Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque is an impeccable collection of stories, illustrating yet again why Joyce Carol Oates is one of this country's most underrated yet illustrious authors working today; her capacity to put herself into her characters is mind boggling and thus makes them shine forth beyond the human fictional dimension. They are reality. Her characters are well rounded and fully explored and developed; no nuance is ignored, from physical characteristics down to interior monologue in which faith, logic, reason and superstition are all cogently mixed together, and in turn, a blurred, confusing and disturbing reality emerges. What was once normal is the exact opposite. And what was illogical, which then suddenly becomes normal, becomes hard to grasp and accept. Each tale is like a funhouse mirror from a carnival's hall of mirrors where reality is perceived in a new way, and the viewer/reader does not like what they see or read. The foundation of forged truth (as we see and create it) is yanked away, and the characters must confront and grapple with the dark truth that was always ever present in the undercurrent of that human created forged reality. Joyce Carol Oates stripes away all pretenses by using the various forms and interpretations of what gothic and grotesque is, and they are wild and varied.
While there are many stories in which to choose from-sixteen in total-the one I found to be disturbing among the lot was titled "Phase Change", about a wife with very dark nightmares that continually plague her; she is a woman possessed by horrid visions of isolation, attack, rape and the aftermath. But what is even more disturbing is the undercurrent of what those nightmares mean, for they stem from something closer to home and of what is lacking in the depth of herself. Another good story was "The White Cat", a story in the same tradition of Poe's "The black Cat" but with differences. It's always been said that they have nine lives. With JCO, that is not meant symbolically but literally, and an irked owner-a Mr. Muir-tries numerous times to eliminate Miranda (the cat). But his efforts are pointless, and in the end, he gets defeated and the two resume a relationship of amicability. WIth the tale "Poor Bibi", all is not as it appears to be. A loving couple contemplate putting their pet (assumed to be a cat) to sleep, for poor Bibi is of ill health; they fondly remember their joys with the animal. But with death around the corner, they take their beloved pet to the Family Pet Veterinary Hospital, open 24/7. However, when the staff sees the creature, they see it as something repellant, not a cutsy furry member of the family. The staff's inaction causes the owners to do what nobody else is willing to do. And up till the end they are in denial. What is perceived versus what is true underlies the majority of these stories.
The tales all run in a similar vein, but they are truly horrific and traumatic, showcasing the deviancy, wickedness, licentiousness and vanity in all of us. People do not what it to be so, but it is inherent and unchangeable, irrelevant of the puritanical, religious and intellectual tools that people use as weapons to keep those dark impulses at a safe distance. In these stories, do not not expect your garden variety ghouls and monsters, for the evil is closer to home; it is in ourselves. And that makes each tale not too easy to digest. The writing is strong in its conveyance of atmosphere, mood, plot and character. A worthy homage to Poe, the master of them all.
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Christian Engler (mfbiwap123)
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The central haunting of this collection of 16 tales is not anything so concrete as a building haunted by a ghost, but rather the interior haunting of a human being by their ever-shifting sense of self. As Joyce Carol Oates puts it (in a fascinating afterword on the nature and history of the grotesque), "The subjectivity that is the essence of the human is also the mystery that divides us irrevocably from others . . . allothersare, in the deepest sense,strangers." These stories, while all dark, cover a range of styles and subjects. Some are vividly violent; several are subtle and/or ironic.The New York Timespraised this collection for "pull[ing] off what this author does best: exploring the tricky juncture between tattered social fabric and shaky psyche, while serving up some choice macabre moments."