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Master of Dark Tales

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"Sourland" (Ecco: $25.99) is an apt title for the latest collection of short stories from Joyce Carol Oates, which includes tales of violence, murder, abuse, rape, beating, guilt, grief and a series of relationships -- some ordinary, others bizarre -- that invariably go sour. The loss of a spouse and the complicated ways in which guilt shapes the acts of the remaining spouse play an important role in these stories. These grieving women willingly step into the arms of monsters and misfits, instigating, provoking and often welcoming physical and sexual violence as an affirmation of their existence. They hurt, so they must exist, even if their husbands no longer do.

In "Pumpkin-Head," a woman named Hadley, whose husband died a few days before, invites an "eccentric young molecular biologist," practically a stranger, into her home, rendering herself vulnerable to the punishment inflicted upon her. Unwilling to "agitate her visitor," and not wanting him "to sense how frightened she was," before long, Hadley finds herself in the clutches of her frightening guest, who "kissed and bit at her lips like a suddenly ravenous rodent. ... 'You like this, Hed-ley! This, you want. For this you asked me." Perhaps she did.

In "Probate," her life cleaved in half and unrecognizable to herself, Adrienne is forced to pay a visit to Probate court. The thought occurs to her that "[t]he widow is one who comes swiftly to the knowledge Whatever harm comes to you, you deserve. For you are still alive." A shocking discovery in her husband's will, for the dead carry their own secrets, raises questions about the identity of her deceased husband -- was he the distinguished historian she believed him to be, or a dreadful pervert? -- unraveling Adrienne further and causing her to take such an irrational step, it begs the question: Has she gone mad?

The recounting of "The Story of the Stabbing," as it travels from mouth to mouth, evolves wonderfully and horrifically, acquiring a life of its own, until the reality of the incident is lost, even to Madeleine, the witness. The story becomes too terrifying to be told and retold in the presence of Madeleine's innocent young daughter, especially since it is missing an ending -- not unlike every one of Oates' stories. "Did the stabbed man die? Was the killer caught?" Such answers are left to the reader to deduce.

Sex is a violent and punishing affair in these stories, orgasm a certain death. In "Babysitter," a married mother meets with a man she'd rather not think of "as an individual with a name ... Only this once she would be unfaithful to her husband and children." Lovemaking and fighting become indistinguishable here, resulting in an unexpected confession of love to a stranger who acts like a murderer rather than a lover. "I am a woman who deserves harm," she thinks to herself, an explanation, perhaps, as to why she would allow such abuse.

In "Bonobo Momma," the relationship of a gorgeous mother and her sickly daughter, who will never measure up to her mother's expectations, is rendered brilliantly, as is the heartbreaking ending to a day the daughter had long anticipated.

In these stories, death does not herald the end of a dysfunctional relationship, but rather the birth of guilt, as in "Bitch," where a father happens to die on the day of his daughter's birthday: "As a girl she had loved her father but eventually she'd given up, as we do when our love is not returned"; still, she considers herself "a bitch to think such thoughts at such a time ... she deserved bad luck."

In "Amputee," a librarian, whose state attracts a married man, struggles to hold onto her power and independence by refusing to express her love for him, instigating a cycle of luring men only to reject them. She lost her legs; she will not lose her power.

The crowning jewel of these stories is the title story -- this, too, the tale of a widow, "the sole survivor of the wreckage at 299 Valley Drive," whose behavior proves even more peculiar, and inexplicable, than that of other women in these stories. The thought occurs to her that "[t]he husband might have advised her 'Be very careful Sophie. You will make mistakes in your posthumous life, I won't be there to correct.' " And mistakes she certainly commits. An especially foolish one catapults her into a nightmare from which it might be impossible to wake up. Three weeks after her husband's death, in answer to a cryptic invitation from a man she barely knew many years ago, she packs her bags and goes to him. Despite her understandable need to flee the house in which she once lived with her deceased husband -- "The surviving spouse inhabits a space not much larger than a grave" -- it's hard to imagine any woman in her right mind, even one as grief-stricken and desperate as Sophie, picking herself up and flying to Sourland, Minn., to spend time in the wilderness with a stranger. The monster she encounters and the strange events that ensue will cause Sophie to ask herself, "Why have I come here, am I mad!" This reader asked the same question, even if she couldn't help but turn one page after another to discover what happens next.

These stories are not for the weak of heart. None of Oates' stories are. Those who dare to navigate the treacherous paths of "Sourland" and the lives of its inhabitants will be rewarded by a skillfully rendered cast of outlandish characters, Oates' trademark fascination with the unexpected that propels the story ahead, and the alarming twists and turns of events that have a way of souring and bruising the most normal of relationships.

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