The New Year should start out in a positive way. I didn’t intend to begin the year with my favorite genre of horror, crime, or crime fiction. I would start out with something of quality from a great writer (IMHO). Joyce Carol Oates never fails to impress me so here is a short story, The Sign of the Beast. It is difficult to escape my favorite genre.
Howard Heike might be described as a “slow” child. It is difficult to keep up with the latest non-micro-aggression politically correct terms but in this case, it doesn’t matter because Howard is slow to respond and slow to speak. His physical appearance is larger than that of his classmates. Howard doesn’t want to appear threatening. The birthmark on his face is not that large or threatening, but with his physical build and his reactions to taunts about his birthmark sometimes physical responses exceed his intent. He only meant to threaten a tormenting classmate by shoving him; Howard had not meant to continue kicking the boy when he was down. That just happened sometimes.
Mrs. S – – taught Howard’s Sunday School class. She may have thought it was fun to use Howard for the amusement of the class by calling on him and having everyone witness his blushing at attempted slow, stuttering attempts to answer. Howard did not resent Mrs. – -. He liked her a lot; he liked her tight-fitting clothes, her makeup, and her skin. He liked thoughts he had about her in his room at home in the evening. The thing he liked the most was when she dressed specially for him and got very close to him as she looked and touched his birthmark. Mrs. S – – liked Howard a lot, even when she saw him on the street outside of Sunday School, even when she saw him lurking outside her house.
Readers should be able to see where this is going. Or maybe not going. There is only one important point of view in this story, the one inside the very confused mind of Howard. JCO explores that labyrinth to offer a chilling tale of what happens or might have happened next. This story is not a tale of the usual suspects.
This approximately 40-page short story will please fans of this genre as it offers a twist on similar stories and novels that follow a familiar, thus less interesting, pattern. I usually find a favorite expression in each of her short stories. In this story, it appeared early and is a reflection and belief on the part of Howard that “Mrs. S – – was youthful and loud-talking which made us uneasy, for children are not comfortable when adults behave as if they are not adults.” (loc 17-18).
I liked the observation because, as a teacher, I see this as a failing on the part of new teachers as they try to win over students. JCO always seems to write about things I can relate to. This is a nice, fast read for which I give five stars because of JCO’s power of description.