The prolific Oates (The Man Without a Shadow, 2016, etc.) delivers a sextet of creepy stories to disturb your nights and cast shadows across your days.
In the title story, a man waxes eloquent about the doll collection he began keeping as a child when his cousin died of leukemia. Very quickly, it becomes apparent that his “dolls” have a much more sinister significance. In another story, a woman remembers a traumatic time in her past when she was asked to take care of her favorite teacher’s house and was instead assaulted and left for dead. A lonely young girl meets a new friend with a big, terrifying secret. A troubled man defends the actions that have landed him in jail as the front page of every newspaper brands him a racist. On holiday in the Galapagos, a wife begins to suspect her dashing older husband is trying to kill her—or is it merely a case of survival of the fittest? In the most effective of these stories, a paranoid narrator, seemingly modeled after so many of Poe’s unstable characters, calmly plans and executes a perfect murder—only to have the tables turned. Oates’ signature move, at least in these stories, is to end in medias res, or in the middle of things—unlike other authors, who tend to start there. When this works, it causes a lingering sense of dread and discomfort, but sometimes it is merely frustrating, leaving one with a “lady or tiger” sensation. The collection provides some chills and some domestic psychological warfare much in the classic vein of Ruth Rendell, but it does feel a bit uneven and underdeveloped. What it lacks: deep, well-plumbed explorations of truly troubled and disturbing psyches.
For readers who like the frisson of psychological horror without too much commitment.