The Mysterious Press, 2011, 365 pages
An incomparable master storyteller in all forms, in "The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares" Joyce Carol Oates spins six imaginative tales of suspense. "The Corn Maiden" is the gut-wrenching story of Marissa, a beautiful and sweet eleven-year-old girl with hair the color of corn silk. Taken by an older girl from her school who has told two friends in her thrall of the Indian legend of the Corn Maiden, in which a girl is sacrificed to ensure a good crop, Marissa is kept in a secluded basement and convinced that the world has ended. Marissa's seemingly inevitable fate becomes ever more terrifying as the older girl relishes her power, giving the tale unbearable tension with a shocking conclusion. In "Helping Hands," published here for the first time, a lonely woman meets a man in the unlikely clutter of a dingy charity shop and extends friendship. She has no idea what kinds of doors she may be opening. The powerful stories in this extraordinary collection further enhance Joyce Carol Oates's standing as one of the world's greatest writers of suspense.
I have not read anything by Joyce Carol Oates before. I was only interested in this book because of the title story, supposedly about a crazy girl who decides to sacrifice another girl according to a (probably fictitious) Native American "Corn Maiden" ritual.
In fact, The Corn Maiden is really about a very disturbed girl named Jude who commands the terrified allegiance of her classmates, and her innocent victim, Marissa, who is naive, a little slow, and utterly helpless in Jude's thrall. This really was a gut-clencher of a story, a novella that begins the book, and it kept me up reading to the end because I had to know what would happen. Along the way, Oates introduces us to all the children, to Marissa's loving but flawed mother, drinking a few beers to settle her nerves before she calls the police, and Jude's teacher, the unfortunate loner who earned her spite, a man who has an entire life of his own that is thrown into chaos by Jude's schemes.
(For my Alexandra Quick fans, yes, it was "Corn Maidens" that caught my eye, and yes, Jude would make a fantastic stand-in for Darla. Except Joyce Carol Oates writes far more believable crazy-killer little girls.)
I actually expected The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares to be a collection of horror stories. But none of the seven stories in this collection are supernatural, nor particularly gory. They are all nightmares of the human kind: jealousy, envy, spite, self-delusion, vanity, revenge, regret. All making people do foolish or evil things. Many of the stories end unresolved — the reader has to decide what happened next. But some end with "and then they died." Look elsewhere for happy endings.
Beersheeba is about a schmuck who divorced a woman with a little girl years ago, and is suddenly visited by his long-forgotten step-daughter years later. The tension between them, and Oates' description of the girl, warns the reader subtly but clearly that something cray-cray is lurking even as the besotted schmuck is clearly ignoring his instincts.
Fossil-Figures is one of two stories in this collection (the other being Death-Cup) about a "good" twin and a "bad" twin, and the rivalry/jealousy/spite between them. Both creepy and making you wonder until the very end what the other twin is going to do, both making you wonder what Joyce Carol Oates has against twins.
Nobody Knows My Name is your basic "Little girl is jealous of her baby sister" story, except Oates makes it extra-creepy and dark. This is the only story with even a hint of the supernatural in it, and that's left very ambiguous.
Helping Hands is a thorough examination of the inner life of a rich, recently-bereaved woman who decides to donate some of her late husband's things to a disabled veterans' charity. She meets a disabled veteran, and almost crippled by loneliness herself, starts to imagine a relationship between them, her helping him to "restart" his life, recover his health, make him into a companion, a loyal assistant. Of course he has an inner life of his own, and does not follow her script.
A Hole in the Head is about a doctor whose practice is entirely rich ladies getting botox and cosmetic surgery. He makes a good living, but he is a disappointment to himself, to his wife, and there are little subthreads running through the story about his marriage, about his failure as a surgeon, about the economic downturn resulting from the war in Iraq, all leading him to make the ill-advised decision to agree to perform a very ill-advised procedure on one of his patients.
This is an excellent collection of short stories. Despite the title and the blood-spattered cover, the nightmares are all mundane, so don't read this expecting ghouls and ghosts and vampires, or serial killers, elaborate deathtraps, and clever murders. But it will creep you out, and it's really good.
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