Ten reprinted stories—six from literary quarterlies, four from mystery venues—that use contemporary gothic horror to shed light on the principals’ festering family wounds.
Like all the best nightmares, these tales work by literalizing ordinary fears you may have had yourself. The title story is a grown schoolgirl’s letter to the teacher who seduced her; “Smother” floods its middle-aged heroine with returning memories that recast her early life in all its horror; “Tetanus” reveals the hollowness in a social worker’s marriage; “Nowhere” dramatizes a teenager’s purgatorial descent into late adolescence through her relationship with her imprisoned father. In “Strip Poker,” a young girl enticed into a dangerous game finds unexpected resources in storytelling. But other troubled characters who attempt to take control of intolerable situations fare less well in “The Spill,” “Bleeed” and “Vena Cava.” The obvious outlier among these stories of mostly rural angst, “The First Husband,” reveals just how thin its attorney hero’s veneer of suburban civilization is when he discovers hidden, but basically innocuous, photos of his wife with her first husband. “Split/Brain,” the shortest but perhaps the most characteristic of them all, features a sorely tried wife and mother.
Nothing to burnish Oates’s reputation, but reliable chills for fans familiar with the product (Sourland, 2010, etc.).