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New Tales of the Grotesque

by Joyce Carol Oates

Pub Date: Nov. 2nd, 1998
ISBN: 0-525-94445-1
Publisher: Dutton

Oates’s newest collection (and, to nobody’s surprise, second major work of fiction this year) intriguingly revisits the “gothic” terrain surveyed in such earlier volumes as Night-Side (1977) and Haunted (1994). As is generally the case with Oates, the result is a mixed bag, containing several flimsy (though invariably atmospheric and suggestive) vignettes and anecdotes (“The Sky Blue Ball,” “Intensive”); affecting dramatizations of intense relationships among children and their elders (the nerve-rattling “Death Mother,” and a story entitled the “black rectangle” that symbolizes its narrator’s repression of a traumatic visit to menacing relatives); and breathless portrayals of the enthusiasts-cum-fanatics who have long since constituted a subgenre of Oates’s work (“Death Astride Bicycle,” “Elvis is Dead: Why Are You Alive ?”). A few stories employ overworked supernatural conventions (an Indian relic comes voraciously to life in “The Dream-Catcher”; a child’s grotesque plaything menaces her apprehensive mother in “The Hand-puppet”). And literary influences are sometimes strongly felt, even if ingeniously made new (Poe’s tales in the parable-like title piece; Hortense Calisher’s “The Scream on Fifty-Seventh Street,— to which Oates previously demonstrated indebtedness in “Unprintable”). A choice few belong among the author’s very best: notably the swift tale of a vacationing family’s lost little boy and his likely fate, recounted in a chillingly bland colloquial voice (“Labor Day”); the story of a painter who makes inimitable art out of the disease that plagues him (“The Affliction”); and two superbly imagined and skillfully constructed exercises in psychological horror (“The Crossing” and “Shadows of the Evening”). The paradoxical momentum frequently traced in these stories—of escape from an impoverished or frightened childhood into a stable world of culture and order, though it may be snatched away violently at any time—gives them the further dimension of close relationship to Oates’s more purely realistic fiction: the “night-side,” as it were, of her oeuvre. One of Oates’s more interesting recent books, and impressive further proof of her continuing mastery of the short story.