“Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque”

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[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

A collection of short stories by Joyce Carol Oates, published in 1994. The original publications of the stories range from 1980 to 1993. I read a library copy. (Thanks, library!)

2.5 out of 5 stars. (Rating a short story collection is tricky. I would rate four of Haunted‘s stories at 3 stars or above, and the other eight stories below 3. Because I weigh entertainment above quality of writing, I went with an overall slightly-below-average rating.)

I’ve read very little of Oates’s work. Embarrassingly little, considering how prolific her career has been. What I have encountered shows an ability to pull off almost every genre and a extremely strong, confident quality of writing.

The best story in Haunted is “The Premonition,” where an incredible amount of tension is built with subtlety and allusion. The reader comes away knowing exactly what has happened, even though the main character has no idea. A neat trick in a short story.

Many of the stories lack some essential thing to make them satisfying or engaging to the imagination. Unclear plots and vague, anticlimactic endings are littered throughout. If one of these stories doesn’t grab your interest within the first couple of pages, you can safely move on. The stories that start well end well; the slow ones never gain speed. The only exception to this (in an unfortunate way) is “The White Cat” which builds fantastically and then fizzles at the end.

I’ve split up my notes by story:

HAUNTED

[1]

It was a habit of childhood, pretending I was young, more childish than in fact I was. Opening my eyes wide and looking puzzled, worried. Girls are prone to such trickery, it’s a form of camouflage, when every other thought you think is a forbidden thought.

(p.3)

[2] In the first several pages, Oates reveals that one of the characters will die. Giving clues of darkness early on is a useful device in a short story. It allows the author to take a little more time getting to the climax. The reader has been given tension and conflict to find clues for (in this case, how will this girl die?), which keeps them involved.

But Mary Lou was pretty, even rough and clumsy as she sometimes behaved. That long silky blond hair everybody remembered her for afterward, years afterward…. How, when she had to be identified, it was the long silky white blond hair that was unmistakable….

(p.6)

[3] This story contained the best examples of Oates’s strong, precise (and unique) style:

One of us found a dead bird, a starling, in what had been the parlor of the house. Turned it over with a foot – there’s the open eye looking right up calm and matter-of-fact. Melissa, that eye tells me, silent and terrible, I see you.

(p.11)

[4] And, the same as [3]:

The inside smelled of mouse droppings, mildew, rot, old sorrow. Strips of wallpaper torn from the walls, plasterboard exposed, old furniture overturned and smashed, old yellowed sheets of newspaper underfoot, and broken glass, everywhere broken glass. Through the ravaged windows sunlight spilled in tremulous quivering bands. The air was afloat, alive: dancing dust-atoms.

(p.13)

 

THE PREMONITION

[5] I already told you that this was my favorite story in the collection, but it also contained the clumsiest bit of writing in the entire book. This is very hard to hold in your mind, tone-wise, as you read:

Whitney never drove his Volvo up the curving gravel drive, parked it in front of the three-car garage, approached the front door to ring the doorbell without feeling that he was trespassing, and he’d be made to pay, even when invited.

(p.174)

A way to fix this would be to simply say: Whitney never drove his Volvo up the curving gravel drive without feeling that he was trespassing, even when invited.

 

ACCURSED INHABITANTS OF THE HOUSE OF BLY

[5] Vocabulary:

In a fury of self-disgust and abnegation, she’d dared to take her own life.

(p.256)

noun – the act of renouncing or rejecting something; self-denial.

 

MARTYRDOM

[6] Vocabulary:

Running the risk, as she sensed, of infection, sterility, and a recrudescence of her old female maladies.

(p.302)

noun – breaking out afresh or into renewed activity; revival or reappearance in active existence.


 

I wouldn’t recommend Haunted, but I’m still interested in reading more by Oates. If anyone has favorite short stories/novels by her, I would love to get some recommendations.

Next week: Daphne du Maurier’s excellent five-story collection: Don’t Look Now.

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