A touch of the evils.
By Joyce Carol Oates
Head of Zeus, $29.99.
If you haven't read a Joyce Carol Oates short story before, you are in for an intense and eerie experience. They have the pulse-raising blood-pounding intensity of Stephen King, yet psychologically they touch a deeper note. Despite her stories being like Hitchcock commingled with a Dostoyevskian ambiance, she is regarded as a literary writer. Unlike the psychopathic-looking King (a pose for the camera, I am sure), Oates is a frail, birdlike looking creature. From whence in her mind come these lurid horrors? Perhaps the safest label for her is Gothic --though she does not belong to the so-called Southern Gothic school as do writers like Flannery O'Connor, Harper Lee, Harry Crews, Anne Rice and Cormac McCarthy.
Let it be said that the list of nine other works authored by Oates listed in the business pages of this collection are highly misleading. Ms Oates has published over 50 novels alone, plus numerous collections of short stories and novellas for young adults, which together with her plays, totals well over 100 works in all. Obviously, she doesn't watch much television. In fact, she writes some eight hours a day in longhand. I don't envy the secretary who has the formidable job of typing up her manuscripts.
The four novellas in this new book --her tenth collection of novellas alone are all set to give readers the spooks. In "Evil Eye", a young woman married to a man twice her age meets his first wife and is upset by Ines's dark revelations about Austin Mohr, an arts impresario, a control freak, who goes well-nigh berserk at the slightest "transgression" of his rules. Oates skillfully revisits the familiar terrain of a woman who marries a confident, powerful and domineering man, who is publicly genial, but saves his hidden, wrathful side for his poor dominated wife. Even when Mariana immediately backs down and apologises, Austin still simmers and seethes with rage, though he never actually strikes her. The first wife is a delicate creature who once was a beauty and now has an eye missing. Or has she? When Austin tells Inez she has both eyes, we the readers are left puzzled. In context, we may suppose it is an hallucination on Mariana's part--an hallucination of absence rather than a presence and yet ... perhaps not. This powerfully compelling novella concludes with Mariana ambiguously contemplating her revenge. This first novella is the finest and most haunting of the quartet because of its sense of mystery, ambiguity, and insightful psychology.
The other novellas are also gripping, though in a cruder more violent manner. In "So Far Any Time Always", the shy, plain Lizabeth meets a witty, verbally fluent, well presented young man, who becomes her "boyfriend", though no intimacy has occurred. But he, like Ines and Austin, turns out to be something different from what he seems--Oates's trademark. All is not what it seems! Sounds a bit like life.
"The Execution" is the most violent of the four stories. Twenty year-old Bart is a psychopath who butchers both parents with an axe. But wait--though Father is definitely dead, Mother, defying all odds, survives. Like Bret Easton Ellis, Oates does not spare us the gruesome detail of the deadly blows. You have been warned: this story is not for the squeamish. Someone once said there is no love like a mother's love, an adage borne out by the now gravely disfigured parent denying that her son was the culprit.
The final story again dwells on female sexuality. A traumatised Ceille recovers her ability to experience her own sexuality after the mysterious N administers rough justice to G, a mature gentleman of high status who has abused her many years earlier.
All of these stories are grim though engrossing, with "Evil Eye" being the finest of the quartet.