Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Book Review: The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares by Joyce Carol Oates

Title: The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares
Author: Joyce Carol Oates
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic Inc
Release Date: 0802126022
ISBN: 0802126022

I'll admit outright that I'm not overly a fan of Oates' writing style, but dangit... she knows how to write. Even as I asked myself why I'm reading the stories since I wasn't really digging them, I couldn't help but admire how well she managed to keep me turning the pages despite that.

"The Corn Maiden" is the gut-wrenching story of Marissa, a beautiful and sweet, but somewhat slow, eleven-year-old girl with hair the color of corn silk. Her single mother comes home one night to find her missing and panics, frantically knocking on the doors of her neighbors. She finally calls the police, who want to know why she left her young daughter alone until 8:00 o’clock.

Suspicion falls on a computer teacher at her school with no alibi for the time of the abduction. Obvious clues—perhaps too obvious—point directly to him. Unsuspected is Judah (born Judith), an older girl from the same school who has told two friends in her thrall of the Indian legend of the Corn Maiden, a girl sacrificed to ensure a good crop.

The trusting Marissa happily went to a secluded basement with the older girls, pleased to be included, and is convinced that the world has ended and that they are the last survivors. Remaining an unaware hostage for days, she grows weaker on a sparse diet as Judah prepares her for sacrifice.

The seemingly inevitable fate of Marissa becomes ever more terrifying as Judah relishes her power, leading to unbearable tension with a shocking conclusion.

“Helping Hands,” published here for the first time, begins with an apparently optimistic line: “He came into her life when it had seemed to her that her life was finished.”

A lonely woman meets a man in the unlikely clutter of a dingy charity shop and extends friendliness, which soon turns to quiet and unacknowledged desire. With the mind-set of a victim, struggling to overcome her shyness and fears, she has no idea what kinds of doors she may be opening.

The powerful stories in this extraordinary collection further enhance Joyce Carol Oates’s standing as one of the world’s greatest writers of suspense.

First off, I just have to repeat the statement that Joyce Carol Oates knows how to keep someone reading. I really didn't like the writing style that the first story was written in but I just had to keep reading purely because I had to, no needed to know how it all ended. The titular story (Corn Maiden) is just one of many stories in this book, all of which delivered that same "gotta know how it ends" tension and suspense.

Out of all of the stories, I have to say that Helping Hands grabbed me the most. Some of the stories, such as Beersheba, piqued my curiousity and kept me thinking, but it was Helping Hands that really made me keep reading. All of the stories here deal with a very human and realistic evil, but HH was the far more realistic of all of them, which I liked. The "evil" in this story was all the more heartbreaking for the situations all of the characters were in.

While I do have to give JCO props for drawing me in, some of the stories seemed a little too much at times. Either they were drawn out a little longer than they should have been or they just didn't grab me like their counterparts did. I know that there are some here that I'll want to re-read but there's just as many that I don't really care to pick up again.

This was a good Halloween read and one that JCO's fans will want to grab as soon as the books hit the shelves, but for the rest of us I recommend it as a library read. This is one of the books I would recommend reading regardless of your personal tastes, but it might be a good idea to check it out at the library instead. In the end it's JCO's ability to keep me reading that makes me give it as many stars as I have.

4 out of 5 stars

(ARC provided by Netgalley)

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