The full title of this collection is The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares: Novellas and Stories of Unspeakable Dread. Joyce Carol Oates might not seem like the first port of call if you are in the mood for some unspeakable dread, but novels such as Zombie, My Sister, My Love and We Were the Mulvaneys all explore the darkness at the heart of humanity. Hers is the horror of real life, the horror of what one human can do to another, the horror of jealousy, loss, hubris and greed.
The titular novella is a wonderfully crafted tale of girls gone bad, in which Oates tells of the kidnapping of an 11-year-old by older girls at her school. The story flits between the viewpoints of the young kidnapper, a sympathetically drawn grotesque, the kidnapped girl’s mother and a male teacher who is being set up as the potential abductor. The terror and tensions Oates creates, comes not just from the concern that the girl makes it home alive, but also by showing us the trauma inflicted on other characters because of Jude, the abductor’s delusional actions. The implied guilt of the girl’s mother and the complicity of the teacher make them more than the cliched roles we are all aware of from abduction stories in the media and the true dread comes as much from hoping the girl will not be killed as it does from wondering how reputations and lives, once publicly soiled, can ever be put back together.
Oates’s skill at characterisation means that we can see our own complicity in how we conspire with the media to create recogniable characters – the single mother, the unmarried male teacher – yet she induces empathy for her characters, which builds the sense of dread to a nerve-shredding climax with incredible skill and control.
The rest of the stories in the collection might not quite live up to The Corn Maiden, but all give chills in their own way. In ‘Nobody Knows my Name’, the only story that may, or may not have a supernatural twist, a nine-year old girl feels forgotten following the birth of her baby sister, and her growing isolation and resentment has catastrophic consequences for the entire family. In ‘Helping Hands’ a 40 something widow meets a war veteran whilst donating her husbands clothes to his charity shop. She feels beyond widowed,
She felt like an amputee, uncertain which of her limbs had been severed.
Like the girl from the previous story, she has also been forgotten not because she has been usurped, but because she has been diminished and her need for companionship and self-worth cloud her judgement with horrifying results.
In the centre of the book are a grotesque siamese coupling of tales about dysfunctional twins who despise each other which were for me, the least successful of the collection. ‘Fossil Figures’ is a dreamlike, eerie tale and is the perfect example of the erosion of self that can come from need and dependance. The story opens in a terrifying fashion, told from the point of view of a baby in the womb
…the demon brother was the larger of the two, but with a single wish to suck suck suck into his being the life of the other, the smaller brother all of the nourishment of the liquidy-dark womb, to suck into himself the smaller brother about whom he was hunched as if embracing him, belly to curving spine, and the forehead of the demon brother pressed against the soft bone of the back of the head of the smaller brother
You just know that relationship is not going to turn out well. ‘Death Cup’, the twin tale of twin brothers, suffers in comparison, being a slightly melodramatic tale of filial jealousy taken too far, less horror and more soap opera.
‘Beersheba’ throws the standard revenge story on it’s head, as a young woman takes her revenge on the step father she blames for the death of her mother. The horror comes not from the violence, but from the fact that her step father is innocent and her anger and his suffering are ultimately for nothing.
In my mind, Oates saves the best to last. ‘A Hole in the Head’ is told from the delusional and fevered point of view of a plastic surgeon catering to the rich women of the New York suburbs. A failed neurosurgeon, we watch his life and mental stability fall apart as he agrees to carry out the unorthodox and ancienct procedure of trepanning, with disastrous results.
This is by far the most physically gruesome of the tales in the collection, with it’s vivd, all too real descriptions of botched surgery, yet it is to Joyce Carol Oates credit that the real horror we feel is for the perpetrator himself as she allows the humanity of her character to come through despite the surreal and grotesque situation he finds himself in.
That, I think, is the main success of this collection. For a story to be truely horrifying, the reader has to care and this is where Oates really delivers. Even with a character like Jude, the unstable kidnapper from The Corn Maiden, Oates allows us glimpses of the humanity amid the madness and random violence.
All of the violence in this collection is random. There are no rules here, no morals. Just like the horror in nightmares. There is a sense that all these characters are being borne along to their fate by some unseen force, as if they have lost control. As one of her characters says,
As a young man he’d never considered time as anything other than a current to bear him aloft, propel him into his future, nowche understood that time was a rising tide, implacable, inexorable, unstoppable rising tide, now at the ankles, now the knees, rising to the thighs, to the groin and the torso and to the chin, ever rising, a dark water of utter mystery propelling us ever forward, not into the future but into infinity which is oblivion.
And like all nightmares, Oates ends her stories on moments of ambiguity, as if we have been awoken from them, with no explanation. And like nightmares, she leaves us with a lingering sense of unease that is almost impossible to shake.
This is my second book for the RIP IX Challenge and my next spooky read will be Joyland by Stephen King.
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