Book Review

The Sign of the Beast

The Sign of the BeastThe Sign of the Beast
Author: Joyce Carol Oates
Publisher: Amazon Original Stories
First Published: November 28, 2017
Genres: Horror
Pages: 39
Format: eBook
Source: Prime Reading


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?

Also by this author: Miao Dao

My Thoughts

What I admire most about Oates’ brand of suspenseful horror is that she truly understands the predatory nature of people. Mrs. S——, Howard’s Sunday school teacher, is a sexual predator that teases and taunts 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 playful and inviting to fearful made me question whether or not she was really trying to entice her student, or if what we’ve been witnessing are the desires of an unstable young man.

“A deep shame passed into my soul. Like mold in a wall, that will rot and fester and never be made right unless torn open and exposed to the air.”

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 is left to hang 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.

Warnings: sexually explicit content, violence

About Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates is a recipient of the National Book Award and the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction. She is also the recipient of the 2005 Prix Femina for The Falls. She is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University, and she has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1978. She also writes under the pseudonyms Rosamond Smith and Lauren Kelly.


I’m a Filipino American blogger, historian, and lazy writer. I enjoy books, video games, anime/manga, and smoking hookah.

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