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Give Me Your Heart: Tales of Mystery and Suspense [Hardcover]

Joyce Carol Oates

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Book Description

Jan. 7 2011 Otto Penzler Books

An Otto Penzler Book

The need for love—obsessive, self-destructive, unpredictable—takes us to forbidden places, as in the chilling world of Give Me Your Heart, a new collection of stories by the inimitable Joyce Carol Oates.

In the suspenseful “Strip Poker,” a reckless adolescent girl must find a way of turning the tables on a gathering of increasingly threatening young men—Can she “outplay” them? In the award-winning “Smother!” a young woman’s nightmare memory of childhood brings trouble on her professor-mother—Which of them will “win”? In “Split/Brain” a woman who has blundered into a lethal situation confronts the possibility of saving herself—Will she take it? In “The First Husband,” a jealous man discovers that his wife seems to have lied about her first marriage, and exacts a cruel revenge, years after the fact. In these and other powerful tales, children veer beyond their parents’ control, wives and husbands wake up to find that they hardly know each other, haunted pasts intrude upon uncertain futures, and those who bring us the most harm may be the nearest at hand.

In ten razor-sharp stories, National Book Award winner Joyce Carol Oates shows that the most deadly mysteries often begin at home.

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About the Author

JOYCE CAROL OATES is the recipient of the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction and the winner of the National Book Award. Among her major works are We Were the Mulvaneys, Blonde, and The Falls.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Give Me Your Heart
Dear Dr. K——,
 It’s been a long time, hasn’t it! Twenty-three years, nine months, and eleven days.
 Since we last saw each other. Since you last saw, “nude” on your naked knees, me.
 Dr. K——! The formal salutation isn’t meant as flattery, still less as mockery—please understand. I am not writing after so many years to beg an unreasonable favor of you (I hope), or to make demands, merely to inquire if, in your judgment, I should go through the formality, and the trouble, of applying to be the lucky recipient of your most precious organ, your heart. If I may expect to collect what is due to me, after so many years.
 I’ve learned that you, the renowned Dr. K——, are one who has generously signed a “living will” donating his organs to those in need. Not for Dr. K—— an old-fashioned, selfish funeral and burial in a cemetery, nor even cremation. Good for you, Dr. K——! But I want only your heart, not your kidneys, liver, or eyes. These I will waive, that others more needy will benefit.
 Of course, I mean to make my application as others do, in medical situations similar to my own. I would not expect favoritism. The actual application would be made through my cardiologist. Caucasian female of youthful middle age, attractive, intelligent, optimistic though with a malfunctioning heart, otherwise in perfect health. No acknowledgment would be made of our old relationship, on my part at least. Though you, dear Dr. K——, as the potential heart donor, could indicate your own preference, surely?
 All this would transpire when you die, Dr. K——, I mean. Of course! Not a moment before.
 (I guess you might not be aware that you’re destined to die soon? Within the year? In a “tragic,” “freak” accident, as it will be called? In an “ironic,” “unspeakably ugly” end to a “brilliant career”? I’m sorry that I can’t be more specific about time, place, means; even whether you’ll die alone, or with a family member or two. But that’s the nature of accident, Dr. K——. It’s a -surprise.)
 Dr. K——, don’t frown so! You’re a handsome man still, and still vain, despite your thinning gray hair, which, like other vain men with hair loss, you’ve taken to combing slantwise over the shiny dome of your head, imagining that since you can’t see this ploy in the mirror, it can’t be seen by others. But I can see.
 Fumbling, you turn to the last page of this letter to see my signature—“Angel”—and you’re forced to remember, suddenly . . . With a pang of guilt.
 Her! She’s still . . . alive?
 That’s right, Dr. K——! More alive now than ever.
 Naturally you’d come to imagine I had vanished. I had ceased to exist. Since you’d long ago ceased to think of me.
 You’re frightened. Your heart, that guilty organ, has begun to pound. At a second-floor window of your house on Richmond Street (expensively restored Victorian, pale gray shingles with dark blue trim, “quaint,” “dignified,” among others of its type in the exclusive old residential neighborhood east of the Theological Seminary), you stare out anxiously at—what?
 Not me, obviously. I’m not there.
 At any rate, I’m not in sight.
 Yet how the pale-glowering sky seems to throb with a sinister intensity! Like a great eye staring.
 Dr. K——, I mean you no harm! Truly. This letter is in no way a demand for your (posthumous) heart, nor even a “verbal threat.” If you decide, foolishly, to show it to the police, they will assure you it’s harmless, it isn’t illegal, it’s only a request for information: should I, the “love of your life” you have not seen in twenty-three years, apply to be the recipient of your heart? What are Angel’s chances?
 I only wish to collect what’s mine. What was promised to me, so long ago. I’ve been faithful to our love, Dr. K——!
 You laugh, harshly. Incredulously. How can you reply to Angel, when Angel has included no last name, and no address? You will have to seek me. To save yourself, seek me.
 You crumple this letter in your fist, throw it onto the floor.
 You walk away, stumble away, you mean to forget, obviously you can’t forget, the crumpled pages of my handwritten letter on the floor of—is it your study? on the second floor of the dignified old Victorian house at 119 Richmond Street?—where someone might discover them, and pick them up to read what you wouldn’t wish another living person to read, especially not someone “close” to you. (As if our families, especially our blood kin, are “close” to us as in the true intimacy of erotic love.) So naturally you return; with badly shaking fingers you pick up the scattered pages, smooth them out, and continue to read.
 Dear Dr. K——! Please understand: I am not bitter, I don’t harbor obsessions. That is not my nature. I have my own life, and I have even had a (moderately successful) career. I am a normal woman of my time and place. I am like the exquisite black-and-silver diamond-headed spider, the so-called happy spider, the sole subspecies of Araneidae that is said to be free to spin part-improvised webs, both oval and funnel, and to roam the world at will, equally at home in damp grasses and the dry, dark, protected interiors of manmade places; rejoicing in (relative) free will within the inevitable restrictions of Araneidae behavior; with a sharp venomous sting, sometimes lethal to human beings, especially to children.
 Like the diamond-head, I have many eyes. Like the diamond-head, I may be perceived as “happy,” “joyous,” “exulting,” in the eyes of others. For such is my role, my performance.
 It’s true, for years I was stoically reconciled to my loss, in fact to my losses. (Not that I blame you for these losses, Dr. K——. Though a neutral observer might conclude that my immune system has been damaged as a result of my physical and mental collapse following your abrupt dismissal of me from your life.) Then, last March, seeing your photograph in the paper—“Distinguished Theologian K—— to Head Seminary”—and, a few weeks later, when you were named to the President’s Commission on Religion and Bioethics, I reconsidered. The time of anonymity and silence is over, I thought. Why not try? Why not try to collect what he owes you?
 Do you remember Angel’s name now? That name that for twenty-three years, nine months, and eleven days you have not wished to utter?
 Seek my name in any telephone directory; you won’t find it. For possibly my number is unlisted; possibly I don’t have a telephone. Possibly my name has been changed. (Legally.) Possibly I live in a distant city in a distant region of the continent; or possibly, like the diamond-head spider (adult size approximately that of your right thumbnail, Dr. K——), I dwell quietly within your roof, spinning my exquisite webs amid the shadowy beams of your basement, or in a niche between your handsome old mahogany desk and the wall, or, a delicious thought, in the airless cave beneath the four-poster brass antique bed you and the second Mrs. K—— share in the doldrums of late middle age.
 So close am I, yet invisible!
 Dear Dr. K——! Once you marveled at my “flawless Vermeer” skin and “spun-gold” hair rippling down my back, which you stroked, and closed in your fist. Once I was your Angel, your “beloved.” I basked in your love, for I did not question it. I was young; I was virginal in spirit as well as body, and would not have questioned the word of a distinguished elder. And in the paroxysm of lovemaking, when you gave yourself up utterly to me, or so it seemed, how could you have . . . deceived?
 Dr. K—— of the Theological Seminary, biblical scholar and authority, protégé of Reinhold Niebuhr, and author of “brilliant,” “revolutionary” exegeses of the Dead Sea Scrolls, among other esoteric subjects.
 But I had no idea, you are protesting. I’d given her no reason to believe, to expect . . .
 (That I would believe your declarations of love? That I would take you at your word?)
 My darling, you have my heart. Always, forever. Your promise!

These days, Dr. K——, my skin is no longer flawless. It has become the frank, flawed skin of a middle-aged woman who makes no effort to disguise her age. My hair, once shimmering strawberry-blond, is now faded, dry and brittle as broom sage; I keep it trimmed short, like a man’s, with scissors, scarcely glancing into a mirror as I snip! snip-snip! away. My face, though reasonably attractive, I suppose, is in fact a blur to most observers, including especially middle-aged American men; you’ve glanced at me, and through me, dear Dr. K——, upon more than one recent occasion, no more recognizing your Angel than you would have recognized a plate heaped with food you’d devoured twenty-three years ago with a zestful appetite, or an old, long-exhausted and dismissed sexual fantasy of adolescence.
 For the record: I was the woman in a plain, khaki-colored trench coat and matching hat who waited patiently at the university bookstore as a line of your admirers moved slowly forward for Dr. K—— to sign copies of The Ethical Life: Twenty-First-Century Challenges. (A slender theological treatise, not a mega-bestseller, of course, but a quite respectable bestseller, most popular in university and upscale suburban communities.) I knew your “brilliant” book would disappoint, yet I purchased it and eagerly read to discover (yet another time) the puzzling fact: you, Dr. K——, the man, are not the individual who appears in your books; the books are clever pretenses, artificial structures you’ve created to inhabit temporarily, as a crippled, deformed individual might inhabit a structure of surpassing beauty, gazing out its windows, taking pride in posing as its owner, but only temporarily.
 Yes? Isn’t this the clue to the renowned Dr. K——?
 For the record: several Sundays ago, you and I passed closely by each other in the State Museum of Natural History; you were gripping the ...

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.8 out of 5 stars  26 reviews
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Horror Stories Without Any Element of the Supernatural Jan. 15 2011
By Bonnie Brody - Published on
Give Me Your Heart, the newest collection of short stories by Joyce Carol Oates, shimmers with violence, actual or imagined. Reading these stories is like hearing footsteps in your home when you know you're the only one there. They're like seeing something impossible out of the corner of your eye and being sure that you've seen it no matter what your rational self tells you. The stories make your heart race and your eyes open wide in horror. They do not come to us gently. Joyce Carol Oates grabs the reader and pulls him into her unique vision where fear, panic, tension, death, love and murder prevail, often simultaneously. These are horror stories without any element of the super-natural. She's the real McCoy of this genre.

This collection contains ten stories, many of them about the dark side of needing love. In `Give Me Your Heart', we hear an ex-lover rant about wanting her lover's heart - actually and metaphorically. We listen to her as she goes more and more around the bend. In `Split/Brain', Trudy Gould has been caretaker for her ill husband day and night, spending all her time at the hospital. One day, he demands that she return home to get a journal that he forgot. When she arrives at her home, she recognizes her sister's car parked there and imagines her troubled, drug-addled and violent nephew in her house. She plays out this scenario in head: she either enters the house and is killed by her nephew or she turns and leaves. What will her choice be?

Some of these stories deal with the obsessive character of love or the feeling that you don't really know the person you love. In `The First Husband', a married man stumbles across photos of his wife with her first husband. He can't get over his jealousy and believes that his wife is hiding something from him. He becomes obsessed with her first husband and this leads to tragic consequences.

The theme that love is dangerous is apparent in almost every story. In `Strip Poker', a group of older men in their twenties get a fourteen year-old girl to go with them to their lake cabin. They get her drunk and play strip poker with her. The game is tense and on the verge of becoming dangerous. How the girl turns events to her favor is a joy to behold in all its poignancy. In `Smothered', a troubled woman with a history of drug addiction and rootlessness has recovered memories of her parents smothering and killing a baby girl. This memory is part of a sensational murder case that occurred in 1974. The smothered child was never identified and the murderer was never found. When the police come to question the woman's mother, she is shocked. The memory appears to be part of a drug-addled incident in the daughter's teen-aged years. However, the mother feels torn and betrayed as this is just another way her estranged daughter has turned against her.

Sometimes, the most dangerous person is the one that is closest to you. In `The Spill', John Henry is what we'd now call developmentally disabled or chronically mentally ill. When he is an adolescent, he is brought to live at his uncle's home as his mother can no longer handle him. It is 1951 and there is no such thing as special education in the rural Adirondacks where this story takes place. John Henry, after repeating fourth grade, is told he can't return to school. His uncle has him doing difficult farm chores all day. His aunt Lizabeta has a special connection with John Henry while also being very leery of him with her own children. Her emotions start to get twisted up inside her.

`Bleed' is my favorite story in the collection. A boy evolves from closeness with his parents to distance. He leaves his childhood behind him. This is due to two distinct incidents, both involving child abductions and rapes. His parents question him about these incidents, of which he has no knowledge. However, these images continue to haunt him and, as a young man, he finds himself caught up in a nightmare situation consisting of rape and abduction.

These are not stories for the fragile or weak-hearted among us. They are all scary and they all play on our visceral fears and nightmares. Joyce Carol Oates is a master of this. She understands those things we all fear, the nightmares that are common to us all. That these stories do not contain elements of the super-natural is not comforting. It makes them all the more frightening.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Well crafted, entertaining, and disturbing stories from a short story master Oct. 26 2010
By G. Dawson - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
Joyce Carol Oates is a master of the short story form, and the stories in this collection are well crafted, entertaining, and disturbing. The subtitle of this collection--"Tales of Mystery and Suspense"--is a bit misleading, however. Yes, many of these stories are suspenseful and most of them have an ominous or mysterious tone, but these are not conventional mystery stories. In many of the stories (including Split/Brain, Strip Poker, Nowhere, Bleeed), the protagonist finds himself or herself in a precarious situation, and the suspense is linked to whether the protagonist will be able to extricate himself/herself from that situation. Other stories track the actions of an unhinged individual (Give Me Your Heart, The Spill), and the suspense is tied to what actions the protagonist commits. Sexual crimes and other forms of violence play a large role in most of these stories, and many of the protagonists are young people caught in compromising positions. While these stories are not conventional mysteries, they will keep you turning the pages.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Haunting Tales of Mystery Aug. 20 2012
By T.B. Grant - Published on
"Give Me Your Heart" by Joyce Carol Oates
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Hardcover Edition: 260 pages
Genre: Mystery/Suspense

Joyce Carol Oates is one of those authors who needs to be read in small doses. But read nonetheless.

In this brief collection of short fiction, a dying art resurrected by a few deserving authors, "Give Me Your Heart" is a heart-hammering tour de force, a slick of short stories, bordering on the psychological exploration of the human mind. Reading Oates is, to put it bluntly and simply, obsessive. But dark. Maybe too dark at times. But with Oates, you know you'll get your money's worth. Every penny. She still knows how to tell a story, )thank goodness), write like a woman with her hair on fire, and scare the bejesus out of her avid followers.

One of the ten suspense tales, and my favorite story in the group, "Strip Poker", offers us an adolescent girl, alone in a secluded cabin, with four rowdy young guys. And none of her male friends are innocent. Dangerous, yes. But when the tables are turned, and Oates, doing what she does best as author--entertain and frighten us--using her brilliant sharp eye and cunning writing ability, excluding all the excessive gore, the vulnerable young girl learns the hard way how to outsmart and outplay her threatening counterparts.

In "The First Husband", a man, with a string of his own problems, learns how lies from his wife's past is a deadly issue for him too. Hits too close to home. In this rich compelling short story, revenge is the game. And in an exceptional taut climax, Oates is the author for the nail-biting resolution.

With an artistic eye for detail, Oates, a balancing act of creative minds, holds your attention, while also conjuring up ghastly nightmares in the darkest corner of your mind. Read on, read slowly, learn how a short story is written, only by the master herself.

T.B. Grant
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars where is justice? Aug. 25 2010
By Case Quarter - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
ten more stories by oates. these are categorized as mystery and suspense. they're mystery stories with no solution, the kind of tv mystery dramas like 'columbo' where before the first commercial you know how the crime was committed and by whom; that's where oates ends her stories, suspended, suspension, suspense, with the exception of `the first husband' and `bleed' which are horror stories.

`give me your heart' is a letter of a woman stalking an old lover.

`split/brain' is an intuitive suspicion a woman will or will not act upon told in a stream of consciousness style in a single paragraph.

`strip poker' and `nowhere' are parallel stories about young teen aged girls, one 13, the other 15, both with incarcerated fathers, both girls in lakefront scenarios with groups of men in their 20s, drinking heavily.

`smother' is about infantcide, a theme suggested in a couple of the other stories.

`tetanus' is about a pre teen glue sniffer who threatened to stab his mother and brother, taken into custody and left at family services with a sympathetic counselor.

`the spill' is a overly long story about a woman who marries a man living in the foothills of the adirondack mountains with his sons from a first marriage, his elderly aunt and mother and his retarded nephew, john henry. `the spill' is written in the style of edith wharton's `ethan frome' and john steinbeck's `of mice and men'.

`vena cava' is about a marine corporal home from the war, wounded physically and psychologically.

these aren't stories with happy endings. these are stories of events we read about in our newspapers, hoping they never become our stories.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Could Be More Focused Aug. 7 2010
By Bornintime - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
This is the first book I have read by Joyce Carol Oates. The first story, also the title of the collection, is the best. It is a well-written and increasingly chilling letter a scorned woman writes to her former lover after many years. I enjoyed some of the first few stories in the book, and then things seemed to slip. The later stories seem to have a looser style, almost a stream of consciousness approach. They are more about characters than the story itself. I can usually tell pretty quickly if I am impressed by an author's voice and I was disappointed here. Oates is competent at describing lives and situations that slowly slide out of control. I think that for a longtime fan of her work this book would be enjoyable, but for someone just looking for a good story this collection is lacking.

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