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Many years ago, I stumbled across a Joyce Carol Oates story in a horror anthology. What I most remember about the story was how vividly the feelings the characters experienced were portrayed. Whilst the story itself was not exactly a horror story in the mould of Stephen King and James Herbert, it was very well presented. With this experience, I had high hopes of ''The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares'' a brand new collection of short stories from Joyce Carol Oates.
In this collection, the overall theme and feeling is one of loss. In ''The Corn Maiden'', single mother Leah Bantry has to deal with the loss of her eleven year old daughter Marissa, who is suddenly not there one day when she gets home from work and then the loss of her privacy when she reports the loss to the Police. In ''Beersheba'', Brad has a reunion with a long-lost step-daughter which doesn't go quite the way he had hoped. ''Nobody Knows My Name'' is about the loss of identity felt by a single child where there is a new sibling in the house.
Both ''Death Cup'' and ''Fossil Figures'' cover the relationships felt between twin brothers and their effect on each other's lives, whether together or apart. ''Helping Hands'' is the story of a recently widowed woman struggling to cope with the loss of her husband, whilst the book closes with ''A Hole in the Head'', where a plastic surgeon at risk of losing it all tries something he maybe should have left well alone.
There is nothing traditionally horrific here; there are no vampires and monsters creeping out of the woodwork and every turn. But what makes Oates' writing so nightmarish is the way she takes the ordinary and twists it ever so slightly. You may never be frightened outright by any of the stories in this collection, but you will frequently find yourself feeling disturbed and unsettled. Ultimately, there are monsters here, but they are the kind of monster you may see on the bus, or when you look into the mirror to shave or put on your make up.
What drags you in is that Oates writes with such feeling. The torment of both Bantry women in the title story; one captured by people, one by indecision and uncertainty, is palpable. This may be a story that you see on the news, but Oates tells the part that you only get a glimpse of in the press conferences, about how it really feels to be involved. The actions of the widowed Mrs. Haidt in ''Helping Hands'' seem entirely normal and her fear at how it turns out is more real as a result, leaving the reader cowering with her. Even the emotional torment felt by nine year old Jessica in ''Nobody Knows My Name'' is expressed perfectly from the point of view of a girl that age and Oates switches ages and genders of characters so well, which can often be an area that writers don't quite grasp.
There is something familiar here, yet at the same time it feels like something you don't want to become too familiar with. This is life in a nutshell, in the sense that it's the side of life frequently locked away in the dark. What Oates has done here is expose that side of life to the light and in doing so has presented the reader with a compelling, if unsettling, collection. Fans of the more populist horror authors may find it a little slower going than they prefer, but for readers happy to take a little time to get a little deeper into these stories, you will find yourself quickly lost and you will never view the world in quite the same way afterwards and with prices from £4.99 plus postage from the Amazon Marketplace and eBay or for an incredible value £2.99 for a Kindle edition, you'll not need to lose your financial standing to lose yourself.
This is a slightly amended version of a review previously published under my name at www.thebookbag.co.uk