Some of Joyce Carol Oates's critics might describe these short stories in the same testy way they have her previous works – as melodrama tending towards extreme violence and unforgiving brutality. Yet while the collection certainly trades in Oates's well-traversed themes of sexual predation, rape, infanticide and revenge, these 10 stories are ultimately about our need for love, at whatever cost.
Her central subjects – mainly but not exclusively women – are caught in acute emotional states. Some are victims, others avengers. What unites them is an urgent hunger for love. This longing, whether filial, maternal or sexual, can – and does - all too quickly kink and skew into murderous jealousy, obsession, self-destruction and hate.
Oates's output is, five decades on, extraordinary not just for her famed speed (at two books a year) but for a ceaselessly fresh imagination and a mastery for drawing out the inner-world of her characters. Here, characters flare quickly into life, from seemingly respectable old ladies with treacherous pasts to mother-murderesses, dead-eyed crystal-meth junkies and brutish drunks circling their semi-naked victims like salivating wolves. Vietnam, Iraq, and America's socio-politics of poverty, meanwhile, hover in the background while more local and domestic horrors come to the fore.
In some cases, violence is intimate and psychological; in others, it is explicit and bloody. The title story is structured as a confessional letter by a middle-aged woman to the well-respected "Dr K" who, many decades ago, seduced her and stole her innocence. She has, since being discarded, become an invisible, watchful and malignant presence in his life.
"The First Husband", in which a second husband finds a faded photograph of his wife in the arms of her younger, more handsome first, bridges the gap between jealous fantasy and demented reality when his imaginings leads him to bloody murder. Fantasy plays a large part in the terror conjured up in this collection, as well as the mind games played between mothers and daughters, murders and victims, rapists and under-age girls.
Each tale carries its own terrible thrill, often ending with a start, before the reader wants it to, and each offers a different kind of fireworks display of the art of storytelling.