‘Mark Of Satan’ by Joyce Carol Oates

Mark Of Satan by Joyce Carol Oates, 1995

The magic trick:

Creating extraordinary suspense by letting the reader know about a dangerous situation the characters in the story are ignorant of

Leave it to Joyce Carol Oates to stage a spiritual conflict for the ages amidst a rundown home in rural upstate New York. (I pictured this setting as I read it to be the exact same house as the one I pictured for her “Ghost Girls” story. It’s neat the way those connections form without even realizing it.)

The literary value lies in the spiritual conflict, sure. But the surface reading pleasure lies in the suspense Oates is able to develop during the conversation between Thelma and Flash.

We suspect his motives immediately. The narrative gives us enough backstory and brief visits into his psyche early on to set the reader on guard. We have those suspicions four pages in when we see him drug their drinks in the kitchen. Now we officially have information that Thelma and her daughter do not have. That puts us in a very frustrating spot. We know the danger is extreme. They do not. All we can do is read on and hope for the best. That is the very definition of suspense.

And that’s quite a trick on Oates’s part.

The selection:

Offer them drinks, lemonade, but no, he was thinking, no.

This, an opportunity for him to confront goodness, to look innocence direct in the eye, should not be violated.

Thelma promised her visit would not take many minutes of Mr. Flashman’s time. For time, she said, smiling breathlessly, is of the utmost. “That is one of the reasons I am here today.”

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