For me, the creepiest stories are those that deal with the mind, because unlike the
"monster-in-the-closet" type thrillers which can be corny, the paranormal type whose basis is often mental, have the possibility of being true or real. That's
what we have here, and if you don't have the stomach for the truly grotesque, then move on to another book. However, with several of these, depending on your
mood, they can also be perceived as extremely morbidly humorous. I had read this book three years ago, and it gave me an uncomfortable jolt that lasted for
quite some time, but reading it again, minus the shock factor, a few of them made me giggle. But I have a bizarre sense of humor, and judging from Oates's
commentary at the end of the book, I don't think she intended humor. There's a lot of Poe here, so however you feel about him will probably influence your
feelings for this one. Whatever tickles your fancy. . .
Oates, an extraordinarily prolific writer, is still quite alive as of this review, and plans to retire from teaching at Princeton in the fall of 2014. This hefty collection is in four parts and contains sixteen stories. Part Two contains only one, the longest single story in the set. I chose a few examples so you get the idea, but really, they are all unique.
In The Doll, Florence Parr, now middle-aged and the President of a College, reminisces about a doll house she was given on her fourth birthday. It was an antique made by a distant relative of her mother. To a four-year-old, it was huge, though her dolls would not fit in it. She had a girl doll, a baby doll, a woman doll, and a little freckled red-haired boy doll, plus a spaniel.
Now having traveled to an unfamiliar city, Lancaster, Pennsylvania she is shocked as she drives along and sees a Victorian house. But it is her doll house! She becomes disoriented and confused, and stops, planning to knock at the door, making up a story. She realizes she has left the car running and her purse on the seat, and loses her courage at the last moment from approaching the door. She thinks about the panic attacks she has had in the past, and during the evening's social events (she is to be a featured speaker for this conference of college administrators) her mind keeps returning to the house. Retiring early to her room and expecting insomnia, she fights her fears and decides to dress and drive back to the house, even though it is late.
She sees a light and a dog barks, so she chances on knocking. A man opens the door, though he is youngish—not elderly as she expects. He has red hair and freckles. She doesn't tell him of course the reason for her visit, but cautiously asks questions giving him the impression that she believes they know each other. He is friendly and courteous, but then things start to get creepy.
The White Cat is about a couple, Julius Muir, in his late fifties, having married Alissa, twenty years younger. This is his first marriage, and they are well-off. The Persian cat, Miranda, was his gift to Alissa, and is adored by her and her friends, but hates Julius. Alissa, a second-rate Broadway actress had been married before. She gave up acting for a while, but now is becoming a little more successful. The Muirs seem happy and in love, but increasingly, the cat gets on Julius's nerves, and he develops a downright hatred, even jealousy toward her. He decides to poison her with rat poison they had stored in the shed. That evening she goes out, and doesn't return. Alissa is devastated. Julius goes through the charade of helping to search for Miranda. They barely speak at dinner, then Alissa receives a phone call. While she is talking, Julius sees a white form on the garden wall. It is Miranda, of course. She must have vomited the poison, and Julius pretends to be thrilled that she is safe, and silently vows to not try to hurt her again.
The Muirs no longer slept together. Julius was plagued with violent nightmares that would wake Alissa, so he would spend a little while in bed with her, then leave to his own room. But then she began reading or talking on the phone in bed, and Julius no longer bothered to spend any time there. And now she is getting more involved with her acting, or perhaps another man.
Soon after the attempted poisoning, Julius is driving home and he sees Miranda in the road. He swerves the car toward her, just to give her a scare, but strikes her instead. He hears her scream and feels the thud, then sees the bloody body. Well, it is done.
But it isn't, of course. Miranda returns home as usual, in a quite healthy state. Another cat—it must have been another cat, Julius thinks.
Then again. . .
The Guilty Party. Oh, now this one is truly grotesque. It is about a woman who got pregnant and had a baby boy named Jocko—not wanted and ignored by his father. We meet them when he is two years old, and he has taken control of the situation. He gets his momma out of bed to feed him:
"Momma damn you don't try to hide, you can't hide from me you damn dumb bitch don't you know who I am! And I'm hungry."
And Jocko knows his father didn't want him, wanted him aborted, and now Jocko wants revenge:
At breakfast, gripping a soup spoon in his fist and spooning thick clots of steaming oatmeal into his mouth, Jocko mused, "He wanted me dead before I could even draw breath, fucker wanted me vacuum-sucked out of you the way you vacuum-suck dustballs and hairs out of a cruddy corner." Chewing his food hungrily, chuckling to himself, "he won't know what hits him, fucker. Tonight by midnight."
Of course, these conversations only occur when Momma and Jocko are alone. At the
pediatrician or day care, Jocko is just a normal two-year old who cries "Momma
don't go" as he kisses her when she drops him off on her way to work.
But today, something is going on. Momma knows that X is moving out of town, without telling her or answering her calls. They work for the same company and he has been promoted. And he has paid little to no attention to his son:
"Goddamn it you know I can't be the father of that child so please leave me alone."
She, urged by Jocko, must have revenge. Jocko has chosen the carving
knife and they make their way to X's apartment. . .
Poor Bibi is absolutely the most gross and disgusting of all of these stories. It begins as the narrator and her husband realize that Bibi's health has declined. He hasn't been eating, and they find him in a dark corner of the cellar rather than on his warm cozy pile of rags. She goes on to tell of the years of enjoyment he brought them:
"Darling Bibi!—the miraculous flame of life itself danced in him, unquenchable. In those early days, his eyes were clear and shining; lovely, faintly iridescent, shifting shades of amber. His pert little "button" nose was pink, damp, and cool—how I shivered, when he nuzzled it against my bare legs."
Sounds like a dog, huh? Uh. . .well, maybe not.
And a couple others to mention: Thanksgiving is about the trip to the grocery store from hell. Blind is probably hands down the most terrifying story in the whole collection. It is about an elderly woman who is blind but doesn't realize it. It takes place during a storm, and she thinks the power is out, then realizes her husband is dead in bed. And then it gets worse.
This is a really extraordinary collection of stories that you probably should not read if you are alone on a dark and stormy night. Recommended reading if grotesque and surreal are your thing.
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