Pub. Date: June 15, 2018
Publisher: Grove Atlantic
Genre: Psychological Thriller
Joyce Carol Oates is a literary powerhouse. A recurring theme in her work is the abuse of women: “Do With Me What You Will,” 1973, “We Were the Mulvaneys,” 2002, “The Gravedigger’s Daughter,” 2007, “Blonde: A Novel, 2009,” “The Sacrifice”, 2016. I have read them all. Oates is a favorite author of mine. I admit that when I read her memoir, “A Widow’s Story,” 2001, I was surprised to see how very ordinary her marriage was (her husband, Raymond Smith, is deceased). Like most wives, she used to share many moments of her daily life with her husband. For Oates, this was about her 36 years as a professor in Princeton’s University creative writing program, where she was nicknamed dark lady of fiction. “Widow” is filled with the pros and cons of a typical long-term (almost 50 year) marriage. How lost, angry and disoriented she felt after the death of her husband. I assumed incorrectly that her grief would be atypical and written with a screaming evil rage as if it were one of her novels. But it was simply Oates, writing as any other woman would to describe their feelings after the loss of a spouse. I chose to begin my review of Oates’ “Night-Gaunts and Other Tales of Suspense” with the above summary because all in the collection are, as the title suggests, dark. In this book, there are six previously published stories. All characters are written with a piercing, uncomfortable clarity that will terrify the reader more than once.
“The Woman in the Window” was inspired by Edward Hopper’s painting titled “Eleven A.M., 1926.” Oates’ imagination turns a lovely and demure painting of female sexuality into a tale of suspense. We meet a naked woman, sitting in a window of her home, waiting for her married lover, where the time is always 11AM because that is when he will arrive. But he is always late. She is never naked for he feels that naked is a coarse word. She is always nude. She wears only a pair of high-heeled shoes. After years of this arrangement, both of them begin to despise each other for different reasons. Their two points of views are woven into a story-line that revolves around sex and violence. (The rest of this review is a potential spoiler.) This taut story had me biting my fingernails, wondering who would kill and who would be killed. But then, I began to question if Oates is playing with her readers. How could anything happen when it is always 11AM? She is still sitting in the window. He hasn’t even arrived yet. Damn the author is good. You will have to read the story yourself to make your own conclusions.
“The Long Legged Girl” Oates writes about a middle-aged housewife of a college professor. They live in a house on or near campus in a college town that reads like a map of Princeton University. She is an understandably jealous wife since “her husband might be distracted by a girl—or two, or three—but after graduation the girls disappeared.” And frankly, in her younger years, she was so busy with the children and her own career as a food writer that she was glad to have her husband out of her hair for awhile. But now that she has time on her hands, and age has seriously tainted her self-image, well what woman could fault her jealousy. She now believes a certain long-legged girl is her husband’s latest interest. And this one is especially pretty. “A girl with long straight silver-blonde hair that fell past her shoulders, a perfect patrician profile, gray-green eyes…skintight jeans curved down at her impossibly narrow hips.”
For these reasons, she doesn’t feel that any seasoned married woman would point a finger at her for inviting the girl over for afternoon tea. A special kind of tea. A deadly kind of tea that will turn the delicate Wedgewood teacups into a game of Russian roulette. The reader is aware of her intentions early on. I imagine that in the hands of a lesser author that the story might lose its punch. How many pages do you want to read speculating which one will drink the poison? But this story’s suspense is not about who lives and who dies. It is about how the author manipulates the reader to lose themselves inside of the wife’s insanity. She appears to have lived a normal life. When did her mind snap? Or, was she always unstable? It is nerve wrecking to read this one alone, at night, when your own brain is tired and vulnerable to confused thoughts. You may end up questioning your own mental health.
For me, out of all in this collection, “The Experimental Subject” is the most unsettling. First, there is abuse against chimpanzees, which is disturbing. Then there is the mental and physical abuse against the main female character, which is heartbreaking. The reader will meet a male professor and his male senior technician in a government-funded primate laboratory. The heroine is an unattractive, friendless college girl with a family who wants no part of her. It is not a spoiler when I mention that there is something unethical in this experiment, something unholy. The first paragraph begins with “She was a solid-bodied female of perhaps twenty years of age with a plain face, an unusually low, simian brow, small squinting eyes…full bosom of an older woman, thick muscled thighs and legs, thick ankles…and a center of gravity in the pelvic region.” In the next paragraph, we meet this lonely girl as she enters the professor’s lecture hall. The technician sights her and is certain that she is a good candidate for the experiment. He befriends her and she begins to shine for the first time in her life. She falls in love with the technician and believes that he also loves her. But then the experiment begins and she is unaware that her life is now in danger. If I go on anymore it will become a spoiler. Be prepared, this is a truly unique and bone chilling tale.
Not all of the stories were as thought provoking as the ones I chose to review. I didn’t find the title story, “Night-Gaunts,” as a stellar read. The haunted house setting just lost me. Still, there is no denying Oates’ enormous talent. She manages to turn a collection of thriller stories into a piece of literary fiction. Oates has been criticized for writing female characters with masochistic traits. It has been noted that there is a lack of strong, independent female role models in her fiction. In 1981, Oates wrote an essay titled “Why is Your Writing so Violent?” In it, she comments that she finds that question always insulting, always ignorant, and always sexist. Oates feels that “rape and murder fall within the exclusive province of the male writer, just as, generally, they fall within the exclusive province of male action.” She points out that, “in fact, my writing isn’t usually explicitly violent, but deals, most of the time, with the phenomenon of violence and its aftermath.” I believe the tales in “Night Gaunts” prove her point. To understand why that question is so insulting to the world famous writer, I suggest that you remember her words while you read this collection. She gets inside her characters’ psyches, and the reader learns of their hidden interiors. If you are brave enough to look, you may also find what you keep hidden about yourself. Oates will make you squirm. She forces you to look at your own sexual desires, your own feelings of loneliness, and your own death. These are the musings that will scare you more than any straight psychological thriller.
I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.
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