years old.
Often now, hearing the cries from a distance—
That boy! He’s sinking! Save him . . .
Just below the diving board. Looks like he struck his head . . .
With time I grew out of this chronic restlessness, which surely afflicts a percentage of children, especially young boys. Fortunately, the clinical diagnosis “ADD” didn’t exist when I was a child, and restless children were not medicated, or I might have been narcotized at an early age, and my brain affected. (No one can tell me that dosing young children with such powerful drugs will have no long-term effect upon them.) And then again, in high school, from time to time I seemed to feel the urge to cut loose from my “good student” personality to join with pranksters and wise guys, though never more than temporarily—and secretly. For I did not want to jeopardize my mostly high grades and my upstanding reputation as
of the Class of ’79.