The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares: Novellas and Stories of Unspeakable Dread Audio CD – Audiobook, CD, Unabridged
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About the Author
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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
My second favorite story, "Helping Hands," tells of a new widow who, in desperate loneliness, takes up with a wounded veteran. Envisioning herself as his savior and him as her protective companion, she invests him with qualities of sensitivity and intelligence that he clearly lacks, while remaining willfully blind to the man's dangerous instability.
The other "nightmares" in the collection are: "Beersheba," about a man who is forced to confront his long-forgotten failings as a stepfather; "Nobody Knows My Name," in which a young girl's natural jealousy of her newborn sister may or may not be responsible for a tragic ending; "Fossil-Figures," about a demon brother's dominance, from their days in the womb to the end of their lives, over his frail twin; "Death-Cup," another story of mismatched brothers, one of whom contemplates poisoning the other with deadly mushrooms; and "A Hole in the Head," in which a doctor revives the practice of trepanation -- drilling holes in the skull to release evil spirits.
Oates tells her stories in lush, rhythmic sentences. She sketches characters with deft precision. She fills their mouths with strong dialog, spoken in unique and realistic speech patterns. Each story builds a sense of dread, bit by bit, often indirectly -- when a mean gray cat starts stalking through the story, you know something awful is going to happen. Yet these aren't simple, predictable stories of horror or suspense. In the two stories about brothers, the characters behave surprisingly; they reveal an unexpected capacity for late-life change. Most of the stories reveal their own little surprises; all of them deliver electric jolts of anxiety before they end. I would give The Corn Maiden 4 1/2 stars if that option were available.
The Corn Maiden resides in the tradition of a long string of its recent predecessors in that it bored, repulsed and annoyed me by being the quite honestly bad literature that it was. Not one story in this collection had any shine to it, not one enthralled, not one entertained, not one of them mirrored anything like the talent Joyce Carol Oates proved long ago that she had. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone, and instead would point a would-be Oates reader back to her pre-1995 canon where many fine titles await.
I think it is fair to say Oates' career can be broken down as follows:
1960-1989 was an epoch of magnificent writing from Joyce Carol Oates. No writer in America or for all I know the world could touch the consistency and quantity of her gloriously cerebral yet visceral output.
1990-1999 gave us a mixed bag. In this era was the polished brilliance of her short story collection Heat, the gritty psychodrama of Foxfire and Zombie, yet also the melodrama-by-the-numbers of the inexplicably well-received We Were the Mulvaney's.
2000-2012 has been a sad time in this author's career. Middle Age is the one book of hers from this period I have actually enjoyed and whose quality I would rank among that of her books from the 20th century. Alas Middle Age stands alone among a veritable heap of other Oates books that merit, at one's kindest, the designation "barely mediocre."
No unestablished writer could get into the business with the stories Oates is putting into print these days, which is a sad thing to say, but a true one. As for The Corn Maiden...I'm glad I didn't buy it, let me say that!
The title story, "The Corn Maiden," is the best (and longest) story in the collection. It's a frightening meditation on groupthink, obsession, and manipulation, inspired by an unsettling Native American myth. The story goes on for a bit too long, and the ending is way too pat (especially by JCO standards), but the story is eerie and well-wrought overall.
The never-before-published story "Helping Hands" is nothing short of genius. A middle-aged widow befriends a wounded veteran, only to discover that he may be struggling with dangerous demons. This is JCO at her finest as she creates a brooding atmosphere, a tense narrative, and sympathetic characters.
The third notable story, to me, is "Nobody Knows My Name," the story of a young girl who feels threatened and replaced by her baby sister. This story, presented in a stream-of-consciousness style, is both tragically and authentically told.
The rest of the stories were somewhat of a mixed bag for me. Many of the stories seem to go on too long and end in awkward spots; JCO plays with the cliffhanger ending a lot in this collection, but at least a few of the stories simply feel unfinished. I didn't expect slasher horror, but the horror aspect of some of these stories was too subtle for me -- particularly in "Fossil-Figures" and "Death-Cup." They were haunting and vivid stories in their own right, but they didn't seem to belong in a "nightmare" collection.
I do appreciate, however, that JCO's horror is more cerebral, more believable, than that of many other authors. Her prose is spare, haunting, and purposeful. She isn't afraid to make the reader uncomfortable, to explore the dark underbelly of humanity, and her talent at accomplishing this is what makes most of these stories truly horrific.
My favorite stories are "Corn Maiden" and "A Hole in the Head", the first and last stories of the collection. "Corn Maiden" is based on Indian sacrifice, so you can imagine what the author could do with that story. The last story, "A Hole in the Head" was about a cosmetic surgeon gone berserk.
I am taking a college class on Joyce Carol Oates. We are using the book High and Lonesome another one of her collections of short stories. I am beginning to appreciate her as an author even if I don't care for horror stories. Her stories are near to horror.
If you like Joyce Carol Oates as an author then you may appreciate Flannery O'Connor. Her stories are similar although I enjoy Joyce Carol Oates more.
This unbiased review was based on an electronic copy of the book provided by the publisher for the purpose of creating this review.