Joyce Carol Oates has a way of writing horrific stories that aren’t quite “horror” in the traditional sense of the genre. Dark, violent and emotional, her short stories explore human desperation and depravity without supernatural forces. Her latest, THE CORN MAIDEN AND OTHER NIGHTMARES, is just as creepy, provocative and finely crafted as her earlier collections.
"The drama in this collection is often unresolved, but the stories never feel unfinished. Oates’s voice is strong and unique; the words come at the reader in a rushed and breathy fashion but remain elegant and well-chosen."
In these seven stories, Oates examines the fragility of the human mind as well as the human propensity for destruction. The title story, and by far the longest, “The Corn Maiden” tells the tale of the kidnapping of 11-year-old Marissa Bantry by three 13-year-old schoolmates. The beautiful but sensitive and awkward Marissa draws the attention of Judah Trahern, a disturbed and neglected girl from a prominent family. The self-styled “Master of Eyes,” Jude orchestrates Marissa’s kidnapping and designates her the Corn Maiden. The Corn Maiden is meant as a crop-ensuring sacrifice, but for Jude, the enterprise is tangled in her jealousy, attraction and hatred toward Marissa and her mother, Leah.
In the days Jude and her accomplices keep Marissa drugged and naked in her basement, Leah is frantic with worry and guilt. As a single working mother, she fears the accusations she’ll face in contacting the authorities. Her inner dialogue is frantic and riveting, and perfectly parallels that of Mikal Zallman, the teacher questioned in the wake of Marissa’s disappearance. In fact, though the plot moves actively forward, the genius of this short story is the inner dialogue of main characters Jude, Leah and Mikal, as well as the two friends who help Jude. Marissa is observed and reacted to, a placeholder for the emotions of the others. Oates resolves this tense story in an unexpected and shocking way.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on November 10, 2011