The Dollmaster by Joyce Carol Oates

It’s quite regularly remarked on Joyce Carol Oates that she is a genius. Having read a few of her books, this is my fourth, I’m beginning to think the genius tag is merited. But I’ve a long way to go in assessing her work as a whole as she is a frighteningly prolific author with more than seventy published works.

This one is a set of six tales, which encompass suspense and the furthest reaches of horror. The title story is narrated by a young man who in childhood plays with dolls. This takes on a more sinister side later on, but we are left in suspense until a final horrific revelation in the end. Although excellent, it might actually be one of the lesser stories here.

The next, ‘Soldier’, is recounted by a white male who has been responsible for the death of a young black boy who he claims he shot in self-defense. As with the following story ‘Gun Accident: An Investigation’, we learn more about the real version of events as the stories unfold and which differ from the official, recorded versions.

‘Equatorial’ might be my favourite story here. It records a woman’s suspicions regarding her husband’s fidelity, set in Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. It is very suspenseful and ends ambiguously and is full of analogies with the survival of our animal cousins on the islands.

‘Big Momma’, I think proved the most horrific of all, telling the story of a vulnerable young teenager trusting a sort of surrogate family where ‘big momma’ turns out to be a twenty foot python. The horror of these stories mainly resides in the fact that they could just possibly occur and the characters are so carefully and convincingly delineated.

‘Mystery Inc’ departs slightly from this template in leaning towards the fantastical and references the classic horror of Edgar Alan Poe both in literary allusions and style.

All in all, I was delighted and enthralled by this collection. Each time you read a story, you think the next couldn’t possibly be as good, only to find that it is. Joyce Carol Oates has been around a long time but it’s never to late to discover her. Now, if only I had time to read all her work!

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