Title: The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Corn_Maiden_and_Other_Nightmares)
Author: Joyce Carol Oates (http://www.usfca.edu/jco/)
Publisher: The Mysterious Press (http://www.groveatlantic.com/#page=infomysterious)
Genre: Short Fiction
I bought this book on impulse from Amazon (www.amazon.co.uk) because Oates is one of my favourite writers. I tend to buy every collection of short stories she releases.
BLURB FROM THE BACK COVER
Step into the vivid imagination of Joyce Carol Oates for seven tales of suspense that will keep you riveted to the page. In ‘The Corn Maiden’ you’ll meet sweet and naïve Marissa Bantry, an eleven-tear-old with hair the colour of corn silk, who vanishes from her mother’s house one dark evening. As her mother, Leah and the police frantically scour the town for her whereabouts, little do they know that Marissa has come under the influence of her fellow student Judah, a troubled young girl who relishes the opportunity to physically and emotionally hold Marissa captive. Judah teaches Marissa the story of ‘The Corn Maiden’, an urban legend in which a young girl is sacrificed to ensure a good crop. As all leads begin to hit dead ends, Marissa’s life hangs in the balance as Judah prepares to re-enact the horrifying legend with the unsuspecting young girl as the sacrificial maiden.
In additional to the terrifying title story, Oates offers six other tales of the night including the never-before-published ‘Helping Hands’ in which a why woman meets a man whose friendship and illicit desires may break down her defences, until she realises there are some doors that should never be opened.
Joyce Carol Oates is one of the greatest writers of our time, and once you begin these suspenseful tales you’ll be at the mercy of an extremely gifted storyteller who refuses to let you go until the last page is turned.
This collection only contains seven stories. The Corn Maiden is over 130 pages and I’d consider this to be a novella. The stories deal with familiar themes. They include the disturbing behaviour of a teenage psychopath, revenge, murder and jealousy that becomes an obsession. These themes have been tackled over and over again in fiction. Oates has tackled them herself most notably in her collections Heat & Other Stories, Give Me Your Heart: Tales of Mystery and Suspense and The Museum of Dr Moses: Tales of Mystery and Suspense.
The stories are well written. I can’t fault Oates for that.
The best story in the collection by far is The Corn Maiden. I did some research on-line and can’t find any indication the ‘legend’ referred to in the story is real. However, there are legends of human sacrifice being used in a similar way (http://www.bartleby.com/196/103.html). The story made me think of the movie The Wicker Man (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wicker_Man_(1973_film) which was based on the novel Ritual by David Pinner (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ritual_(1967_novel) and the movie The Reaping http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Reaping).
Unfortunately, the other stories in the collection fail to live up to the high expectations created by The Corn Maiden. They weren’t particularly original or riveting. They descended into a re-hash of stereotype suspense stories.
The worst story in my opinion was Nobody Knows My Name. The sibling rivalry aspect was interesting. The main character, Jessica hates her baby sister because her parents focus all their love and attention on her. This is not an original concept but Oates could have done something fresh with it. Instead the story becomes ridiculous when the mangy cat Jessica befriends smothers the baby to death. Oh really!
I quite liked A Hole In The Head. The main character is a cosmetic surgeon. He’s struggling to make ends meet because a number of patients have buggered off without paying their bills. He agrees to perform trephination (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trepanning) secretly on a patient for a lot of money. This procedure involves drilling holes in someone’s skull and was used years ago to ‘cure’ people who were thought to be possessed. It’s a medieval procedure no longer used. The woman is experiencing religious conflict and thinks trepanning will cure her. The procedure goes wrong and the woman dies. The rest of the story involves him trying to dispose of the body.
The rest of the stories did nothing for me. They are well below the standard I have come to expect of Joyce Carol Oates. This is the third collection I’ve found lacklustre over the past couple of years. The other two were Sourland and Give Me Your Heart: Tales of Mystery and Suspense.
THE OPENING LINE:
YOU ASSHOLES! Whywhy you’re asking here’s why her hair… (The Corn Maiden)
The Corn Maiden and A Hole in the Head were the strongest stories in the collection. I think The Corn Maiden could be expanded into a novel. I wanted to know more about Judah’s motivations. A Hole in the Head was quite original.
The rest of the stories in the collection, especially Nobody Knows My Name were lacklustre. Oates has written much better stuff. I was disappointed with the collection over-all.
I was very disappointed with this collection of stories. I came to Oate’s work through her short stories. I bought her collection High Lonesome: Stories 1996-2006 (http://www.amazon.co.uk/High-Lonesome-Selected-Stories-1966-2006/dp/0060501200/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1342867300&sr=8-2) on holiday in Paris in 2010 from an English Bookshop called Galignani (http://www.galignani.com/). High Lonesome contains some of the best stories I’ve ever read. Her collections over the past couple of years have gone down-hill. I used to go out of my way to by her collections. I don’t know if I’ll bother in future. Now she’s in her 80’s she seems to have lost some of her talent.