Seven nightmarish tales written over a 15-year period.
The first and longest story is the title novella, about Jude Trahern, a precocious and evil eighth-grader who abducts a fellow classmate, Marissa, to enact a ritual human sacrifice. Brilliant, charismatic and severely disturbed, Jude chooses Marissa because of the latter’s status as an outsider, both new to the school and set apart by her intellectual slowness. Jude enlists two of her friends in the elaborately planned ceremony, but their enthusiasm begins to wane as things start to get spookier and it becomes clear that Jude is serious about following through on the ritual. Meanwhile, Marissa’s mother, Leah, becomes frantic about her missing daughter and starts to believe in the guilt of Mikal Zallman, a part-time employee at the school whom Jude has cleverly implicated. The story ends on a jarring and somewhat surreal note as Leah and Mikal develop a romantic attachment. Throughout this collection Oates is fascinated by the idea of doubling, for example in “Death-Cup,” in which Lyle King tries to poison his evil twin Alastor with Amanita mushroom soup. Alastor is the “evil” brother, successful on the outside but unscrupulous within, and Lyle finds out that ultimately they can never be separated. (It’s no coincidence that Lyle is designing a new edition, “with hand-sewn pages and letterpress printing,” of Poe’s “William Wilson.”) Similarly, in “Fossil-Figures,” brothers Edgar and Edward Waldman mirror opposing sides of the self, while in the masterful “Beersheba” womanizer Brad gets his comeuppance at the hands of Stacy Lynn, who at first comes on to him seductively and then exacts a terrible revenge.
While the shadows of Poe and Hitchcock loom over these tales, it’s clear that Oates herself is a master at creeping out her readers.