The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares is a good collection from bestselling and renowned author Joyce Carol Oates, revealing her skill, talent and ability as a horror writer. The collection features six stories, with its first, the eponymous one, serving as more of a novella to get the book started. Though in my opinion, it is the final story that really gets to the reader, leaving them feeling on edge long after the book is finished.
“The Corn Maiden” centers around a small town in New England where a young girl has had a rough upbringing with a single mother always working. Because of this, her growth and development is somewhat stunted, and she’s not altogether with it. However, she does have beautiful, lustrous, long golden hair, just like the corn maiden out of legend. Things seem hard for everyone in this town, and they’re all trying their best to get by.
Then there’s the group of four young teenage girls who have never been popular or feel appreciated by anyone; perhaps they feel abandoned and ignored, and certainly consider themselves outcasts. They like to bully and play tricks on people, be they kids or adults, they just don’t care. They follow the sound of their own drum. And now they have a new thing they’d like to try: the corn maiden ritual. And they’ve got the perfect girl to kidnap and keep in one of their basements in a mansion where she’ll never be noticed. They will prepare her for the ritual, and like all good rituals, it has to end in sacrifice.
Oates does a great job of juggling a number of characters in this novella, seeing through the kids eyes with their fast-paced quick-thoughts and illogical ways that really puts the reader in the mind of a mischievous child; but also the feeling of loss and despair when one’s own child is kidnapped and missing. It’s a powerful story that seems a somewhat obvious and simple one at first, but as the reader continues through, it becomes a lot deeper and complex.
“Beersheba” continues the important theme of the important time of childhood and the affect it can have on a person, even years later into adulthood when the past can come back to haunt you in the form of a vengeful step-daughter. “Nobody Knows My Name” explores the poignant and potent world of a young girl who now has a new sibling, a baby who is sucking all the attention and love from her life, and it’s up to her to do something about it.
Two stories in the collection feature twins. “Fossil-Figures” is about twins who are very different and each achieves fame and renown in their own way, but one is incredibly jealous of the other’s success, which will ultimately lead to his undoing. “Death-Cup” is another twin story of revenge and hate, but has a great Edgar Allan Poe feeling about it.
“Helping Hands” is the story of a middle-aged woman bringing her late husband’s clothes to a charity store and feeling something for the employee there who is a veteran; their relationship turns into something completely unpredictable. The final story, “A Hole in the Head,” is about a successful and well-off cosmetic surgeon who is cajoled into performing a strange and popular procedure, known as trepanning, which is supposed to free oneself, but going down this dark path ends up releasing the doctor’s own demons and desires.
The Corn Maiden & Other Nightmares shows Oates knows how to write great horror, getting deep into the minds of her characters, and taking the reading along. The stories are dark and moving and disturbing, while the collection as a whole is one that stays with you, even after you’ve put it back on the shelf and some time has passed.
Originally written on February 5, 2013 ©Alex C. Telander.
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