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FICTION

HAUNTED: Tales of the Grotesque by Joyce Carol Oates. (Dutton: $23; 320 pp.) I wasn’t in the least bit scared, not of old Mrs. Minton, or Florence Parr’s dolls, or of Mr. Starr, the murderer who stalks his own daughter. I was a little nervous about Jocko, the evil 2-year-old (“He tugged the bedclothes rudely away from her, exposing her so hastily she pulled up one of the straps of her nightgown to hide her flat slack bruised breast that had never recovered from Jocko’s furious sucking . . . she tried to kick him loose but . . . he was too strong and too mean.”) who persuades his mother to knife to death the father that “wanted me vacuum-sucked out of you.” But by the time I got around to Babydoll, the perfect wife whose husband gathers his business associates to watch him introduce rats into his helpmeet, I was frightened. In other words, they build, these stories, and they seem to move from the horrible to the grotesque. One cannot shake the picture of Joyce Carol Oates, sitting in some big stone manse in Princeton, experimenting with writing, trying different styles, characters and contexts in a way that, dare I say it? lacks heart. It doesn’t mean they aren’t entertaining or “well-written.” They’re just a little slick.


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