Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Charles Schmid: The Pied Piper

Inspiration for Joyce Carol Oates

The short story, "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" written by Joyce Carol Oates and published in 1966, was based on the tale of Charles Schmid. Oates had read part of the article printed in Life magazine and thought this killer was such a strange character, with his stuffed boots and awkward gait. Yet to her mind, he embodied something elusive about adolescent culture and its hidden dangers. That such a man had somehow charmed three teenage girls whom he subsequently killed inspired her to write a short story from the point of view of a potential victim. What would it take, she wondered, for a young girl to be lured by a man who obviously had little going for him? What might he have said and done to win her trust and get her to walk straight into her doom?

The story came to Oates "more or less in a piece" after reading the article and hearing Bob Dylan's song, "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue." She was reminded of folk legends of "Death and the Maiden" and saw within this situation in Tucson an archetypal element. She dedicated her story to Dylan and used some of the words from his song.

Often inspired to flesh out the skeletal form of newspaper articles—to go into the story and work out the horrors suggested between the lines—Oates gave voice to a fifteen-year-old girl, Connie, who gets caught alone in her house by Arnold Friend, a killer based on Schmid who slowly seduces her from outside her flimsy screen door. She feels safe inside at first but ultimately he convinces her that she can only be safe with him. To Oates, Connie was both the prototypical American teenager of her day and the embodiment of the old myths of females being vulnerable to the illusive blend of death and eroticism. The story captures the longing of the teenage heart for someone who promises the moon. It also touches on the limited options of adolescent girls, invasive victimization, and the American obsession with violence. Oates herself described the tale as "Hawthornean, romantic, shading into parable."

The story has been reprinted many times, was selected for The Best American Short Stories in 1967 and The O. Henry Awards in 1968, and became the basis for a critically acclaimed movie, Smooth Talk (1986).

"For the writer," Oates commented, "the serial killer is, abstractly, an analogue of the imagination's caprices and amorality; the sense that, no matter the dictates and even the wishes of the conscious social self, the life or will or purpose of the imagination is incomprehensible, unpredictable."

 

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