A young wife is home alone when the phone rings in “So Help Me God.” Is the strange voice flirting with her from the other end of the line her jealous husband laying a trap, or a stranger who knows entirely too much about her? In “Madison at Guignol” an unhappy fashionista discovers a secret door inside her favorite clothing store and insists the staff let her enter. But even her fevered imagination cannot anticipate the horror they have been hiding from her. In these and other gripping and disturbing tales, women are confronted by the evil around them and surprised by the evil they find within themselves.
With wicked insight, Joyce Carol Oates demonstrates why the females of the species—be they six-year-old girls, seemingly devoted wives, or aging mothers—are by nature more deadly than the males.
About the Author
JOYCE CAROL OATES is the recipient of the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction and the winner of the National Book Award. Among her major works are We Were the Mulvaneys, Blonde, and The Falls.
Hometown:Princeton, New Jersey
Date of Birth:June 16, 1938
Place of Birth:Lockport, New York
Education:B.A., Syracuse University, 1960; M.A., University of Wisconsin, 1961
Read an Excerpt
Phone rings. My cousin Andrea answers.
It's a pelting-rain weekday evening last April, just past 7 P.M. and dark as midnight.
Without so much as glancing toward me, Andrea picks up the receiver as if she's in her own home and not mine, shifting her infant daughter onto her left hip in a way that makes you think of a migrant farmwife in a classic Walker Evans photograph of the 1930s.
Phone rings! I will wish I'd snatched the receiver from her hand, slammed it down before any words were exchanged.
But Andrea is answering in her wishing-to-be-surprised high school voice, not taking time to squint at the caller ID my husband, a St. Lawrence County law enforcement officer, has had installed for precisely these evenings when he's on the night shift and his young wife is alone in this house in the country except for the accident of Andrea dropping by with the baby and interfering with my life.
"Yes? Who is this?"
Andrea laughs, blinking and staring past me. Whoever is on the other end of the line is intriguing to her, I can see.
I'm checking the digital code which has come up UNAVAILABLE.
Sometimes it reads NO DATA GIVEN, which is the same as UNAVAILABLE and a signal you don't want to pick up. At least, I don't. In Au Sable Forks, which is the center and circumference of my world, everyone is acquainted with everyone else and has been so since grade school. It's rare that an unknown name comes up; I can count on the fingers of one hand the people likely to be calling me at this or any hour, which is why ordinarily I'd have let UNAVAILABLE leave a message on the machine, figuring it must be for my husband.
UNAVAILABLE could be anyone. Like a hulking individual on your doorstep, wearing a ski mask- do you open the door?
I could wring Andrea's neck the way she's smiling, shaking her head, "Which one? Who?" opening the damn door wide. Wish I'd never called her this afternoon hinting I was lonely.
This pelting rain! The kind of rain that hammers at your head like unwanted thoughts.
Andrea hands over the phone, saying in a low thrilled voice, "It's this person won't identify himself, but I think it's Pitman."
Pitman! My husband. His first name is Luke but everyone calls him Pitman.
Andrea shivers giving me the receiver. There has been this shivery thing between her and Pitman dating back to before Pitman and I were married. When I'm in a suspicious mood I think it might predate my meeting Pitman when I was fourteen, an honors student vowing to remain a virgin all my life. I've never confronted either of them.
Pitman says my daddy injected my vertebrae with Rayburn family pride, why I walk like there's a broomstick up my rear. Why I'm so stiff (Pitman is just teasing!) in bed.
"Yes? Who is this please?" I'm determined to remain cool and poised, for Pitman and I parted early this morning with some harsh words flung about on both our sides like gravel. My husband is known as a man who flares up quickly in anger but, flaring down-which can be just a few minutes later-he expects me to laugh, forgive and forget, as if nothing hurtful passed between us. Pitman is a longtime joker and this wouldn't be the first time he has played phone games with me, so I'm primed to hear him in this deep-gravelly male voice so suddenly intimate in my ear asking: "Are you Ms. Pitman, the lady of the house?" Quick as Ping-Pong I say, "Mister, who are you? I don't talk to strangers."
You'd think that after living with a man for more than four years and being crazy in love with him for three years preceding you'd at least recognize his phone voice, but damned if Pitman hasn't disguised it with something like pebbles in his mouth (?) or a layer of some fabric over the phone receiver, and speaking with the broad as of a Canadian! Also, he's making me nervous so I am not thinking as clearly as usual. The voice is chiding, "Ms. Pitman! You sound like some stiff-back old Rayburn," which convinces me that this is Pitman, who else? My face is hot and eyes tearing up as they do with any strong emotion, sweat breaking out on my body; I hate how Pitman has this effect upon me, and my cousin a witness. The voice is inquiring, "Is this 'Pitman' an individual of some size and reputation?"-a strange thing to ask, I'm thinking. So I say, "'Pitman' is a law enforcement officer of dubious reputation, a cruel tease I am considering reporting to authorities." My teasing with Pitman is never so inspired or easy as his with me; it's like wrestling with Pitman on our bed: I'm a scrawny ninety-seven pounds, half his size. The voice responds quick, as if alarmed, "Hang on now, baby. What authorities?" and I hear baby-this has got to be Pitman: baby in his mouth and it's like he has touched me between the legs and any ice-scrim that has built up between us begins to melt rapidly. I'm saying, my voice rising, "He knows who! So he'd better stop playing games," and the voice says in mock alarm, or maybe genuine alarm, "What authorities? Sheriff? Police?" and I say, "Pitman, damn! Stop this," but the voice persists, "Is this 'Pitman' armed and dangerous at all times, baby?" and there's something about this question, a strangeness of diction. The sick sensation washes over me-This isn't Pitman-and my throat shuts up, and the voice continues to tease, husky and breathy in my ear, "F*** Pitman, baby-what are you wearing?" and I slam down the receiver.
Andrea takes my hands, says they are like ice.
"Oh, Lucretia! Wasn't it Pitman? I thought for sure it was."
Andrea thinks that I should report the call and I tell her yes, I will tell Pitman and he can report it. He's a law enforcement officer; he will know best how to proceed.
Things you do when you're crazy in love, you'll look back upon with astonishment. Maybe a kind of pride. Thinking, That could not have been me; I am not that person.
When I married Pitman, my daddy disowned me. Daddy had come to believe that Pitman had cast some sort of spell over me. I was not his daughter any longer. I had not been his daughter for some time.
My father was a stubborn man, but I was stubborn, too.
Eighteen when I married Lucas Pitman, old enough to be legally married in New York State, but not old enough to be so coldly discarded by my father whom I loved. I'd come to believe that I hated Daddy and this was so, but I loved Daddy, too. I would never forgive him!
My mother disapproved of Pitman, of course. But knew better than to forbid me marrying him. She'd seen how Pitman had worked his way under my skin, cast his "spell" over me. She'd known long before Daddy had. Back when I was fourteen, in fact. Skinny pale-blond girl with sly eyes given to believe that, because she's conceded to be the smartest student in the sophomore class at Au Sable High, she can't mess up her life like any trailer-trash Adirondack girl.
I never did get pregnant, though. Pitman saw to that.
Luke Pitman was the youngest deputy in the St. Lawrence County sheriff's department when we first met: twenty-three. He'd been hired out of the police academy at Potsdam and before that he'd served in the navy. There were Pitmans scattered through the county, most of them with reputations. To have a "reputation" means nothing good except when it's made clear what the reputation is for: integrity, honesty, business ethics, and Christian morals. For instance, Everett Rayburn, my father, had a reputation in St. Lawrence County and beyond as an "honest" contractor and builder. Everett Rayburn was "reliable"-"good-as-his-word"-"decent." Only the well-to-do could afford to hire him and in turn Daddy could afford to hire only the best carpenters, painters, electricians, plumbers. Daddy wasn't an architect, but he'd designed our house, which was the most impressive in Au Sable Forks, a split-level "contemporary-traditional" on Algonquin Drive. In school I hated how I had to be friends with the few "rich" kids. I got along with the trailer-trash kids a lot better.
There were Pitmans who lived in trailers as well as Pitmans in dilapidated old farmhouses in the area. Pitman himself was from Star Lake in the Adirondacks, but he'd moved out of his parents' house at the age of fifteen. He told me he had a hard time living in any kind of close quarters with other people and if our marriage was going to endure I would have to grant him "space."
Rightaway I asked Pitman would he grant me "space," too, and Pitman said, tugging my ponytail so it hurt, "That depends, baby."
"Like there's a law for you, but a different law for me?"
"Damn right, baby."
You couldn't argue with Pitman. He'd stop your mouth with his mouth. You tried to speak and he'd suck out your breath. You tried to get serious with him and he'd laugh at you.
How I met Pitman was quite a story. I never told it to anyone except Andrea.
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Table of Contents
So Help Me God
Doll: A Romance of the Mississippi
Madison at Guignol
Tell Me You Forgive Me?
Angel of Wrath
Angel of Mercy
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This collection of short storis examines the capacity of women to do evil. Bringing us into the depths of horror, Oates's protagonists range in age, interest, and situation. We meet a six-year-old girl, a young nurse, a middle-aged fashionista, and an elderly woman dying in a nursing home, among others. What unites all of these women across their stories are the desperate personal circumstances in which they find themselves, and the realization that the only path out is a dark and disturbing one. As with much of Oates's work, this collection addresses the exploitation and marginalization of women in American society, yet it does so through horror and suspense. This is a deliciously suspenseful collection, excellent reading for a spooky October night.
Suspensful. Some stories were better than others.
Best stories: the gruesome "Madison at the Guignol" and "So Help Me God." Altogether some of Oates's best work.
Dark stories, some actually verging on the creepy. Oates is a maddeningly prolific writer, and this book underlines my feeling of not ever reading enough of her work.
One, I love the cover! Two, I couldn't put the book down, and three, very edgy and a page turner.