Eleven-year-old Howard was born with a birthmark on his cheek. His Sunday school teacher mockingly calls it the “sign of the beast.” Too hateful to be named, for Howard she is only Mrs. S——. And she’s as careless in causing him misery as she is willful in arousing his shame. All Howard can do is look away—until he realizes he can turn the aggression on its head. When the hunted becomes the hunter, what will happen next?
What I admire most about Oates’ brand of suspenseful horror is that she truly understands the predatory nature of people. Mrs. S—— is definitely the predator in this case, taunting and teasing Howard mercilessly, making inappropriate comments about his physical development. The story seems very straightforward, that this Sunday school teacher is dressing provocatively to entice young Howard, but by the halfway point my assumptions were challenged.
Similar to Miao Dao, The Sign of the Beast deals with the confusion and shame that comes with puberty and the sexual awakening of an adolescent. Howard feels embarrassed about the way he’s treated by Mrs. S—— yet finds himself desiring her sexually. The shift in Mrs. S—— in the later parts of the novel, from teasing and inviting to fearful made me question whether or not she was really trying to entice her student, or if it was the desires of an unstable young mind.
This little novella leaves the reader with more questions than answers as the narrative continues on through Howard’s development into adulthood, the mystery of what really happened hanging in the air like a ghost story. I have no doubt that many readers will feel disappointed, asking why without a clean resolution as we’ve all become accustomed to with any story. I enjoyed this novella for the way that it explores human nature, desire, and feelings of shame. I see why Oates is such a literary heavyweight, her writing is powerful and digs into subjects that are deeply unsettling yet it’s difficult to look away.
Strengths: Narrative that is engaging and deeply unsettling
Weaknesses: Winding narrative falls off
Warnings: Child abuse, bullying, violence, death, mentions of sex