The indefatigable Oates (A Book of American Martyrs, 2017, etc.) offers up seven gothic tales that plumb the depths of women who, whatever their age, always seem to stand on the threshold of the heartbreaking tides of adolescence.
Of the four longest, and most successful, of these stories, the most straightforward, “Heartbreak,” which shows the ways an attractive stepcousin new to the family heightens the rivalry between two sisters, is a textbook demonstration of Chekhov’s dictum about what has to happen after you show a gun hanging on the wall in Act 1. “The Drowned Girl” traces a troubled college student’s descent into madness as she identifies ever more closely with another student whom she’d never known before her corpse was fished out of the water tank of a rooming house. “Great Blue Heron” plots a similar trajectory in showing a new widow’s rejection of her importunate brother-in-law as she forges an even more uncanny identification with a bird of prey. And the title story filters a series of thrill killings of children through the mind of a sensitive, tormented preteen whose normal, age-appropriate fears and uncertainties gradually turn monstrous. In the shorter tales, another widow makes an ill-advised return to the house she vacated seven years earlier in “The Crawl Space”; an authoritarian father shows his children who’s boss in “The Situations”; and “Welcome to Friendly Skies!,” whose broadly satirical burlesque makes it the outlier here, unmasks the balefully amusing subtexts of all those safety announcements aboard passenger flights.
Oates creates worlds and minds as overwrought and paranoid as anything a female Poe could imagine, then sprinkles her trademark exclamation points licentiously through the interior monologues to heighten the intimacy between ecstasy and madness.