Thursday, April 7, 2016

A slow creeping terror

The Doll-Maker and Other Tales of Terror

By Joyce Carol Oates

Publisher: Mysterious Press

Pub. Date: May 3, 2016

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The six pieces of short fiction in The Doll-Master and Other Tales of Terror may not be what some people would call tales of terror. With the exception of a shocker at the end of the title story, there is little shock and less violence. More often than not, the terror comes not in what happens at the end of the story but what the reader anticipates will happen. Joyce Carol Oates specializes in the psychological horror tale and the slow simmer. In each of these six works, there is a dark lingering feeling of dread that catches up with you in the end. And usually after you turned the lights out.

That is what the author is all about. These are more like character studies with characters that are not quite right or made not quite right by the event about to happen. Take the title piece for instance. It is about a young boy who is attracted to dolls. The "found" dolls are hidden by him and develops on a meaning for him beyond obsession. The result of his "hobby" will probably become clear before the end but it is still a beautifully written climax with a worthy chill. "The Doll-Master" is the closest thing to a tale of terror yet that does not mean the other works are less disturbing.

As an author, Oates is character driven. We are drawn to the neurosis and fears of the protagonists that the author has skillfully formed for us. In "Equatorial" we are engulfed in a woman's worries that she is not enough for her older husband. Is he having an affair? Did he convince her to go on this Galapagos Island Cruise with him simply to dispose of her? It is an exquisite paranoia as Oates writes it yet we are never sure if it is only paranoia.

"Soldier" has a timely theme in its tale about a man who has either shot someone in self-defense or committed a despicable act of hate. "Gun Accident" depicts an tragic shooting that leads a woman scarred emotionally. The girl, now a woman years from the incident, tells us the story in first person narration and we experience both the child's terror and the older woman's feeling of regret and confusion. These stories succeed because they hit upon universe anxieties and fears.

But, aside from the title tale, two other works really stood out for me. "Big Momma" is about a young girl who moves with her neglectful mother into a new school and neighborhood. In spite of her awkwardness and difficulty making friends, she finds a girl and her family who gives her the feeling of belonging she has been missing. But since this is a tale of terror, we know that there is a catch. Like "The Doll-Maker", we can connect to this yearning for something more meaningful and the horror comes in knowing the fulfillment will lead to tragedy. Finally, there is "Mystery Inc.", which is a delight because it is the closest thing to a traditional mystery in the collection. It would fit nicely in any mystery magazine and even feels a little old fashioned. Yet the turns it takes are quite interesting and if it is a tale of terror, it is one that leaves a wicked smile on our face.

When it comes to the slow build, no one does it better than Joyce Carol Oates. But she knows to grab us up quickly in writing a protagonist that intrigues us, whether he or she is innocent, damaged or just plain evil. In all cases, we recognize something of theirs in us. It is what makes the author one of the more outstanding writers of our time and a perennial short-lister for the Nobel Prize for Literature. This little collection of six short stories is a good way to experience her talents. While she does not grab you with the shock and awe of more current horror writers, you will find the type of terror that catches up with you long after you have incorporated her strange but irresistible cast of characters into your psyche.

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