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Summer Tales Creative Writing Contest – The Winner

Enjoy the winning essay of the Summer Tales Creative Contest written by Aaradhana Natarajan. Please see more about Ada and her work on her blog.


On July 23rd, Rutgers University Libraries hosted acclaimed author and academic Joyce Carol Oates via videoconference. Dr. Oates read an excerpt from her short story “Where is Here?”, which centers around a strange man who shows up at a family’s doorstep one afternoon, claiming to be the son of the house’s previous inhabitants.

The first topic of the afternoon centered on the feeling of unease and unreality that permeates the story. There is something unsettling about realizing that someone lived in your house before you, and someone else will most likely inhabit it once you are gone. Especially if there are strong memories attached to the house.

As someone who spent her childhood shuffling between various apartments and rentals, Oates’ version of suburbia was mostly theoretical. Until very recently. It hasn’t been long since I moved into a house not unlike the one in the story – one with a garage, basement and kid’s room. And not too many nights ago, I was struck by how the scene outside my new bedroom was eerily familiar. It took me a few seconds to realize it was because I had seen it many, many times before. The rows of neat, cookie-cutter houses with identical green lawns distinguished by a few unobtrusive pieces of décor. The poorly spaced streetlights that struggled to find the perfect balance between comforting illumination and light pollution.

The annals of suburban horror are vast, and slow panning shots of the street outside homes creaking with restless secrets is a staple of the genre.

Which brings us back to the story and its creeping unease. Where is the “Here” Oates writes of? Is it the house of the stranger, with shadow-like water stains and trauma buried in the basement? Or is it the house of the family, with its cut-glass fruit bowls and thinly veiled violence that keeps the mother on her toes, unbalanced? Or is it some amalgam of the two, an ambiguously universal suburban idyll meant to remind readers that history is often fated to repeat itself when men and boys are caught in cycles of pain and cruelty? That some of humanity’s deepest fears are made most real in the place we believe to be our sanctuary?

People find comfort in thinking that the home is a warm place, barred against the scary strangeness (and strangers) of the unknown outside. It is unsettling to realize that sometimes the real danger comes from within. That sometimes the creepy disquieting stuff isn’t quite as distant from our lives as we like to think.

Oates herself is a veteran writer of terror* fiction (to borrow a term from novelist Ann Radcliffe), whose short stories shine a light on the dark corners of American lives. During the conversation, she described being inspired to write this particular story after thinking about what it would be like to revisit her own childhood home. She thought about how she would “feel like a ghost,” a feeling she used to write the character of the suited stranger. She described him as “lost in his own time…almost like a disembodied spirit, in a sense.”

She also mentioned 19th century literature, specifically the way its writers focused on the creation of worlds, crafting settings and atmosphere. Of course, few genres epitomize spectral presences and evocative ambiances like Gothic literature, a genre Oates’s work has often been compared to and which the author herself spoke with us about. As she put it, the central “image of a Gothic novel is that something is taking place in a house.” That something is usually deeply unsettling, a dark mirror of deep-seated fears and anxieties. Moderator Nicholas Allred described how Oates had “rationed out that tension and built it under the surface.” I found that a particularly apt description, as the reader gets the sense that the trauma is just as much a part of the edifice as the wood and roofing tiles. That even after the current inhabitants die, a new family will arrive, carefully holding their hidden hurt behind a veneer of domestic bliss.

As the acclaimed director of terror films Guillermo del Toro once put it, “Essential to Gothic is the rooting of the sins of the past in a building… They are monuments to the secrets and sins of the past.” Gothic literature memorialized human suffering, forcing us to reckon with our inner demons and confront harsh realities we might otherwise be tempted to let fester. It gives us a language with which to conceptualize the phantoms that stalk our dreams with unfulfilled desires and vengeances, and assurances that we can overcome the horrors of our collective histories.

We are living through frightening times. Between the pandemic, the climate crisis and the long-overdue social reckoning spearheaded by the Black Lives Matter and MeToo movements, it’s easy to feel like everything you have been raised believing is crumbling at the base. It’s easy to fall prey to fearmongering and misinformation that tries to terrify you with hyperbolic bogeymen in order to distract you from real and present dangers. That tries to convince you to hide behind façades of domesticity and cerebralism, willfully ignoring the vicious cycles readying themselves to rend apart a new generation.

Oates’ short story deals with the terrible. So it’s somewhat fitting that the discussion ended with musings on the role of art in the midst of social upheaval. Stories matter, both the ones that we tell about other people and about ourselves. Fear makes it easy to seize on strangers and forget our own complicity in the tangled webs of injustice that hold us from a better future. As Oates’ puts it, “You have to take an objective view – what has happened to you is not unique. Though it is painful and wounding, it’s happened to many, many other people…by examining it in an honest way, candidly and honestly, you can make a connection that’ll resonate with other people.”



del Toro, G. (2016, February). Guillermo del Toro on Crimson Peak [Interview by M. J. Perez Cuervo]. The Fortean Times, (337), 38-39.

Radcliffe, A. (1826). On The Supernatural in Poetry. New Monthly Magazine, 16(1), 145-152.


*Ann Radcliffe was an 18th century novelist famed for her Gothic novels. In an iconic essay titled “The Supernatural in Poetry”, Radcliffe defines the distinction between “horror” and “terror” that is still used by art theorists today. According to her, terror is driven by feelings of uncertainty and creeping unease. It is slow and deliberate, carefully balancing tension throughout the narrative while keeping the true nature of the threat “obscured”. The viewer or reader is left wondering whether the ghosts and demons are real creatures, the phantastic products of a neurotic narrator’s tortured imagination, or meant to serve as metaphors for the less obvious evil lurking in the recesses of human nature. There are unresolved noises in the attic that are never given a source, or a moaning ghost that is equally likely to be an unsatisfied soul seeking vengeance on its ungrateful family as it is likely to be the product of psychotic hallucinations from a poisoned pudding.

Horror is more visceral and tangible. It’s driven by intense sensations, revulsion and/or disgust (i.e. jump scares and grotesque visuals designed to shock, squick and awe). For example, slasher films, alien invasion movies and pretty much anything by Stephen King would be classified as “horror”, since they are centered around clear and present danger coming from a very obvious and well-defined threat. We see Michael with a bloody knife, the Xenomorph dripping drool or Pennywise putting on a poor excuse of a light show and we know exactly what is going on. This isn’t to say there is not deeper message or social commentary going on in horror, just that there is no ambiguity about the nature of the evil the protagonists are being tormented by.