Oates deftly sows 'Haunted' tales

March 06, 1994|By Nancy Pate | Nancy Pate,Orlando Sentinel

Good writers know that what they leave out of a story is often as important as what they put in. Some things are best left to the reader's imagination, especially if you're writing horror or psychological suspense. As Henry James once noted, "Make the reader think the evil, make him think it for himself."

Joyce Carol Oates does just that in the 16 neo-Gothic tales collected in "Haunted." It's the ambiguity shading the macabre that makes the best of these stories so fascinating and, yes, so horrifying.

In "The Doll," an accomplished, confident, middle-aged woman is at an academic conference in a Pennsylvania town she has never before visited. She is surprised, excited and strangely disturbed to see a large Victorian house that appears to be the exact replica of the antique doll house she owned as a child.

Mulling over the odd coincidence through the rest of the day, she suddenly decides to visit the house that evening. A man with thinning red hair answers the door and invites her in; a dog barks from another room.

What happens over the next few pages is shocking, and all the more so because the reader is left to ponder the identity of the red-haired man, and also to wonder if the woman dreamed the entire incident, which she believes she has. "Day is the only reality. She'd always known."

"The Premonition" is another masterful story along these same lines. Whitney visits his brother Quinn's family near the Christmas holidays because he has an uneasy feeling that Quinn's bad temper and drinking might have at last got the better of him; he might even have injured his wife and daughters.

But Quinn turns out to be away from home on a business trip. His wife and daughters welcome Whitney with coffee and giggles. They're all wrapping Christmas presents in the kitchen, which gleams with cleanliness but smells strangely.

"Everywhere on the counters and the butcher block table were sheets and strips of wrapping paper, ribbon remnants, Scotch tape rolls, razor blades, scissors, even gardening shears."

Although these stories have been labeled as "tales of the grotesque," most are not that far removed thematically or stylistically from other works by the versatile, prolific Ms. Oates.

Her credits include Gothics such as "Bellefleur," psychologically realistic novels such as "American Appetites" and thrillers such as "Lives of the Twins" (written under the pseudonym Rosamund Smith). Violence, particularly regarding women and American society, is a connecting thread in the more recent novels, "Black Water" and "Foxfire," as well in her 1991 collection "Heat and Other Stories."

Several stories in that volume would fit comfortably in "Haunted" and vice versa. The two title stories are both concerned with the murder of young girls, who are remembered by narrators who were their contemporaries.

The murder in "Haunted" is more mysterious, and the narrator, because of her own experiences in the abandoned Minton farm house, has a pretty good idea that the main suspect in the case is not the killer. Both stories do share a strong sense of atmosphere, and, as in "Foxfire," hinge on the nature of the friendship between adolescent girls.

Ms. Oates also has been known to rework other writers' material to her own ends. It's Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw" that she reimagines in this volume's "Accursed Inhabitants of The House of Bly," taking the viewpoint of the original story's two ghosts, Miss Jessel and Peter Quint.

The resulting tale is a worthy prequel/companion piece to James', perhaps even more disturbing in its exploration of evil, desire and madness. It incorporates Oates' trademark narrative authority and her sly humor. Miss Jessel, "in the oblivious days before Peter Quint," gives herself over to daydreams of little Flora and Master. "Like every other young governess in England, Miss Jessel had avidly read her Jane Eyre."

There's nothing the least bit funny, though, about a number of other stories in "Haunted," unless you count the unwitting comical excess of "Martyrdom," a parallel tale of a young rat and a beautiful child. Ms. Oates usually doesn't go so far over the top. On the contrary, she maintains such firm control that she forces her stories -- and readers -- ever forward.

Ms. Oates concludes "Haunted" with an illuminating essay on the nature of the grotesque in fiction. At one point, she notes that the grotesque might be defined "as the very antithesis of 'nice.' " So true. The stories in "Haunted" are not nice at all. But they are memorable.

Title: "Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque"

Author: Joyce Carol Oates

Publisher: Dutton

Length, price: 307 pages, $21.95

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