Six stories and a novella steeped in horror and dread.
Let's spell out the entire title of the new Joyce Carol Oates collection: "The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares: Novellas and Stories of Unspeakable Dread."
To lovers of horror fiction, them's fightin' words. "Nightmares," sure -- but "Unspeakable Dread"? If you're going to claim it, you'd better bring it, Ms. Oates.
If you doubted that she could, then you're not just of little faith, you're of little acquaintance with this acclaimed author's body of work (which includes more than 70 volumes of fiction, poetry and drama). Combine the Gothic creepiness of 1980's "Bellefleur" with the family tragedy of "We Were the Mulvaneys" (2001) and the ripped-from-the-headlines shock of "Black Water" (1993), and you'll have some idea of what the novellas and stories in this new book offer.
However, Oates does not restrict her horror to the psychological sort here: There is real suffering, as in the title story's drugging and near-starvation of a young girl, or the final story's ("A Hole in the Head") bone dust and blood. The fact that neither of those revelations is anywhere close to being a spoiler may show how dread-full these tales really are.
At 138 pages, "The Corn Maiden" is the collection's novella, previously published in 2005 as part of an anthology called "Transgressions." Here its eerie story of mean girls gone too far presages the six short stories of abuse and revenge ("Beersheba"), anger and wish fulfillment ("Nobody Knows My Name"), need and dependence ("Fossil-Figures"), impotence and jealousy ("Death-Cup"), loneliness and powerlessness ("Helping Hands"), and hubris and greed ("A Hole in the Head").
Of course, those are this reviewer's definitions of what each of those stories represents. Oates might have others, and so might readers. There are many themes and sins running through each story, but one that deserves to be examined in the cold, clear light of day (reading in same is not a bad idea) is why Oates decided to include "The Corn Maiden" along with the short stories.
The above-named stories each end, if not in horror, in dread. There's death, maiming, post-rape terror, and even a queasy quasi-Collyer Brothers scenario. The novella is slightly different; its finale includes a victim's rescue and a sort of new-family reconciliation that might, just might, seem to be the stuff of hope.
But it's not, and the slightly hypnotic ending chosen by Oates points to what is most compelling about the works here: Our worst fears, realized, nearly always result from our deepest vulnerabilities.
Bethanne Patrick is a freelance critic who lives in Arlington, Va. She tweets as @TheBookMaven.