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Joyce Carol Oates has a way of writing horrific stories that aren't quite "horror" in the traditional sense of the genre. Dark, violent and emotional, her short stories explore human desperation and depravity without supernatural forces. Her latest, THE CORN MAIDEN AND OTHER NIGHTMARES, is just as creepy, provocative and finely crafted as her earlier collections.
In these seven stories, Oates examines the fragility of the human mind as well as the human propensity for destruction. The title story, and by far the longest, "The Corn Maiden" tells the tale of the kidnapping of 11-year-old Marissa Bantry by three 13-year-old schoolmates. The beautiful but sensitive and awkward Marissa draws the attention of Judah Trahern, a disturbed and neglected girl from a prominent family. The self-styled "Master of Eyes," Jude orchestrates Marissa's kidnapping and designates her the Corn Maiden. The Corn Maiden is meant as a crop-ensuring sacrifice, but for Jude, the enterprise is tangled in her jealousy, attraction and hatred toward Marissa and her mother, Leah.
In the days Jude and her accomplices keep Marissa drugged and naked in her basement, Leah is frantic with worry and guilt. As a single working mother, she fears the accusations she'll face in contacting the authorities. Her inner dialogue is frantic and riveting, and perfectly parallels that of Mikal Zallman, the teacher questioned in the wake of Marissa's disappearance. In fact, though the plot moves actively forward, the genius of this short story is the inner dialogue of main characters Jude, Leah and Mikal, as well as the two friends who help Jude. Marissa is observed and reacted to, a placeholder for the emotions of the others. Oates resolves this tense story in an unexpected and shocking way.
Jude's motivation is never quite clear, but her mania is consistent. She is the evil foil to Leah's concern, to Mikal's innocence and to Marissa's purity. In this story, as in the others, the world (here generally confined to a region of upstate New York, a blend of fictional and real geography) is a dangerous place, almost impossible to successfully navigate, and people are never quite who they seem to be.
The remaining six stories are equally frightening and strange. Siblings play a prominent role with three stories examining their relationships. In "Nobody Knows My Name," nine-year-old Jessica is the only one who sees a gray cat threaten her infant sister. Both "Fossil-Figures" and "Death-Cup" are about twin brothers and, like Jessica's tale, center on not just rivalry and jealousy, but also identity, life and death. The very short but brutal "Beersheba" also deals with a damaged child; this time, a stepdaughter exacts revenge on the man she believes caused her mother's death.
While the other two stories differ in theme, they share the same edgy psychological tone. The drama in this collection is often unresolved, but the stories never feel unfinished. Oates's voice is strong and unique; the words come at the reader in a rushed and breathy fashion but remain elegant and well-chosen. She is a master at balancing the shaky or unstable viewpoint of her subjects with a cool intellectual narrative style. The anxiety is palatable here. Perhaps it is because Oates so well illuminates the interior self by writing about the moment it manifests in the physical that her stories transcend the traditional ideas about horror stories, thrillers and even post-modernism. However you understand her gift for storytelling, a gift it is, and THE CORN MAIDEN proves it once again.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman