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Book Review: The Museum of Dr. Moses by Joyce Carol Oates

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Joyce Carol Oates' newest collection of short fiction, The Museum of Dr. Moses, is neither easy to put down as you're reading it, nor to put out of your head when you're through. These are the kinds of stories that turn you cold and jumpy, with the whole world taking on an ominous sheen on even the sunniest afternoon. God help you if you should happen to read them alone in the dark of night.

Oates' tales of horror are not the kind that require vivid cerebral special effects to comprehend. The danger described in these stories is subtle: sometimes unexpected, sometimes calculated, but always quiet, subdued. You feel a bit sick while reading along, with the queasiness growing and growing as the story spills from the pages. Sometimes you're even afraid to keep turning those pages, certain you're about to encounter something horrific beyond belief. Other times it takes the willpower of a saint to not flip prematurely to a story's conclusion.

One of the most gripping tales, Feral, unfolds during the aftermath of a terrible accident in a quiet, affluent neighborhood. One has to think, ripping breathlessly through the story, that never before has the very word, "feral," taken on such a coolly haunting connotation.

The interesting thing about these stories, however, is that not all of them contain such singular grimness. Oates conditions us to expect this through tense build-ups and the occasional horrific surprise.

At times you might think to yourself, "Aha! I know exactly how this story will twist." And at times you might be right. But even guessing one of these stories' endings takes away nothing from the thrill of experiencing the story, itself. Oates is particularly adept at using exposition to convey a sense of mystery in her narratives. She first sets the scene, perhaps alluding to some horrible event that's taken place, then backtracks a bit. Little by little she leaks fragments of story, filling in the gaps and providing a curious retrospective analysis.

Often, when people recall the day they received a devastating diagnosis, suffered a terrible accident, or experienced some other life-changing event, they remember the moments preceding the change in vivid detail. It's creepy, they think, to recall how blissfully ignorant they'd been, how they'd never seen it coming. It's sad, nostalgic, and surreal. With her expository narrative style, Oates creates a similarly haunting effect.

Other times, she begins at the beginning. The collection opens with Hi! Howya Doin!, a short piece that consists entirely of one long, breathless sentence, mimicking the panting inhalations of the jogger whose story is unfolding, and creating a sense of rushing, sped-up time. Bad Habits is told from the perspective of the narrator, a child at the story's onset. When the narrator and her siblings are pulled expectedly one day from class, neither she nor the reader knows why. We learn the chilling reason for the disruption, and experience the subsequent fall-out, along with her.

One of the collection's strangest offerings is certainly The Twins: A Mystery. Again, the reader follows the story's confusing execution along with the main characters, twin brothers who have grown up antagonized by their icy father, and now experience a myriad of mixed emotions at his apparent demise.

Oates has been recognized for literary work spanning a variety of styles, including novels, short stories, poetry, essays, novellas, stage plays, and fiction for both children and young adults. Among her best-known works are A Garden of Earthly Delights, Expensive People, and them, which form a trilogy, and the more recent We Were the Mulvaneys.

The Museum of Dr. Moses brings together 10 previously-released works, published over the past nine years in a variety of anthologies and magazines. They are offered now, as "slightly different versions," in this new collection for your spooked-but-deliciously-titillated reading pleasure.

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