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DIS MEM BER and Other Stories of Mystery and Suspense

Review

DIS MEM BER and Other Stories of Mystery and Suspense

Each of the seven narratives in master storyteller Joyce Carol Oates’ collection, DIS MEM BERAND OTHER STORIES OF MYSTERY AND SUSPENSE, takes readers on a disquieting trip through dark and paranoid minds. As the title indicates, these are stories of mystery and suspense, and the psychological horror within does not disappoint.

I have been a fan of Oates’ work since high school, when I was assigned “WHERE ARE YOU GOING, WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?” for a creative writing class. Her cerebral approach to fear and death makes her writing intoxicating to read; stylistically, it bears many a similarity to her predecessors, Edgar Allan Poe and Flannery O’Connor. Yet Oates retains a decidedly modern fixation on the horror in the everyday --- the moment when you realize that you have taken a wrong turn on your daily walk through the woods and now find yourself in an unfamiliar landscape, and if you get very quiet you can almost be sure that it was another pair of footsteps you heard crunching through the leaves behind you."

"Oates is adept at savagely skewering her characters in one moment only to dash your heart to pieces over them in the next."

Dread is the essence of this collection, and it finds the most success in its first four stories: “DIS MEM BER,” “The Crawl Space,” “Heartbreak” and “The Drowned Girl.” In each of these tales, a female protagonist recounts a past trauma through the deft interplay of memories, streams of consciousness and action. Throughout the course of each story, these alternating details become so entangled that readers realize they are dealing with unreliable narrators. These women cannot reach any logical truth and appear to live in isolated timelines detached from their own stories. A small part of them does occasionally seem to recognize that the trauma they have endured --- molestation, the death of a spouse, gun violence, a mental breakdown --- has warped their minds to the point that they are unable to reflect reality as it really is, at least for the other characters in their stories.

Of the first four short stories, the titular “DIS MEM BER” and “Heartbreak” were my favorites. Oates puts her skills at prose and character exposition on full display here, and it shows. In “DIS MEM BER,” she stitches together a murder mystery and coming-of-age tale, providing readers with tantalizing details that thankfully never concentrate into a too-neat conclusion. “Heartbreak” is another bildungsroman with a similarly juvenile, naive narrator. The main character’s angst about her older sister’s desirability is both bitter and amusing. Oates is adept at savagely skewering her characters in one moment only to dash your heart to pieces over them in the next. If there is a lesson in either of these stories, it would be that some horrors have no ending. They simply endure.

Sadly, this collection is much weakened by its latter half. The final three stories --- “The Situations,” “Great Blue Heron” and “Welcome to the Friendly Skies!” --- simply cannot hold a candle to Oates’ other work, both in plot and style. Upon finishing, I wondered why she included them at all, especially since “The Situations” and “Welcome to the Friendly Skies!” read more like writing exercises than fully formed short stories.

However, do not let these lukewarm narratives dissuade you from picking up this book. The first four stories are more than strong enough to make up for the weak ones, and they are sure to satisfy any summer cravings you may have for grown-up “ghost stories.” The ghosts of the past, that is.

Reviewed by Alex Bowditch on June 21, 2017

DIS MEM BER and Other Stories of Mystery and Suspense
by Joyce Carol Oates