THE DOLL-MASTER AND OTHER TALES OF TERROR, by Joyce Carol Oates; Mysterious Press (336 pages, $24)
When not writing fat, complicated novels that are some of the finest of our time, the ever-prolific Joyce Carol Oates churns out mysteries, often in the form of short stories or novellas. Sometimes those lesser works read like careless afterthoughts; other times, they’re quite good. “The Doll-Master” falls into the latter category. Its six stories are especially bone-chilling because they contain no element of the supernatural. All could have happened in your city or town — and probably have, given Oates’ fascination with the gritty crime fodder that is a staple of most U.S. newspapers and TV newscasts.
The creepy title novella is narrated by a man whose obsession with collecting dolls at first seems to be the hobby of a lonely, perhaps autistic and/or gender-confused person, but slowly it becomes clear that there is something far less innocent at work. Even though we see it coming, we can’t stop reading — Oates takes us deep into the mind of a psychopath.
In another chiller, “Big Momma,” the shy daughter of a struggling and distracted single mother is drawn into a family that offers her lots of attention and affection — maybe too much. In “Equatorial,” a woman on a Galapagos cruise with her dashing professor husband begins to wonder if his pattern of ditching wives for ever-younger women has now come home to roost for her.
At the heart of each story is a predator-prey relationship, and what makes them so terrifying is that most of us can easily picture ourselves as the prey, at least at some time during our lives. If you’re feeling vulnerable, this is not the book for you. Or, perhaps it is — a warning not to trust or give too much when you’re not sure of The Other’s motives.
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