Top positive review
Another fantastic collection of modern Gothic by Joyce Carol Oates
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.