on 26 October 2011
Melancholy and agony are the two prevalent elements in this short story collection that comes out in America next week; agony about what tomorrow is going to bring, and melancholy for everything that the protagonists are going or have gone through and about their lives' ever repeating deadlocks.
The title story, which has the size of a novella, is I'd dare say the best by far. Reading through it we come to find out about the tragic events that take place in the life of a desperate woman, but we are also given a chance to have a good look into the darkness of some young souls. It all begins when eleven year old Marissa goes missing. The first suspect is a young professor, but soon enough he's cleared since he has an alibi. Leah, the girl's mother thinks that he's innocent too and somehow, little by little she starts getting close to him. As they talk things over they come to think that there's a big conspiracy taking place behind their backs. And a conspiracy there is. However, when the drama reaches its peak things take an unexpected turn which leads in a crude and ironical way to the fulfillment of somebody's dream.
Brad Shiftke and Stacey Lynn, a mysterious man and a young woman, star in Beersheba. Brad lives in Carthage, New York, where he one day meets Stacey who comes to visit. As it turns out she's his second wife's daughter. According to her he's to blame for her mother's death. Now she's here to seek revenge.
Jessica is a little girl that doesn't feel so well these days. She and her family are in a house on the mountains, a place she loves, but this time she cannot really enjoy her stay there. And that's only because the baby is with them; her newborn sister that draws all the attention on her and makes her jealous. Only one creature can really understand how she feels and that is none other than a gray cat. Nobody Knows My Name is the title of the story.
The life stories of two brothers Edgar and Edward is what we come to read in Fossil-Figures. The two of them couldn't be any different. The one is like a force of nature: strong, arrogant, willing to do anything to reach his goals, while the other is quiet, good-hearted, capable of doing great things, but unable to step outside, into the greedy and wild world where his brother thrives. As it is bound to happen they will take different paths in life, but one day they will meet again and then things will look completely different from the time their journey begun.
A couple of brothers that somehow remind us of the ones above are also the protagonists in Death-Cup. Lyle and Alastor meet for the first time in many years a few days before the funeral of their rich uncle Gardner, and the first has no doubt whatsoever that his brother came back for the widow's money. However he'll do nothing to stop him from fulfilling his plans. Their relationship looks like a stretched thread that's bound to break, but when that happens it doesn't happen in the way that one would expect it to.
In Helping Hands we read the story of a woman whose husband has died only recently and who now tries to start a new life. However, to do that she first has to get rid of a lot of his things; things that are of no use anymore, but which also never stop reminding her of him. So she visits a war veterans' charity to make a donation and it's exactly there that she meets a man that brings back to life the woman in her.
A Hole in the Hands, the final story in this collection, is a story about vanity. Lucas Brede is a cosmetic surgeon that lately doesn't do so well. He has money troubles and his business is slowing down and thus he's desperate. As things start to get from bad to worse, he reaches a point where he'd do just about anything to earn some money, even if it goes against his personal ethics. A vain woman gives him the opportunity to do just that, but things do not turn exactly right and now he has to live with the consequences of his actions.
This is a great collection of stories by one of the best American authors, which every friend of the genre can surely enjoy.
on 9 January 2013
Joyce Carol Oates is one of the few writers whose work gets better as she goes on. I especially like her because she eschews formulas and attempts originality, not writing the same book over and over again. The titular story in this collection, beautifully written, is an agonising study of how in modern times, aided and abetted by the media, lives can be ruined at a childish whim. When you are young, horrors are usually fantastical; as you get older you begin to understand that real horror lies in the ordinary and the mundane. Oates's contes cruel (look it up!) are for readers who like to think, who don't need an author to spell everything out for them. Great stuff.
on 18 October 2015
The gothic heart of modern America is examined again by Joyce Carol Oates in this terrifying collection of seven stories.
‘The Corn Maiden’, takes its inspiration from the ancient sacrificial rituals of Indian folklore, to describe the abduction and sadistic torture of Marissa, a shy young girl, from the viewpoint of two teenage narrators, Jude and Leah. The anguished voice of Marissa’s mother as she tries desperately to find her daughter alternates with that of her captors’ who are obsessed by Marissa’s beautiful golden hair, and who pretend not to know where she is. As in many of Joyce’s tales and novels, the voices of psychopathic, arrogant and delusional narrators are predominant. Joyce has an exceptional ability to capture these disturbing voices in their extreme fanatical obsessions, suggesting that these individuals are also symptomatic of moral emptiness in society at large.
In ‘Beersheba’, we are shown how the past haunts and catches up with the character of Brad Shiftke, a cocky womanizer and divorcee, now in his early 40s and suffering from diabetes. When Brad meets an unconventional young woman in her twenties for a drink, Beersheba, he lives to regret straying away into the woods to an abandoned church in the hope of having sex with her. Interestingly, Joyce makes us feel sympathy for Bradley despite ourselves. Beersheba’s heartless and violent plan is to avenge her mother’s accidental death, which Beersheba is convinced was due to Bradley leaving her mother. Again, it is the adamant convictions of Joyce’s characters that is chilling; frequently, their religious beliefs are used to justify their vengeful obsessiveness. As Beersheba tells Brad: “You will be scourged of God̶ that’s why you have been called to this place where there is nowhere to hide” (p.160).
‘Nobody knows my name’ explores the jealousy a young child feels when a new baby arrives in the family. Jessica, a socially-isolated but “precocious” girl of nine who understands the adult world enough to know that “the more she was not told, the more she understood” (p.167) is, we are told, a child who has trouble distinguishing between dream and reality. This manifests itself in Jessica’s belief that an anonymous cat is communicating with her when her new baby sister arrives on the scene, and steals all the attention away from her, causing Jessica to self-harm. Is the ominous presence of an anonymous “grey-haired thistledown cat with orange eyes” who smothers Jessica at night and ‘sucked her breath from her’, simply part of Jessica’s fantasy world? Or is the horrifying fate that awaits her new baby sister, Jessica’s projected version and explanation of a reality that no parent would ever wish to face?
Sibling rivalry and jealousy is continued in two twinned stories, ‘Fossil Figures’ and ‘Death-Cup’, both of which turn on brotherhood. ‘Fossil Figures’ explores fraternal dominance, hatred and the resentment of the twin sibling, right from the womb. The story traces the trajectories of the lives of the Edgar and Edward, two twins opposite in every respect, reminding us periodically that they are ‘yet not one: two’. The ‘precocious’ charming and dominant Edward torments the physically-frail misfit and outsider Edgar. Edward’s scorn of Edgar is a clear allusion to Edmund’s hatred of his brother Edgar in Shakespeare’s King Lear. Years later, when Edward is a high-flying New York lawyer and, ironically, promotes Republican ideas of ‘family values’, he discovers the art of his brother, a modern artist called E.W. Edgar’s series of paintings ‘Fossil Figures’ forces Edward to confront the dark truth about his cruel past when they are reunited on their fortieth birthday in their dilapidated childhood home.
The narrator’s shrewd observation of their relationship that “For in me, there is the blind wish to perceive we” (p.198) is also explored more fully in ‘Death-Cup’. The title refers to the common name for Amanita phalloides, a poisonous mushroom that Lyle King plans to kill his brother with, the mercenary womanizing and ‘charming’ Alastor. When their wealthy and naïve uncle, Gardner King, passes away, Alastor returns to contracoeur, the family home, to ingratiate himself into his aunt Lydia’s affections. As with ‘Fossil Figures’, there is a self-conscious literary reference, this time to Edgar Allen Poe’s short story of the doppelgänger, ‘Wiliam Wilson’. As the reader discovers, Lyle has more in common than he likes to acknowledge.
‘Helping Hands’ explores how the lonely and emotionally-vulnerable widow, Helene Haidt, becomes obsessed with a disabled soldier, Nicolas who now volunteers in a local thrift clothing shop. Joyce carefully draws Helene’s awkwardness about her privileged middle-class social position, as well as her unconscious sexual attraction to the ‘stubble-jawed’ handsome soldier that leads her to imagine a shared emotional connection: “He, too, has been wounded. Of course, he understands…Maybe it was meant – I would meet a friend today in this melancholy place” (p.259). Inviting Nicolas to her home in Quaker Heights to collect her deceased husband’s possessions, we see how “she often misspoke, miscalculated and misstepped” when she realizes that her husband’s death means no more to Nicolas than the lives of the killed soldiers she hears about on the evening television news.
The final story of the collection, ‘A Hole in the Head’ is a disturbing exploration of desperation, temptation and when medical ethics are compromised for the concerns of ego and money. “Dr” Lucas Brede, a cosmetic surgeon and failed neurosurgeon, is unable to explain the dried blood on the disposable latex gloves he uses when treating his patients. When a series of women patients ask him to perform trepanation, drilling holes in their heads, after much anguished consideration, he buys a household drill explaining to us that “he’d come to concede that the ancient custom was either beneficial or harmless if executed by a skilled practitioner” (p.350). The portrait of an isolated and desperate “professional” who manages through specious reasoning to rationalize and excuse his actions has echoes of Victor Frankenstein.
Compulsive and powerful, these stories reveal Joyce’s deep understanding of the dark aspects of human psychology and how the wilful blindness of those who are delusional is the real nightmare of life.
on 22 February 2015
Many years ago, I stumbled across a Joyce Carol Oates story in a horror anthology. What I most remember about the story was how vividly the feelings the characters experienced were portrayed. Whilst the story itself was not exactly a horror story in the mould of Stephen King and James Herbert, it was very well presented. With this experience, I had high hopes of ''The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares'' a brand new collection of short stories from Joyce Carol Oates.
In this collection, the overall theme and feeling is one of loss. In ''The Corn Maiden'', single mother Leah Bantry has to deal with the loss of her eleven year old daughter Marissa, who is suddenly not there one day when she gets home from work and then the loss of her privacy when she reports the loss to the Police. In ''Beersheba'', Brad has a reunion with a long-lost step-daughter which doesn't go quite the way he had hoped. ''Nobody Knows My Name'' is about the loss of identity felt by a single child where there is a new sibling in the house.
Both ''Death Cup'' and ''Fossil Figures'' cover the relationships felt between twin brothers and their effect on each other's lives, whether together or apart. ''Helping Hands'' is the story of a recently widowed woman struggling to cope with the loss of her husband, whilst the book closes with ''A Hole in the Head'', where a plastic surgeon at risk of losing it all tries something he maybe should have left well alone.
There is nothing traditionally horrific here; there are no vampires and monsters creeping out of the woodwork and every turn. But what makes Oates' writing so nightmarish is the way she takes the ordinary and twists it ever so slightly. You may never be frightened outright by any of the stories in this collection, but you will frequently find yourself feeling disturbed and unsettled. Ultimately, there are monsters here, but they are the kind of monster you may see on the bus, or when you look into the mirror to shave or put on your make up.
What drags you in is that Oates writes with such feeling. The torment of both Bantry women in the title story; one captured by people, one by indecision and uncertainty, is palpable. This may be a story that you see on the news, but Oates tells the part that you only get a glimpse of in the press conferences, about how it really feels to be involved. The actions of the widowed Mrs. Haidt in ''Helping Hands'' seem entirely normal and her fear at how it turns out is more real as a result, leaving the reader cowering with her. Even the emotional torment felt by nine year old Jessica in ''Nobody Knows My Name'' is expressed perfectly from the point of view of a girl that age and Oates switches ages and genders of characters so well, which can often be an area that writers don't quite grasp.
There is something familiar here, yet at the same time it feels like something you don't want to become too familiar with. This is life in a nutshell, in the sense that it's the side of life frequently locked away in the dark. What Oates has done here is expose that side of life to the light and in doing so has presented the reader with a compelling, if unsettling, collection. Fans of the more populist horror authors may find it a little slower going than they prefer, but for readers happy to take a little time to get a little deeper into these stories, you will find yourself quickly lost and you will never view the world in quite the same way afterwards.
This review may also appear, in whole or in part, under my name at any or all of www.ciao.co.uk, www.thebookbag.co.uk, www.goodreads.com, www.amazon.co.uk and www.dooyoo.co.uk
on 31 August 2013
Disturbing and beautiful, especially the title story. She writes so well. Her subject matter is dark and dangerous - the stories are haunting.
on 22 January 2013
Thoroughly enjoyed this collection of short stories, all quite dark and disturbing. One of the best books of hers I have read although I have liked many of her books.
on 29 December 2012
Great short stories, just right for bedtime reading but sometimes endings disappointing....was hoping for more. Will look for more books by same author.
on 19 January 2013
A good read, enjoyed the plot, involving how innocence can be evil. Would certainly recommend it to others. Well done Jason.
This anthology of stories was a struggle to read. Instead of good prose, and well crafted characters, the writing was either far too convoluted to make sense or just clunky, with the annoying habit of running the same word together. Once or twice per story is okay, but it was tootoo much to taketake all the timetime! The characters were flat, amd not remarkable, not inciting any sympathy at all. They were also stereotypical. in the first story, 'the corn maiden' Marissa, the titular heroine is a blonde child, and the evil child, Jude, is redhaired, plain and, well, just bad. Although it was a story of the harrowing disappearance of a child, I found that I ended up not caring what happened to her in the end, I just wanted it to be over, it was so boring! There was no suspense, no reason to keep turning the page. The other stories took some reading as I was not eager to go back for more, and I was right! The characters were wooden, the plots mostly along the lines of bad things happen to good or even banal people. No kidding?! If there is a 'nightmare' in this little lot, it would be being made to read this ebook again!