Illuminating humanity’s dark desires
The Museum of Dr Moses: Tales of Mystery and Suspense By Joyce Carol Oates Quercus, 229pp, $ 29.95
JOYCE Carol Oates has been writing for more than 45 years. Her output is extraordinary by any measure, encompassing novels, plays, essays and short stories, of which she has produced more than 700. It’s difficult to think of a writer who has published so much, to such a high standard, and who has also kept so much unpublished: the Syracuse Library’s Oates archive manages to accommodate the manuscripts of several completed novels the writer has decided needn’t see the light of day.
The Museum of Dr Moses is an anthology that collects 10 examples of the way in which Oates’s best writing illuminates the deepest recesses of the human heart and mind. Subtitled Tales of Mystery and Suspense , the collection’s stories can be described more accurately as being geared towards the steamy world of gothic horror and general unease. Perhaps I should say deep unease, for when Oates does the macabre, she has few peers.
We encounter an overly cheery jogger who meets a fate perhaps many would have wished on him. Then there’s a father whose guilt may or may not have more to do with his grandson’s disappearance than meets the eye. In Bad Habits , the children of a mass murderer discover unsettling similarities between their father’s victims and themselves.
Deep inside these explorations of the sinister comes the story Feral , in which every parent’s worst fear is realised. Then the screw is turned and turned again.
A sweet six- year- old boy named Derek is the joy in the life of his mother and father, Kate and Stephen. One day in a swimming pool, Kate’s attention is distracted for scant seconds. When she looks again Derek is at the bottom of the pool. He has stopped breathing, his heart has stopped beating, yet at the hospital the emergency staff are able to revive him. The boy is safely delivered back to the loving arms of his parents. The problem soon becomes apparent: the boy who has been revived is not quite the Derek of old. As the facades of normality crumble towards a stunning final image, the revelation of Derek’s new nature is mirrored by the utter annihilation of a marriage.
There are no overtly ghastly scenes in Feral , which allows the story to do its work based on character and relationships alone. This is always a strength in Oates’s writing. In the title story, The Museum of Dr Moses , however, characters and relationships are married to the types of macabre happenings that are difficult indeed to erase from a reader’s mind.
Ella has been estranged from her mother for a decade. The nature of the rift is so great that when her mother remarried, to the venerable Dr Moses Hammacher, a retired county coroner now in his 80s, no invitation came her way. When Ella finally turns up to visit, she encounters a house of such dripping southern gothic that Daphne du Maurier would probably feel quite at home.
There’s nothing there to make Ella feel at home. Her mother is tremulous and frightened; Dr Moses has a courtly manner that quickly falls away. Ella realises her mother is in thrall to a monster. Then there’s his museum: free admission to witness the horrors collected from a lifetime of dealing with the dead.
And what exactly does he plan to curate in the new Red Room, which isn’t yet completed and so must not be entered? Once entered, neither of these rooms is easily left; once met, few of Oates’s characters are easily forgotten.
Despite the macabre ferocity of these stories, the best tale in the collection has nothing to do with horror, though it does contain its own spatterings of blood.
The Man who Fought Roland LaStarza is as fine an example of the unique wonders available to the short story as any in recent memory. In this tale, the writer doesn’t lead us towards some small epiphany contained in an arrested moment but instead manages to portray an entire life and a lost era with an almost cinematic magnificence. ( Film producers should start queuing up; the story is as perfect a model for a screenplay as I can imagine.)
Here a boxer is heading towards his one great fight, his moment of truth, and the hopes at play will be affecting for even the most hardhearted reader.
This, to me, seems the key to the collection. Even at their most gruesome, there’s little in Oates’s writing that doesn’t make the reader think, ‘‘ Yes, this could have happened to me.’’ She’s a writer who delves deep into the psyche, and, most important, our natural need for one another. Oates’s stories can be dark and twisted, but they’re true to the human condition.
Venero Armanno is a Brisbane- based novelist.
Penetrating: Author Joyce Carol Oates delves deep into the psyche