Author: Joyce Carol Oates

2011, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Filed Under: Literary, Short Stories, Thriller

Joyce Carol Oates’s latest collection treats its subtitle’s promise in very interesting ways. For me the phrase “tales of mystery and suspense” conjures stalker stories, Poe-style tales of confinement, or even panic-ridden accounts of murderers cracking under fear of capture. I assumed a pinion of physical threat would complete the gears for each of these stories. And indeed, it is a real theme in the book. Right off the bat we see it: in the titular story, a woman writes a former lover with a request for his heart for transplant upon his death (when that may come is the underlying threat). The writing in her correspondence navigates the line of menace delicately. But for much of the book, physical threat is not really the suspense at hand; the writing carries similar nuance throughout.

In “Split/Brain” and “First Husband”–which does concern an actual murder–much of the fear at work is psychological. The stories explore the realm of paranoia. A woman, upon recognizing a car in her driveway that shouldn’t be there, imagines vividly what terrible fate might befall her, then enters her home anyway. A husband finds in his wife’s sock drawer nude polaroids of her former life, and becomes obsessed with a man his wife no longer knows. For both characters, non-realities take hold of their minds and develop into obsessions which present greater threats than the real world would ever deliver.

Then the tables turn a bit in “Strip Poker.” The story is about an adolescent girl who ends up playing poker in a lake house with some drunken good ol’ boys. Much of the story reads as if she is a lamb lost in a den of wolves. But the right words at the right time disturb the men–and the reader–calling the intangible balance of power into question. Indeed, this imagined threat is more representative of the book than anything empirical to the characters.

These stories are all about internalized suspense. Characters react to external stimuli (e.g. the flooding river in “The Spill”), and base their next move on their perceptions, whether warranted or not. It’s all very cerebral and realist. For the most part, the threat is not real. At least not as the characters imagine them. But these stories would be less interesting if that weren’t the case. They are not good because a murderer lurks; they are good because the character can’t decide if a murderer lurks or not. And they get better when circumstances get more complicated than murder. Many of these stories push a character just a step beyond the point of no return. We get to watch them squirm as they wonder if the route they took was the horribly wrong path.

The strongest story is perhaps the collection’s last. In “Vena Cava,” a soldier returns from war disabled and crippled by PTSD. He fears the future more than he fears the trauma he faced. Privy to his thoughts, the readers perceive the danger his oblivious family is in (again, like lambs in a predator’s den): he’s full of violence and at a boiling point. He knows it, but sees no way out. Forced to stare at a grim future, there is for him no possibility of turning back his life.

“Smother” does the exact same thing, though with an opposite approach: a woman’s estranged daughter accuses her of committing a murder 30 years in the past. The mother can do nothing but look at the mistakes of her past, and wonder which effected the threatened future now before her. It’s never clear just how purposefully muddled her memory is, or if her memory serves her and her drug-addicted daughter–that she likes to believe she dotes on–just made it all up. The story is an interesting look at how weighty a force denial can be.

In Oates’s stories, denial can be as menacing as a butcher knife. This is a book where internalized panic spreads like miasma. In the few instances of real violence, it’s often not the victim who the real fear invades, and who the story bears down upon. This is a solid collection of psychological thrillers, and any fans of such writing will find a lot to like.

Similar Reads: Drinking Coffee Elsewhere (Packer), A Good and Happy Child (Evans), The Barnum Museum (Millhauser)