Evil Eye by Joyce Carol Oates

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An acclaimed novelist, short story writer, poet, essayist, and literary critic, Joyce Carol Oates was once dubbed ‘the dark lady of American letters’. In her 50-year career, she’s often been drawn to violent characters and harrowing subjects. Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?, a frequently anthologised short story from 1966, was loosely based on a serial killer known as the Pied Piper of Tucson. Daddy Love, her 2013 novel, was a disturbing account of a paedophile.

Although she’s a highly prolific author of literary fiction, Oates has still found time to write mystery novels under the pen names Rosamond Smith and Lauren Kelly. Evil Eye, which appears under her own name, is a collection of four chilling novellas. In the US, it’s published by Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Press, so this is certainly CFL territory. It’s crime fiction with a keen psychological insight into deviant, obsessive men and damaged, intelligent women who are never portrayed as mere victims.

The Execution is an extraordinary story of the relationship between a mother and son. Bart is a privileged but delinquent student, a frat boy who’s high on Ritalin and only tolerated in his fraternity house because of his financial contribution. In spare, highly charged prose, we learn about Bart’s hatred for his father and his disappointment in his mother for failing to take his side in disciplinary issues. He’s a spoiled brat yet still resorted to cheque forgery to pay for the SUV he drives around like a tank. Bart might be a sociopath, but he’s not very smart.

The Execution concludes with an uneasy calm following Oates’s unflinching description of a violent home invasion. It’s a story of murderous intent and motherly love that, in Oates’s hands, has literary heft.

So Near Any Time Always, originally published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, is a tale of first love gone wrong. Lizbeth, 16, is in the library when she meets a charming, older boy. She’s gauche and bookish, young for her age, and Desmond Parrish bowls her over. Yet he’s mysterious about his family, oddly restrained in his physical affection and unpredictable. Lizbeth’s mother is impressed by this teenager who behaves like a grown-up. But Lizbeth’s older sister teases her that he’s gay.

There’s a point in So Near Any Time Always where Oates takes this subtle, creepy narrative into a moment of sheer terror. And that title is one you won’t forget: it’s borrowed from a written warning Lizbeth receives from her charming stalker.

The Flatbed is a masterful character study that slowly reveals a hidden history of sexual abuse. Ceille is a successful arts administrator who, at the age of 29, is unable to have a physical relationship. She meets an older colleague who gradually forces the painful childhood experience to the surface. She has an unfocused desire for revenge; he has a temper that needs an outlet. When they arrange a meeting with her childhood molester, it’s clear this relationship might be toxic.

The title story is also about a relationship with an age gap. Mariana is the fourth wife of Austin, a distinguished man who she routinely defers to. One day he announces that his first wife, Ines, is visiting from southern Spain. In his sprawling house, there’s an object Ines left behind in the 80s: a nazar – a talisman to ward off the evil eye. When Ines arrives, she turns out to be a striking older woman with a facial deformity that catches Mariana unawares. Ines soon provides a chilling insight into the man Mariana has married.

In these four compelling tales, Oates enters disturbed minds and exposes the horror that lurks within. She’s also good at depicting gilded lives that have gone wrong, while the victims in her stories are interesting, resourceful characters you care about. With her penchant for grim subject matter, Joyce Carol Oates is a writer you read with a sense of awe and apprehension.

Head of Zeus

CFL Rating: 5 Stars

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