Il­lu­mi­nat­ing hu­man­ity’s dark de­sires

The Mu­seum of Dr Moses: Tales of Mys­tery and Sus­pense By Joyce Carol Oates Quer­cus, 229pp, $ 29.95

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ven­ero Ar­manno

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.

Pic­ture: Stu­art Ram­son

Pen­e­trat­ing: Au­thor Joyce Carol Oates delves deep into the psy­che

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