Dread, in fiction, can be a magnificent thing.
Joyce Carol Oates, in her latest collection of short stories, "Give Me Your Heart," spends a great deal of time conjuring dread, that conviction that calamity lies just beyond the end of the sentence, possibly the next paragraph.
The title story takes the shape of a letter from a woman to the lover who spurned her 23 years earlier. She requests, or possibly insists, that the man literally deliver on his long-ago promise to bequeath to her his most vital organ — after he meets with the "accident" that will claim his life. Identifying herself only as "Angel," she seems to be watching her tormentor/victim Dr. K as he reads her missive, learning of the many occasions she's passed within striking distance of him or his family members, even his young granddaughter.
Oates isn't writing horror fiction, but she might as well be. Her stories pack the same kind of visceral wallop, and she employs many of its classic themes and tropes: innocence lost, social order violated, wrongs and injustice — or, in some cases, misperceived slights — leading to acts of violent retribution.
Jealousy is the driving force in "The First Husband," in which a suburban attorney, after he discovers photographs his wife has secreted away in her desk drawer, becomes so consumed by envy that he sacrifices his job and his relationship in a quest to eradicate the man he believes to be a rival for her affections.
Marriages and families don't fare well in Oates' gothic landscape, which is littered with characters struggling to bear up under the weight of fractured psyches — whether it is the veteran who returns from multiple tours of duty deranged and disfigured in "Vena Cava" or the youth counselor struggling with issues of addiction and rage in "Tetanus."
Oates, though, is at her best when writing from the feminine perspective, as she does in "Strip Poker" and "Smother," the collection's centerpieces driven by a powerful, deeply unsettling sense of dread.
In the first, a 14-year-old girl finds herself alone in a cabin with a group of unsavory young men who promise to teach her how to gamble; the second concerns an adult woman troubled by an unsolved crime in which an infant, "the pink bunny baby," was murdered near her childhood home when she was just 7. She comes to believe her parents were involved.
In both stories, mothers and daughters are at odds, with fathers generally off-stage but idolized by their children. They read a bit like modern-day fairy tales that unfold in some nearby yet otherworldly place, one evocatively conjured by Oates' elliptical, poetic language.
"Amnesia is a desert of fine white sun-glaring sand to the horizon," she writes in "Smother." "Amnesia isn't oblivion… Amnesia is the paralyzed limb into which one day, one hour, feeling may begin suddenly to flow."
That's the thing about "Give Me Your Heart." Reading it, you're guaranteed to feel something. There's just no guarantee that it will be pleasant.