Tue
Jun 6 2017 11:00am

Review: DIS MEM BER by Joyce Carol Oates

DIS MEM BER: and Other Stories of Mystery and Suspense by Joyce Carol Oates is a meticulously crafted, deeply disquieting collection of seven short stories centered on girls and women confronting the danger around them and the danger hidden inside their turbulent selves.

To say that Joyce Carol Oates is prolific would be an understatement. In addition to novels, literary criticism, memoirs, and poetry, she has delved into the macabre for a myriad of short stories—many of which have been collected throughout the years. These compendiums include: The Doll-Master and Other Tales of Terror, Jack of Spades, and The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares, which won the 2011 Bram Stoker Award for Short Horror Fiction. Her newest, DIS MEM BER: and Other Stories of Mystery and Suspense gathers together seven works published between 2015 and 2017.

The collection opens with the titillating title story, which is narrated by Jill—an 11-year-old girl who develops a habit of sneaking off with Rowan Billiet in his sky-blue Chevy. Rowan is an ambiguous relation who has inclinations that Jill-y doesn’t quite understand but leave her feeling strangely exhilarated. Their joyriding comes to an unceremonious end on the night that Jill fails to coax two schoolgirls into the car and is dumped on the side of the road during a rainstorm. Though she’ll never see him again, Rowan’s name soon becomes synonymous with unspeakable crimes.

“The Crawl Space”—winner of the Bram Stoker Award from the Horror Writers Association for Superior Achievement in Short Fiction and a finalist for the Edgar Award for Best Short Story—follows. In it, a seven-year widow can’t resist driving past the home she shared with her husband for 20 years. Drawn by some inexplicable force, she does so habitually, never stopping until the fateful day when she decides to take the current owners up on their (long outdated) offer to drop in for a visit. Once inside, she’s met with the news that the couple’s repairman has discovered a few boxes that her husband left behind. All she has to do is enter the crawl space to retrieve them…

The third story, “Heartbreak,” is one of sibling rivalry and unrequited affections. When 13-year-old Stephanie (“Steff”) meets her new step-cousin, Hunter (“Hunt”), she feels a brief flicker of … something (and she suspects that he feels it too). But then her older sister, Caitlin, wins his attention by virtue of her flirty nature, short shorts, and stomach-bearing tank tops. The two soon become co-conspirators, sharing secret jokes and running off to shoot Hunt’s rifle in the woods. But Stephanie knows where her stepfather keeps his .45-caliber automatic, and she, too, is going to leave her mark.

In “The Drowned Girl,” university transfer student Alida Lucash becomes obsessed with fellow scholar/stranger Miri Krim, who died mysteriously in a 1,500-gallon water tank on the roof of her apartment building. While the coroner rules her death suicide or accidental drowning, Alida is convinced that she was murdered. An ever-growing sense of mistrust leads her to believe that her few intimates—including her academic advisor and landlord—all know more than they’re saying but are determined to erase any memory of Miri Krim’s existence. As the narrator’s isolation grows, so too does her affinity with the dead girl, culminating in an ending that’s chillingly poetic.

Next up is the book’s leanest entry, “The Situations.” At just 10 pages, it’s a subtle shocker in which a few young girls come to realize that daddy knows best.

“The Great Blue Heron” also features a widow struggling to find purpose and peace of mind. Overwhelmed by the onslaught of social obligations in the wake of her husband’s death—and by her brother-in-law’s constant (unwanted) attention—Claudia takes some semblance of solace in the nature that surrounds her lake house. Over time, she finds herself both riveted and repulsed by the great blue heron, which exudes grace even as it indulges its carnivorous nature. Increasingly untethered by grief and grievances, Claudia discovers her own hunter’s heart. Might the predator become the prey?

Finally, “Welcome to Friendly Skies!” is a surprisingly satirical take on airline protocol that will strike a chord with anybody who’s ever traveled by plane and paid even the slightest bit of attention to the pre-flight safety instructions. In addition to being absurdly entertaining, it’s also timely.

Despite a title that suggests otherwise, these stories form a collective whole that’s largely cohesive. With the exception of the closer, each features a female lead who, despite differences in age and circumstance, experiences some physical or emotional trauma (or both) that leaves them vulnerable. The underlying sense of paranoia and desperation is palpable—and often justified—and it drives the (occasionally overt) acts of violence that result. Entirely unsettling and undeniably thought-provoking, this is Joyce Carol Oates at her genre-bending best.

 

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John Valeri wrote the popular Hartford Books Examiner column for Examiner.com from 2009 – 2016. He can be found online at www.johnbvaleri.com and is featured in the Halloween-themed anthology Tricks and Treats, now available from Books & Boos Press.

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