The Collector of Hearts: New Tales of the Grotesque

The Collector of Hearts: New Tales of the Grotesque

by Joyce Carol Oates

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It can appear in a dream state; it can breathe in familiar shadows; it can be unique or unbearably recognizable. What is it about the grotesque that fascinates, provokes, and fills us with a rising sense of dread? In these 27 tales of the forbidden, Joyce Carol Oates explores the waking nightmares of life with eyes wide open, facing what the bravest of us fear the…  See more details below


It can appear in a dream state; it can breathe in familiar shadows; it can be unique or unbearably recognizable. What is it about the grotesque that fascinates, provokes, and fills us with a rising sense of dread? In these 27 tales of the forbidden, Joyce Carol Oates explores the waking nightmares of life with eyes wide open, facing what the bravest of us fear the most. With eerie brilliance, this master of the short story reminds us just how seductive - and terrifying - they can be.

Editorial Reviews

Margot Livesey
It's not merely that we suspend our normal sense of diselief; in fact, we ourselves generate much of the horror by thinking about what lies behind the narrator's mysterious observations....Read these stories to see her vivid imagination at work — and your own.
New York Times Book Review
People Magazine
[D]elightfully macabre short stories.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Although these 27 macabre stories will trigger familiar fears (of death, of the human potential for violence), they provide many surprising turns as they tour familial traumas and human isolation. In general, Oates's characters are hapless victims of fate. In "Death Mother," a woman recently released from a psychiatric ward attempts to reclaim her daughter, a college student who has never been able to escape her traumatic memories. In "The Hand-puppet," a ragged toy alters a child's voice and behavior hideously, to the terror of her unsuspecting mother. The most disturbing stories have a frightening sheen of plausibility; the occasional monsters and phantoms are far less convincing than the human beasts. Oates can inhabit many different voices and psyches, from the tormented Elvis worshipper of "Elvis Is Dead: Why Are You Alive?' to the homicidal teen of "The Sons of Angus McElster" or the omniscient invalid of "Intensive." These individuals' cosmic predicaments dictate the shape of each tale, related in Oates' characteristically breathless style. While some of the stories lack clear resolutions, Oates generally succeeds in conveying a truly ominous atmosphere and in chilling the reader's blood. Oates proves yet again that she is an equally intrepid navigator of reality as well as its negative image.
Library Journal
Combining Edgar Allen Poe's imagery with Raymond Carver's insights into the human condition, Oates creates 27 views of imaginary horrors. In "Shroeder's Stepfather," rage becomes a murder weapon; in "Scars," a returning hometown hero has physical reminders of emotional slights; and in the haunting "Shadows of the Evening," a beautiful singing voice ages the innocent. The stories are effectively frightening, especially as the endings are implied rather than described. Oates has followed up her award-winning Haunted (LJ 1/94) with stories that were published previously in journals, but having them together in a single volume makes for a powerful reading experience. Recommended for public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 7/98.]--Joshua Cohen, Mid-Hudson Lib. System, Poughkeepsie, NY
Margot Livesey
It's not merely that we suspend our normal sense of diselief; in fact, we ourselves generate much of the horror by thinking about what lies behind the narrator's mysterious observations....Read these stories to see her vivid imagination at work -- and your own. -- The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
Oates's newest collection intriguingly revisits the 'gothic' terrain surveyed in such earlier volumes as Night-Side and Haunted. As is generally the case with Oates, the result is a mixed bag, containing several flimsy (though invariably atmospheric and suggestive) vignettes and anecdotes ('The Sky Blue Ball,' 'Intensive'); affecting dramatizations of intense relationships among children and their elders (the nerve-rattling 'Death Mother,' and a story entitled the 'black rectangle' that symbolizes its narrator's repression of a traumatic visit to menacing relatives); and breathless portrayals of the enthusiasts-cum-fanatics who have long since constituted a subgenre of Oates's work ('Death Astride Bicycle,' 'Elvis is Dead: Why Are You Alive ?'). A few stories employ overworked supernatural conventions (an Indian relic comes voraciously to life in 'The Dream-Catcher'; a child's grotesque plaything menaces her apprehensive mother in 'The Hand-puppet'). And literary influences are sometimes strongly felt, even if ingeniously made new (Poe's tales in the parable-like title piece; Hortense Calisher's 'The Scream on Fifty-Seventh Street,' to which Oates previously demonstrated indebtedness in 'Unprintable'). A choice few belong among the author's very best: notably the swift tale of a vacationing family's lost little boy and his likely fate, recounted in a chillingly bland colloquial voice ('Labor Day'); the story of a painter who makes inimitable art out of the disease that plagues him ('The Affliction'); and two superbly imagined and skillfully constructed exercises in psychological horror ('The Crossing' and 'Shadows of the Evening'). The paradoxical momentumfrequently traced in these stories—of escape from an impoverished or frightened childhood into a stable world of culture and order, though it may be snatched away violently at any time—gives them the further dimension of close relationship to Oates' more purely realistic fiction: the "night-side," as it were, of her oeuvre. One of Oates' more interesting recent books, and impressive further proof of her continuing mastery of the short story.

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Product Details

Penguin Group (USA)
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.26(w) x 8.04(h) x 0.76(d)

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Chapter One

The Sky Blue Ball

    In a long-ago time when I didn't know Yes I was happy, I was myself and I was happy. In a long-ago time when I wasn't a child any longer yet wasn't entirely not-a-child. In a long-ago time when I seemed often to be alone, and imagined myself lonely. Yet this is your truest self: alone, lonely.

    One day I found myself walking beside a high brick wall the color of dried blood, the aged bricks loose and moldering, and over the wall came flying a spherical object so brightly blue I thought it was a bird! — until it dropped a few yards in front of me, bouncing at a crooked angle off the broken sidewalk, and I saw that it was a rubber ball. A child had thrown a rubber ball over the wall, and I was expected to throw it back.

    Hurriedly I let my things fall into the weeds, ran to snatch up the ball, which looked new, smelled new, spongy and resilient in my hand like a rubber ball I'd played with years before as a little girl; a ball I'd loved and had long ago misplaced; a ball I'd loved and had forgotten. "Here it comes!" I called, and tossed the ball back over the wall; I would have walked on except, a few seconds later, there came the ball again, flying back.

    A game, I thought. You can't quit a game.

    So I ran after the ball as it rolled in the road, in the gravelly dirt, and again snatched it up, squeezing it with pleasure, how spongy how resilient a rubber ball, and again I tossed it over the wall; feeling happiness in swinging my arm as I hadn't done for years since I'd lost interest in such childish games. And this time I waited expectantly, and again it came! — the most beautiful sky blue rubber ball rising high, high into the air above my head and pausing for a heartbeat before it began to fall, to sink, like an object possessed of its own willful volition; so there was plenty of time for me to position myself beneath it and catch it firmly with both hands.

    "Got it!"

    I was fourteen years old and did not live in this neighborhood, nor anywhere in the town of Strykersville, New York (population 5,600). I lived on a small farm eleven miles to the north and I was brought to Strykersville by school bus, and consequently I was often alone; for this year, ninth grade, was my first at the school and I hadn't made many friends. And though I had relatives in Strykersville these were not relatives close to my family; they were not relatives eager to acknowledge me; for we who still lived in the country, hadn't yet made the inevitable move into town, were perceived inferior to those who lived in town. And, in fact, my family was poorer than our relatives who lived in Strykersville.

    At our school teachers referred to the nine farm children bussed there as "North Country children." We were allowed to understand that "North Country children" differed significantly from Strykersville children.

    I was not thinking of such things now, I was smiling thinking it must be a particularly playful child on the other side of the wall, a little girl like me; like the little girl I'd been; though the wall was ugly and forbidding with rusted signs EMPIRE MACHINE PARTS and PRIVATE PROPERTY NO TRESPASSING. On the other side of the Chautauqua & Buffalo railroad yard was a street of small woodframe houses; it must have been in one of these that the little girl, my invisible playmate, lived. She must be much younger than I was; for fourteen-year-old girls didn't play such heedless games with strangers, we grew up swiftly if our families were not well-to-do.

    I threw the ball back over the wall, calling, "Hi! Hi, there!" But there was no reply. I waited; I was standing in broken concrete, amid a scrubby patch of weeds. Insects buzzed and droned around me as if in curiosity, yellow butterflies no larger than my smallest fingernail fluttered and caught in my hair, tickling me. The sun was bright as a nova in a pebbled-white soiled sky that was like a thin chamois cloth about to be lifted away and I thought, This is the surprise I've been waiting for. For somehow I had acquired the belief that a surprise, a nice surprise, was waiting for me. I had only to merit it, and it would happen. (And if I did not merit it, it would not happen.) Such a surprise could not come from God but only from strangers, by chance.

    Another time the sky blue ball sailed over the wall, after a longer interval of perhaps thirty seconds; and at an unexpected angle, as if it had been thrown away from me, from my voice, purposefully. Yet there it came, as if it could not not come: my invisible playmate was obliged to continue the game. I had no hope of catching it but ran blindly into the road (which was partly asphalt and partly gravel and not much traveled except by trucks) and there came a dump truck headed at me, I heard the ugly shriek of brakes and a deafening angry horn and I'd fallen onto my knees, I'd cut my knees that were bare, probably I'd torn my skirt, scrambling quickly to my feet, my cheeks smarting with shame, for wasn't I too grown a girl for such behavior? "Get the hell out of the road!" a man's voice was furious in rectitude, the voice of so many adult men of my acquaintance, you did not question such voices, you did not doubt them, you ran quickly to get out of their way, already I'd snatched up the ball, panting like a dog, trying to hide the ball in my skirt as I turned, shrinking and ducking so the truck driver couldn't see my face, for what if he was someone who knew my father, what if he recognized me, knew my name. But already the truck was thundering past, already I'd been forgotten.

    Back then I ran to the wall, though both my knees throbbed with pain, and I was shaking as if shivering, the air had grown cold, a shaft of cloud had pierced the sun. I threw the ball back over the wall again, underhand, so that it rose high, high — so that my invisible playmate would have plenty of time to run and catch it. And so it disappeared behind the wall and I waited, I was breathing hard and did not investigate my bleeding knees, my torn skirt. More clouds pierced the sun and shadows moved swift and certain across the earth like predator fish. After a while I called out hesitantly, "Hi? Hello?" It was like a ringing telephone you answer but no one is there. You wait, you inquire again, shyly, "Hello?" A vein throbbed in my forehead, a tinge of pain glimmered behind my eyes, that warning of pain, of punishment, following excitement. The child had drifted away, I supposed; she'd lost interest in our game, if it was a game. And suddenly it seemed silly and contemptible to me, and sad: there I stood, fourteen years old, a long-limbed weed of a girl, no longer a child yet panting and bleeding from the knees, the palms of my hands, too, chafed and scraped and dirty; there I stood alone in front of a moldering brick wall waiting for — what?

    It was my school notebook, my several textbooks I'd let fall into the grass and I would afterward discover that my math textbook was muddy, many pages damp and torn; my spiral notebook in which I kept careful notes of the intransigent rules of English grammar and sample sentences diagrammed was soaked in a virulent-smelling chemical and my teacher's laudatory comments in red and my grades of A (for all my grades at Strykersville Junior High were A, of that I was obsessively proud) had become illegible as if they were grades of C, D, F. I should have taken up my books and walked hurriedly away and put the sky blue ball out of my mind entirely but I was not so free, through my life I've been made to realize that I am not free, as others appear to be free, at all. For the "nice" surprise carries with it the "bad" surprise and the two are so intricately entwined they cannot be separated, nor even defined as separate. So though my head pounded I felt obliged to look for a way over the wall. Though my knees were scraped and bleeding I located a filthy oil drum and shoved it against the wall and climbed shakily up on it, dirtying my hands and arms, my legs, my clothes, even more. And I hauled myself over the wall, and jumped down, a drop of about ten feet, the breath knocked out of me as I landed, the shock of the impact reverberating through me, along my spine, as if I'd been struck a sledgehammer blow to the soles of my feet. At once I saw that there could be no little girl here, the factory yard was surely deserted, about the size of a baseball diamond totally walled in and overgrown with weeds pushing through cracked asphalt, thistles, stunted trees, and clouds of tiny yellow butterflies clustered here in such profusion I was made to see that they were not beautiful creatures, but mere insects, horrible. And rushing at me as if my very breath sucked them at me, sticking against my sweaty face, and in my snarled hair.

    Yet stubbornly I searched for the ball. I would not leave without the ball. I seemed to know that the ball must be there, somewhere on the other side of the wall, though the wall would have been insurmountable for a little girl. And at last, after long minutes of searching, in a heat of indignation I discovered the ball in a patch of chicory. It was no longer sky blue but faded and cracked; its dun-colored rubber showed through the venous-cracked surface, like my own ball, years ago. Yet I snatched it up in triumph, and squeezed it, and smelled it — it smelled of nothing: of the earth: of the sweating palm of my own hand.

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