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Night-Gaunts and Other Tales of Suspense


Night-Gaunts and Other Tales of Suspense

Joyce Carol Oates’ psychological prowess weaves together tales of sexual tension and erotic terror. Does that sound like fun? In NIGHT-GAUNTS, creepily, it is. Add in the socially informed backbone to her cutting-edge collection of short stories, and the consequence is a highly aware form of prolonged horror.

NIGHT-GAUNTS rearranges readers’ minds using six short stories: “The Woman in the Window,” “The Long-Legged Girl,” “Sign of the Beast,” “The Experimental Subject,” “Walking Wounded” and “Night-Gaunts.” The writing is sharp and creative, and the reading goes fast. The suspense in Oates’ stories is a visceral yearning to explore sexuality in a raw yet inventive way. Her scenarios are certainly inspired. Strangely, but perhaps unsurprisingly, she can both thrill and obscenely command --- each with a series of stories on exploration, anticipation and dread. This is a book that will hold your attention from beginning to end.

"NIGHT-GAUNTS is like a paranoid daydream, yet one where it is satisfying to know that you can awaken with a sounder mind than before it began."

A single eye gazing through tattered shutters beyond the skyward-facing points of a rusty, wrought iron fence is what graces the book’s cover, cultivating the tone for what comes later. It also characterizes the imagery of the contents inside. A naked woman reclines in a blue armchair. Under the cushion, there is a sharp weapon for her lover as she waits in only high heels. A married man may be involved with a dance student, so his wife promptly stirs his prescription pills into a teacup brewed just for his paramour. In a storage unit, a dead teacher rots --- decomposing. Is it any wonder that Oates won the 2011 Bram Stoker Award for Short Horror Fiction?

But there is so much more to Oates’ work than the grotesque. She has the ability to amaze with her formidable perception. One gets the feeling there is some uncanny insight into human behavior in ways of intimacy, sexuality and horror that only she understands. And it is all delivered with the pop of a gifted writer. Both within and beyond the darkness is a glimpse into the human condition --- full of rare, believable scenarios that can make the heart race or cause us to ponder our own mortality. It is in this philosophical vein that Oates continues her life’s work, which includes being awarded the 2010 President’s Medal for the Humanities. In this volume, she strikes a balance between being realistically morbid and literary in the utmost sense. It is unreal how much she understands the many kinds of behaviors that drive people.

In the end, the instincts of the readers themselves are at the forefront of what Joyce Carol Oates is reaching for. By challenging them to relate to the characters and their compulsions toward death, fear or at times even violence, people might better understand how they feel about their own selves. In this sense, NIGHT-GAUNTS is like a paranoid daydream, yet one where it is satisfying to know that you can awaken with a sounder mind than before it began.

Reviewed by John Bentlyewski on June 15, 2018

Night-Gaunts and Other Tales of Suspense
by Joyce Carol Oates