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IoS book review: The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares, By Joyce Carol Oates

The horror is in the caring

Throughout her remarkable career (70 books and counting), Joyce Carol Oates has never been shy about digging into the darker recesses of the human psyche. But even by her often macabre standards, this collection of a novella and six short stories is harrowing stuff: slabs of psychological terror that explore various deviant behaviour, unhealthy obsession and downright horror.

The titular novella is the most carefully crafted piece in which Oates deftly switches between three points of view to tell of the kidnapping of an 11-year-old by older girls at her school. The implied guilt or complicity of the girl's mother and a teacher are employed superbly to cloud the issues of responsibility, but the truly scary voice is that of 13-year-old Jude, the kidnappers' ringleader and a character of heart-thumping delusional power.

Oates's skill at characterisation means that all three points of view are deeply flawed, yet she somehow still induces empathy for her characters, and builds the tension to a nerve-shredding climax with real skill.

The rest of the stories don't quite live up to it, but there are plenty of moments that will give you the heebie-jeebies. In "Nobody Knows My Name" a nine-year-old girl's world is turned upside down by the arrival of a baby sister, with catastrophic consequences, while in "Fossil-Figures", the strange, symbiotic relationship between twin brothers is told with an odd, dreamlike quality that almost gives it the air of a fairy tale.

Not all of the stories work quite so well. "Beersheba" is a workaday stab at a noir revenge tale set in the backwoods of upstate New York, while "Helping Hands", about the troubled relationship between a recent widow and an injured war veteran, is too much of a slow-burn and never really ignites. "Death-Cup" is probably the least successful offering. Another tale of twin brothers who despise each other, it tends too much towards melodrama and soap opera, and the tragic denouement seems unearned by what has gone before.

But Oates saves the best of the short stories till last. "A Hole in the Head" is told from the fevered and delusional point of view of Lucas Brede, MD, a plastic surgeon to the affluent women of the New York suburbs. A failed neurosurgery student fallen on hard times, he is a compelling creation, and as the narrative progresses, the cracks in his personal and professional lives widen into chasms. When he receives a highly unusual surgery request from a wealthy patron, he feels obliged to comply, but, needless to say, it ends in unmitigated disaster. It is read-through-the-fingers gruesome, but you're still left rooting for Lucas, such is Oates's humanity as a writer.

For horror stories to be truly horrific, the reader has to care. Oates feels this deeply in her writing, and delivers with style.