It can appear in a dream state; it can breathe in familiar shadows; it can be unique or unbearably recognizable. What is it about the grotesque that fascinates, provokes, and fills us with a rising sense of dread?
In these twenty-seven tales of the forbidden, Joyce Carol Oates explores the waking nightmares of life with eyes wide open, facing what the bravest of us fear the most. With eerie brilliance, this master of the short story reminds us just how seductive—and terrifying—they can be. . . .
In “The Sepulchre” a woman surrenders to her deepest fears as she searches a house room by room for a man believed to have died. A deep familial bond is given a fatal twist in “Death Mother,” as a mother beckons her daughter into a dark and icy realm where they can never be parted. “Scars” brings a celebrated performer back to her hometown, where she is greeted by half-remembered faces and an unnerving greeting . . . welcome back forever. “The Omen” is an ineffable dread that washes up on a lonely beach and invades a woman’s sleepless nights. “Posthumous” finds a woman conscious within her own corpse as police break in to discover her dead body and an even grimmer sight in the next room. In “The Journey,” the transitory nature of human destiny becomes a heartbreaking and chilling reality.
These and twenty-one other illuminations on the infinite mysteries of the human experience, both intellectual and visceral, confirm Joyce Carol Oates as one of America’s most versatile practitioners of gothic horror. The Collector of Hearts is a stunning and richly diverse anthology of mood and menace—haunting, elegiac, and compulsively addictive.
(from Off-Limits: Tales of Alien Sex. Ellen Datlow, Ed.)
As I sit here, the dream-catcher is on a windowsill about two feet from me, smaller than the dream-catcher of my story, but as intricately fashioned, and quite exquisite. It was given to me by a stranger—an attractive, androgynous, very exotic stranger—when I was signing books in a bookstore in Washington, D.C. in the fall of 1993. People sometimes give me presents at such occasions, or mail things to me, but this object seems to have made an unusual impression on me, or on my psyche. I’m sure that, that night, in my hotel room, it caused me to dream unusually vivid dreams, since I remember waking in the middle of the night, and rapidly writing down ideas for stories; of these, two or three have found their way into actual stories, including “The Dream-Catcher,” though it must be said that dream-originated stories are, for me, the most difficult of all to render into prose. The dream-suggestion seems truly to come from a stranger, a source not inside me, and often I have no clue what it might mean; nor any coherent plot; I’m left with a powerful sense of emotion—but it’s abstract, mysterious.
I believe that the mysterious—the not-to-be-explained—is a key to our inner lives; to that part of our inner selves that has no sense of time past or time present or time future. We can contemplate and we can try to write about it, but we can never comprehend it. Always elusive, and tantalizing, it recedes before us like a desert mirage, and perhaps this very elusiveness is the subject about which we write, given finite dimensions.
Out of an actual dream-catcher, and a night, or nights, of dream fragments, the story “The Dream-Catcher” gradually emerged. I did not write the story for some time after the dreams, needing time to imagine a coherent structure for them, and an ostensible “theme.” The story bears a glancing resemblance, at least in my eyes, to a story of mine called, “The Doll,” written almost twenty years ago . . . a discovery I made some time after I’d written it.
What this might mean, I don’t know. And I assume I’m better off not knowing.
JCO on “████”
(from Fear Itself. Jeff Gelb, Ed.)
It’s night. It has been night for a long time. Hours pass— yet it’s the same hour. I can’t sleep. My mind is fractured like broken glass. Or a broken mirror, shards reflecting shards. I am incapable of thinking but only of receiving, like a fine-meshed net strung tight, mere glimmerings of thought. Teasing fragments of “memory”—or is it “invented memory”?—rise and turn and fall and sift and scatter and rearrange themselves into arabesques of patterns on the verge of becoming coherent, yet do not become coherent. As in a childhood riddle never explained. As in one of those ingeniously intricate childhood puzzle-drawings in which shapes—faces, figures of animals—are superimposed upon one another, obscured by clouds, trees, natural objects. Something wants to speak—but what? This insomniac state is perhaps but the nighttime, and therefore the most obvious expression of a general fascinated bafflement of consciousness, for I have to acknowledge that occasionally—not frequently (which would be madness) but occasionally—such fugue states grip me by day, in public places; I am especially vulnerable while being introduced to give a lecture or a reading, for instance, or, on rarer occasions, while being cited for some honor or award. At such times one must sit gravely listening, one must not be seen to demur, still less to be assailed by gusts of wild hilarity, disbelief. Yes, I think ironically, as an enthusiastic stranger’s voice extols the public achievements of the largely fictitious “Joyce Carol Oates,” yes but no: you don’t know me. If you knew me, you would not say such outlandish things.
What should be said in place of these “outlandish things,” I have no idea.
Yesterday in Manhattan, on the twenty-third, penthouse floor of a Fifth Avenue office building facing Trump Tower, at a lavish luncheon in my honor, in the grip of a powerful fugue state I felt as if I were about to remember something—but could not, cannot. Wanting desperately to reread a certain passage from Pascal’s Pensees, which I have virtually memorized yet can’t trust my memory to replicate with the full dignity and gravity these famous words demand.
This is our true state; this is what makes us incapable of certain knowledge and of absolute ignorance. We sail within a vast sphere, ever drifting in uncertainty, driven from end to end. When we try to attach ourselves to any point and to fasten to it, it wavers and leaves us; and if we follow it, it eludes our grasp, slips past us, and vanishes forever. Nothing stays for us. This is our natural condition, and yet most contrary to our inclination; we burn with desire to find solid ground and an ultimate sure foundation whereupon to build a tower reaching to the Infinite. But our whole groundwork cracks, and the earth opens to abysses.
Unless you are more protectively self-deluded than Pascal this is true for you, too.
Certainly for me.
“Joyce Carol Oates”—more helpfully comprehended as an imagination and a writing process, and not an individual— very possibly feels little of this existential anxiety, except in and through her fictitious personae; but I, who encompass, yet am hardly identical with “JCO,” am in the grip of this anxiety whenever the momentum of my life slows, and its surface distractions fade. At such times, like the narrator of my story ████ (its title refers precisely to the “abyss” of which Pascal speaks: a kind of black hole of the spirit) I seem about to remember and to know something—but what?
The story in this anthology is but one of any number of fictions I’ve created to attempt to comprehend, even in the face of ceaseless failure, this abyss, and the mystery surrounding it. The story is not autobiographical, except emotionally; I stand in awe of the possibility that being hypnotized by ████ is a key to my putative industry.
At the same time, I think I am probably representative of the legion of people, women perhaps more than men, yet surely there are many men in our ranks as well, who are both fascinated by the contents of the unconscious and in terror of their uncontrolled eruption. The sudden incursion of an unwanted memory in our lives: how can we assimilate it into what we want to believe of ourselves? We build personalities, like ”fictions,” to withstand the roiling waters. Or we build fictions, like “personalities.”
By Monica Garrison. An adaptation of a short story by Joyce Carol Oates dealing with the issues of trauma and memory.
Publishers Weekly, August 17, 1998, p.44
Oates proves yet again that she is an equally intrepid navigator of reality as well as its negative image.
Kirkus Reviews, September 15, 1998
The paradoxical momentum frequently traced in these stories—of escape from an impoverished or frightened childhood into a stable world of culture and order, though it may be snatched away violently at any time—gives them the further dimension of close relationship to Oates’s more purely realistic fiction: the “night-side,” as it were, of her oeuvre. One of Oates’s more interesting recent books, and impressive further proof of her continuing mastery of the short story.
Joshua Cohen, Library Journal, October 1, 1998, p.138
Combining Edgar Allen Poe’s imagery with Raymond Carver’s insights into the human condition, Oates creates 27 views of imaginary horrors.
Douglas E. Winter, Washington Post, January 3, 1999
What Oates brings to these otherwise obvious plot lines is a remarkable voice, often that of the victim, which gives life and meaning — and truth — to events that lesser writers would play out merely for shock or sensation.
Margot Livesey, New York Times, March 7, 1999
Labeling these stories grotesque may suggest that they do not really belong to our world, that what happens in them can be safely bracketed and confined. But there is nothing safe about ”The Collector of Hearts.” In Oates’s fluent grasp, the grotesque becomes a map of the mind’s dark places. Read these stories to see her vivid imagination at work — and your own.
Jana Siciliano, BookReporter, January 21, 2011
THE COLLECTOR OF HEARTS is sure to make your hair stand on end and your brain stand up and cheer for the intelligent and elegiacal prose with which Oates scares the living daylights out of you!
James Knudsen, World Literature Today, summer 1999 p.527
Oates is a relentless experimenter, seemingly willing to try anything. It is almost as if with each story she sets herself a test: how can I work a fresh take on an old tale? How can I do something utterly new? There is tremendous variety here: stories told from every point of view, stories set in the present and stories set in the past, stories about characters from every socioeconomic and educational level.
Steven G. Kellman, Michigan Quarterly Review, summer 1999
Like Edmund Wilson’s take on the myth of Philoctetes’ wound and his magic bow, “The Affliction” is a compelling parable about the repugnant private sources of creativity.
Brad Hooper, Booklist, September 1, 1998, p.67
Image: “Jellyfish” by Kelly L
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