Joyce Carol Oates Shares Nightmares

The Corn Maiden

By Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates is among our best and certainly most versatile writers, one who not only can scribble persuasively in most any genre but also plumb depths often lacking in the efforts of others. You can regard this mostly very good volume of “nightmare” tales as a prime example of the extra value she injects into the common fright tale.

In “The Corn Maiden,” she reaches beyond the obvious terror of a child kidnapped by a demented classmate to explore a working mother’s fear for her child and her own fitness as a mother, as well as the effect on a falsely accused teacher. The longest, best paced, and most heart-pounding story in the collection.

“Beersheba” and “Nobody Knows My Name,” while different also share a quite ingenious connection; that is, our inability to definitively understand what is stirring in the mind of another. In the first story, a nearly forgotten daughter returns to extract satisfaction from her father. In the second, a little girl, apparently normal on the outside but horribly psychotic inside, deals with her newborn sister.

“Fossil Figures” and “Death Cup,” too, share a connection, that of two brothers of two very different natures, separated for years, who come together to end their lives side-by-side. What differentiates them and how they reach their endings together is something you will enjoy discovering yourself.

“Helping Hands,” concerns a widow trying to come to terms with the early and surprising death of her husband (originally published a few years after the death of Oates first husband, Raymond Smith). So blinded by her loss and by her need to project and receive love, to be cherished and cherish, she cloaks a war veteran working in a disabled veteran’s donation shop with virtues we clearsighted readers feel can’t be real, leading us to fear for her.

In the final story, “A Hole in the Head,” a plastic surgeon with insecurity issues, a ruined marriage, and suffering from financial desperation, allows a patient to seduce him, against his better professional judgement, into performing a bogus procedure on her, trepanning, the drilling of holes in the skull to release evil spirits. And, indeed, evil emerges, but of a quite different sort than the doctor expected.

While the stories vary in quality, overall the collection will leave you properly disturbed, maybe even give you a nightmare if you dwell on their underlying ideas. w/c

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