By Joyce Carol Oates

Dublin: Swan River Press, 2021
206 Pages

The-Ruins-of-Contracoeur“To be fated, to be accursed—isn’t that also to be special?”

A group of resourceful young girls punish the men of a small town for unspeakable lusts by luring them to a derelict factory and into the toils of a bizarre contraption; a dead man tries to makes sense of a strange epiphany he experienced one day when out hiking amid gigantic ancient redwoods; and a state judge, fleeing disgrace, settles with his family on an isolated ruinous estate where some dread thing prowls in the night . . .

As Lisa Tuttle notes in her introduction, where most writers, as most people, tend to “settle down” as they age, to work within ever more constrained limits, Joyce Carol Oates’s remarkable imagination, in the sixth decade of her career, manifests no sign of such complacency. The six savage, glittering stories in this volume show it has, on the contrary, become ever more restless and transgressive.

table of contentsContents

  • Introduction – Lisa Tuttle information
  • Mr. Stickum information
  • The Cold information
  • Monstersister information
  • Commencement information
  • The Redwoods information
  • The Ruins of Contracoeur information

""Excerpt from the Introduction

. . .

The six stories that follow, most very recent, have never been collected before. They offer a good sampling of the author’s range, from unsettling to full-on grotesque.

“Mr. Stickum” is a gleefully savage fable about a group of clever and determined high school students who set up a honeytrap to punish local men for their forbidden, never-to-be-acted-upon desires. Astonishingly, it was first published in Playboy, making me wonder how much the readers of a magazine dedicated to heterosexual male fantasies enjoyed this sample of fantasy from a female author exploring the idea of pitiless female revenge for the same.

“The Cold” is one of Oates’ many fine explorations of an individual soul in extremis; a chilling examination of the madness of grief.

“Monstersister” uses body horror, adolescent angst and a grandly grotesque case of sibling rivalry to create an irresistible, compulsive and memorable tale, one of those classic horror stories which works through propulsive intensity to convince the reader that something impossible could really happen; as the narrator suggests: “all things shift, as if tugged by gravity, to the normal”.

“Commencement seems likely to have been inspired by personal experience, since Joyce Carol Oates must have attended any number of graduation ceremonies over the years, as well as being in receipt of more than one honorary degree herself. Satire vies with horror, but the story could be described as Lovecraftian when you consider Oates’ own description of the classic Lovecraftian tale as “a species of horror fantasy set in meticulously described, historically grounded places . . . in which a seemingly normal, intelligent scholar or professor, usually a celibate bachelor, pursues a mystery it would be wiser for him to flee . . .”

“The Redwoods” is perhaps the most obviously literary, even experimental, work in the book, demanding more than one reading to make sense of the unsettling story told from the viewpoint of the most unreliable of characters, a dead man. As he goes from spying on his grieving widow to revisiting memories of his life, the question of what actually happened on the day he recalls as a turning point, the most important moment of his life, becomes more and more uncertain.

“The Ruins of Contracoeur” is both the earliest (first published in 1999) and the longest in the book. Set in an imaginary region of New York State around the ominously named Lake Noir, the setting as well as the gothic atmosphere and supernatural elements connect it to the series of novels often referred to as Oates Gothic Saga, published between 1980-2014: Bellefleur, A Bloodsmoor Romance, Mysteries of Winterthurn, My Heart Laid Bare, and The Accursed. The richly immersive story of a family forced by scandal to retreat from their life of luxury in the city to a half-ruined country estate is a delicious blend of realism, fantasy, and horror.

In 1976, reviewing Crossing the Border: Fifteen Tales, Anne Tyler wrote that Oates “sees possibilities for horror in the most innocent and sunlit scenes”. Yet, like most of Oates’ work of that period, although some stories are unsettling, they are realistic (the “border” is the one between Canada and the USA) and concern psychological and social disturbances; a very long way from the savagely grotesque and gothic elements that increasingly mark her work in later decades. So many people seem to become more conservative and predictable as they age; even writers and artists tend to “settle down” and work within well-established limits. In contrast, Joyce Carol Oates has expanded her own boundaries over time, allowing her imagination even greater freedom than before. Now in her eighties, she accepts no border controls, unless they are those imposed by the story itself.

Lisa Tuttle
Torinturk, Scotland
5 May 2021

reviews, starts, 5Reviews

Eric Karl Anderson, Lonesome Reader, October 29, 2021
4 stars
The six stories … include many deeper themes such as challenging family dynamics, the resilience of girls, economic division in society and the heartbreak of grief. The line between the living and the dead becomes blurred as we follow the thoughts and actions of individuals who’ve been wronged or wronged others. While some seek vigilante justice, there’s not always a clear moral compass used by the complicated personalities which inhabit these stories. … I found these stories thrilling, complex and haunting.

redwoods2Image: Peter Theony, “Lord Voldemort’s den” (Humboldt Redwoods State Park).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s