Wild Nights!: Stories About the Last Days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway

In this unsettling volume of stories, Joyce Carol Oates imagines the last days of six American writers as they consider their legacies. The writers are alternately vain about their work and unsure of its value; they regard their writing persona as a monstrous appendage whose fame colors their every interaction with the outside world. Edgar Allan Poe, holed up in a lighthouse after the death of his wife, is a meek vegetarian paradoxically given to both grandiose prose and a bloodlust against creatures both real and imaginary. Samuel Clemens, a doddering old man, starts up emotionally manipulative friendships with young girls under the disapproving eye of his only living daughter. Henry James attempts to make up for a perceived life of useless comfort and privilege by volunteering at an army hospital where he hopes to attain a vigor he believes he never had. Papa Hemingway, never one to shy away from a corpse in his writing, imagines himself a life-long captive of women, and prepares his shotgun for its final action. The sole woman in this collection is literally a captive and, in a plot device reminiscent of George Saunders, not even technically the poet Emily Dickinson. As EDickinsonRepliLuxe, part manikin, part computer, she becomes the victim of her resentful master, who does exactly what one would expect from a man in a Joyce Carol Oates story who has been assured a woman is his property. The author herself will turn 70 in June; her collection suggests a pretty grim prognosis for the outcomes of a literary life.