"Let us say, Xavier, that you have proved,—that is, you believe you have proved—that my client is guilty of the crime with which he has been charged. No, let us go a step further, for the sake of argument, and grant that you, with all your detectively skills, have proved his guilt; and that he is, indeed, guilty. Why, then, how can you not know,—you, who are a Kilgarvan, and a nephw of old Erasmus—that the challenge, for me, rises almost exclusively from that predicament?—which is to say, not the prosecutions's 'proof' of guilt, but 'guilt' itself. Were the defendant innocent, and a verdict of not guilty naught but his just desert, how should I, Angus Peregrine, be allowed any margin for genuine triumph? In such meager soil, what meager plants might grow? Nay, mere 'justice' no more excites me as a worthy goal than a game of poker in which all players possess equal skills, and identical cards . . . ."
. . . Xavier said: "But then, is not your life criminal too? Is it not predicated upon lies, hypocracy, and subterfuge of every sort? For, by your own accknowledgment, you prefer guilty clients; you are most comfortable with crime; and derive your energies from it. How would you defend your life, erected upon such a foundation?"
Whereupon Angus Peregrine said, after a moment's unclouded reflection: "My life, Xavier, and my professional career, must not be confused. For the one has not invariabley to do with the other; I hope I have the wit to keep them distinctly separate—! And you—?"
Xavier winced at this frendly querry, as if it gave him pain; and replied, in a singularly slow, halting, benumbed voice: "My life and my professional career are, —are—one and the same." So saying, he drained the champagne from his glass without tasting it; as if the knowledge of his unique doom had struck him only at that moment. "One and the same."
Author's Afterword (2007 edition)
(spoilers here: read at your own risk)
"AN INEXPRESSIBLE SWEETNESS LACED WITH TERROR"
I will maintain that an aritist
needs this: a special world of
which he alone has the key.
André Gide, Notebook
Of my quintet of (post-Modernist) Gothic novels Bellefleur (1980), A Bloodsmoor Romance (1982), The Crosswicks Horror (written in 1981-1982, withheld from publication [published in 2013 as The Accursed]), Mysteries of Winterthurn (1984), and My Heart Laid Bare (1998), it is Winterthurn that has always been my favorite. It had not seemed like an entirely quixotic plan to write a sequence of “genre” novels linked by political, cultural, and moral (specifically “feminist”) themes, set in a long-ago / mythic America intended to suggest contemporary times: a Gothic family saga, a nineteenth-century “romance,” a saga of Gothic horror with its antecedents in H.P. Lovecraft’s bizarre and riddlesome works of “mythic” fiction, and a “novel of mystery and detection.” It had not seemed quixotic—but then, it never does, for otherwise we would not have outsized and unclassifiable works of art, of any kind—to hope that there might be readers for such novels, that seek to transform what might be called psychological realism into “Gothic” elements: taboos involving forbidden knowledge, the powerful attraction of “opposites,” in the case of Winterthurn the seduction of the devoted and virtuous detective by his very nemesis, the (unrepentant, remorseless, defiant) murderess. The Gothic novel differs from the realistic novel in mostly superficial ways, as a dream can be said to “differ from” the dreamer’s waking life, yet is clearly a transmogrifation of that life, rich with images, symbols, unarticulated wishes that seem to taunt us, that we might decode them. (But who has ever truly “decoded” a dream? To describe a dream after the fact is a futile endeavor, for a dream is primarily feeling; a dream is a kind of interior music, not to be described in mere words.) Great surreal art isn’t the obverse of realistic art but its extension into the privacy of the nocturnal imagination. We relate to classic Gothic works (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Edgar Allan Poe’s “tales of the grotesque and arabesque,” Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, the “weird tales” of H.P. Lovecraft) not because they are entertaining fantasies of escape from our lives but because they are, in their unique ways, mirrors held up to our innermost lives. “Realism” might reflect what we look like externally, how we live, in what kind of houses, and where: but the mirror of the surreal reflects what we look like, what we are, inwardly.
No wonder that (distorting) mirrors and (unflattering, alarming) Döppelgangers so frequently emerge in Gothic art, like prankish gargoyles that have somehow seized control of our “rational” beings.
And no wonder that, for many readers, such surreal visions are an affront, while, for other readers, the surreal exerts an appeal that is obsessive, if not addictive.
It was in the late winter and early spring of 1982 that the narcotic-like spell of Winterthurn first settled over me, and would remain the most obsessive interlude of writing I have experienced, more mesmerizing even than the composition of Expensive People in 1967; not until, in the summer of 2002, when I rewrote approximately four-fifths of my novel A Garden of Earthly Delights, for a Modern Library reprint, would I feel such a protracted, intense, unwavering and uncanny involvement with any novel. Such experiences are a kind of hypnosis, yet a “hypnosis” in which the novelist is somehow both the hypnotist and the subject. For a very long time in the winter of 1982 it was impossible for me to begin to “write” Winterthurn, though I worked every day, many hours every day, taking notes, drafting chapters and scenes, frustrated and depressed at my lack of progress. Entries in my journal from that time, when the working title of the novel was Mysteries of Winterthur, suggest my fascination with the novel as if it had an existence eerily independent of my own:
Mysteries of Winterthur. An inexpressible sweetness laced with terror. The very fact, the feel, the aura of … Winterthur, which means mystery, which means Xavier, that fragment of my soul. Growing up in Winterthur; being expelled from Winterthur; outliving Winterthur… “The blessed day is imminent. My faith shall never slacken. God have mercy on us all.”
(Journal, March 20, 1982)
Winterthur, my Wonderland. Through the looking glass …
(March 28, 1982)
… a very real, very tangible desire not to finish (Winterthur) but to stay with congenial Xavier Kilgarven forever. Where will I find a character quite like my “detective” after this?
(June 29, 1982)
Exactly why Mysteries of Winterthurn, or, more specifically, the youthful detective-hero Xavier Kilgarvan remains so close to my heart is something of a mystery to me. It must be that Xavier, the painstaking, often frustrated, balked, discouraged and depressed amateur detective so misunderstood by his public, is a self-portrait of a kind: after Xavier has achieved a modicum of fame, or notoriety, in his “hazardous” profession, he comes to feel that his public image is terribly misleading, since the public can have no awareness of the “painstaking labor, the daily and hourly ‘grind,’ of the detective’s work: and is woefully misled as to the glamorous ease with which mysteries are solved” as novels may appear, at a distance, to be “easily” written if the novelist has a reputation for being prolific. In fact Xavier’s “accursèd profession” is even more exhausting and harrowing than the novelist’s, for Xavier retires from it abruptly at the age of forty, after the presumed solving of the most difficult case of his career, “The Bloodstained Bridal Gown.” Ralph Waldo Emerson’s boastful wish, or wishful boast, I make my circumstance, quoted on Xavier Kilgarven’s “consulting detective’s” card, is surely an allusion to, if not a slyly ironic acknowledgement of, the author’s Transcendentalist optimism. (See also William James’s My first act of freedom is to believe in freedom.) While I wouldn’t claim “Xavier Kilgarven, c’est moi” in the way of Gustave Flaubert famously claiming identification with his fictional Emma Bovary, it’s obvious that novelist and detective-hero are cousins of a kind, Xavier far more steeped in evil than I, who merely chronicles it, in prose; and that both of us are exiled forever from mythic “Winterthurn”—the long-ago, the far-away, the lost, the inaccessible, the despoiled yet beloved Eden.
Joyce Carol Oates, June 2007
Afterword (1985 edition)
Mysteries of Winterthurn is the third in a quintet of experimental novels that deal, in genre form, with 19th-century and early 20th-century America. A family saga (Bellefleur, 1980), a romance (A Bloodsmoor Romance, 1982), a detective-mystery (Mysteries of Winterthurn, 1984), a Gothic horror set in turn-of-the-century Princeton (The Crosswicks Horror, forthcoming [published in 2013 as The Accursed]) and a "family memoir" ("My Heart Laid Bare," in progress)—the novels, thematically linked, might be described as post-modernist in conception but thoroughly serious in execution. Primarily, each novel tells an independent story I consider uniquely American and of our time. The characters of the quintet are both our ancestors and ourselves.
Why "genre," one might ask? Does a serious writer dare concern herself with "genre"? Why, in imagining a quintet of novels to encompass some eight decades of American history (beginning in the turbulent 1850s in Bloodsmoor, ending in 1932 with the election of FDR in "My Heart Laid Bare" ), and to require some 2600 pages of prose—why choose such severe restraints, such deliberately confining structures? But the formal discipline of "genre"—that it forces us inevitably to a radical re-visioning of the world and of the craft of fiction—was the reason I found the project so intriguing. To choose idiosyncratic but not distracting "narrators" to recite the histories; to organize the voluminous materials in patterns alien to my customary way of thinking and writing; to "see" the world in terms of heredity and family destiny and the vicissitudes of Time (for all five novels are secretly fables of the American family); to explore historically authentic crimes against women, children, and the poor; to create, and to identify with, heroes and heroines whose existence would be problematic in the clinical, unkind, and one might almost say, fluorescent-lit atmosphere of present-day fiction—these factors proved irresistible. The opportunity might not be granted me again, I thought, to create a highly complex structure in which individual novels (themselves complex in design, made up of "books") functioned as chapters or units in an immense design: America as viewed through the prismatic lens of its most popular genres. The sequence begins with a quotation attributed to Heraclitus ("Time is a child playing a game of draughts; the kingship is in the hands of a child") as an epigraph to Bellefleur and ends with the defeat of a demonic father at the conclusion of "My Heart Laid Bare." But the novels, in any case, are wholly independent of one another as stories.
The three cases that constitute Mysteries of Winterthurn are variations on the enigma of mystery itself. In "The Virgin in the Rose-Bower," the detective seeks to discover who has committed the murders, and why; in "Devil's Half-Acre" the identity of the probable murderer is less uncertain than whether, granted the prejudices of his society, he can be brought to justice. The special puzzle of "The Bloodstained Bridal Gown" has to do with the detective's inability to solve the crime when various clues and motives will strike the attentive reader as self-evident. In the laconic words of Poe's Monsieur Dupin "Perhaps it is the very simplicity of the thing that puts you at fault."
Xavier Kilgarvan as idealist and lover is the quintessence of the late 19th-century sensibility. From boyhood onward he is fascinated by the prospect of mystery and its "solution" or exorcism; his imagination is inflamed by the obdurate nature of certain puzzles: Why? Where? Who? With what consequences? He is thoroughly American in his zeal to make a distinguished name for himself, and the buoyant optimism to which he confesses ("crime, if not the criminal heart itself, might someday be eradicated by the intellectual, pragmatic, and systematic unification of the numerous forces for Good") is in the spirit of mid- and late 19th-century dreams of progress.
Xavier comes of age and begins his rather glamorous professional career in those decades in which a passionate belief in evolution (in society and morals no less than in Nature) was widely shared by men and women of education, intelligence, and sensitivity. He withdraws from his career—for mysterious but privately logical reasons—not long before the collapse of these dreams with the outbreak of the Great War. So far as Xavier's personal story is concerned, it might be seen to end happily, or tragically, or ironically, or, indeed, wisely, depending upon one's point of view.
Aficionados of classic American murder cases will recognize here, in transmogrified and modulated forms, certain old favorites about which I dare not be more specific, for fear of revealing too much. The fictional cases are meant to bear a sort of dreamlike (or nightmare-like) relationship to the originals, one or two of which have never been satisfactorily solved; but they have been chosen because they deal with ongoing themes of the quartet [sic]—the wrongs perpetrated against women, for instance, and the vicious class and race warfare that has constituted much of America's domestic history. Xavier Kilgarvan is a fictitious person, but in many ways he follows the pattern of the 19th-century "amateur" detective, tireless in his research into the latest forensic discoveries, pioneering in a new and undefined and thoroughly exciting profession. (It is quite likely, for instance, that a promising young man with Xavier's ambition would visit the Paris Surete and speak with the famous Alphonse Bertillon, and that he would be treated kindly by Scotland Yard—men with a penchant for detective work, whether associated with police forces or not, constituted an informal brotherhood within a great sea of ignorance, incompetence, and corruption.)
Yet Xavier's temperament is also that of an artist. His cases are, perhaps, stories, parables, "mysteries" that yield their meaning only after much frustration and mental anguish . . . the meaning being the very pattern of the work of art, its voice, its tone, its spirit. Hence my feeling of intense identification with him, and my sense that, at this time at least, Mysteries of Winterthurn is my favorite among my own novels.
—Joyce Carol Oates
15 January 1985