In this new collection, the prodigious Joyce Carol Oates proves that the fairer sex should not be mistaken for the weaker, revealing the dark side of the female psyche, ranging from childhood abandonment to a married woman’s rapidly escalating sexual obsession.
In flawless prose, Oates flies to the very edge of reason, plunging into the cold, deep waters of female behavior. These tales are both macabre and frightening, from the secret passions that drive women to extremes, to the impulses of innocent children taxed beyond the fragile structures of their emotional boundaries.
In the first story, “So Help Me God,” a young woman falls in love with a bad-boy cop, caught in a web of abuse with the husband she met at fourteen and married at eighteen. The exhilarating sexual energy of their early encounters escalates into violence as he toys with her dependency, obsession turning to terror.
“Madison at Guignol” speaks to a woman’s quest for perfection: “But it is my soul I seek continuously, where I can and however.” This fashion maven is a victim of her own pathetic hubris, never satisfied with the objects of her desire, always searching for more, for better, finally caught in a horror beyond her ability to comprehend.
“Doll, A Romance of the Mississippi,” is an eerie cross between “Baby Doll” and Lolita, as a young girl travels the Midwest with her (step)father, preying on the sexual fantasies of paying customers, home-schooled from the trunk of their 1953 Buick LaSalle. Her disgust mounting with each assignation, Doll is periodically betrayed by her own twisted demons to enact a bizarre revenge.
One of the longer pieces in The Female of the Species is “Hunger”. The second wife of a wealthy man, Kristine begins a casual dalliance with Jean-Claude, an exotic, enigmatic stranger, newly arrived in the elite ocean community where the young mother is vacationing with her small daughter. The affair is unnerving, perhaps made more so by a recent murder in the colony. Kristine opens a door she is unable to close, her impulsive romance imbued with the menace of incipient violence, helpless against her consuming passion for the forbidden en route to a stunning and elaborate betrayal.
There are more: “The Banshee, “The Haunting, “Tell Me You Forgive Me?,” “The Angel of Death” and “The Angel of Mercy,” each with a uniquely twisted perspective, exploring the unnamable urges and ungovernable impulses that cause people to do the unexpected, wrapped in innocence and romance.
This collection is fascinating and unsettling, with random images of threat and menace - birds screeching through the sky, mewling hordes of feral cats, bucolic scenes threaded with nature’s unpredictability, the power of one character’s preoccupation with another, stalking death - all the ingredients to send a chill up your spine in the dark of the night.