The Doll-Master and Other Tales of Terror is the latest collection of short stories from Joyce Carol Oates. As the book's title indicates, these six stories are about “terror,” but this is terror in a very real sense, not the kind that is sometimes associated in the minds of readers with books shelved in the “horror” section of their favorite bookstores. These are stories about people in fear of their lives, sometimes told through the eyes of the potential murderer and sometimes through the eyes of those in danger. Sometimes the terror is real, at other times it seems to be more imagined than not by the potential victim, and sometimes it is difficult to tell what is real and what is not. Victims are dispatched by gunshot, strangulation, poisons, and in the book's strangest tale of all, in a way that makes victims from all the other stories appear to be the lucky ones.
The young man at the center of the book's title story became a doll collector almost by accident when, as a small child, he stole his recently deceased cousin's doll as a way to comfort himself after her sudden disappearance from his life. Now a young man still living at home with his mother, he adds “found” dolls to his collection every year or so, but keeps his collection hidden away where no one will ever see it but him. The doll collector has become a doll master.
The Doll Master includes two stories in which handguns play prominent roles. In the first, “Soldier,” a young white man is accused of having shot to death the defenseless young black teen he accuses of placing him in fear of his life. Destined to be the most controversial story in the collection, this one is told from the point-of-view of the shooter, and deals with the role that racial differences play in perceptions of physical threat. “Gun Accident,” again told from the shooter's point-of-view, offers another lesson in what can happen when a gun gets into the hands of someone emotionally unprepared to handle it. This time that person is a young high school girl entrusted with housesitting her favorite teacher's house for a few days.
“Big Moma” is about an eighth-grade girl badly in need of a friend. When she finally finds that friend, she gains a whole new family, not just the school friend she had been longing for. Now she senses that something is wrong, and the question is whether or not she has the strength to break free from the family's influence– and will they let her?
“Equatorial” and “Mystery, Inc.” both largely take place in the minds of their narrators, one of whom imagines herself to be the potential victim of her husband's murderous intentions, and the other a man who has very specifically targeted his next murder victim. Both stories are well plotted and are based on memorable characters and situations. But for one simple reason, “Mystery, Inc.” is my favorite story in the collection and “Equatorial” is my least favorite. I find it difficult to enjoy stories that use the all too common literary device of building tension to climactic levels only to end abruptly before that tension is resolved – exactly the way that “Equatorial” ends. I don't like writing my own short story endings. “Mystery, Inc.,” a verbal sparring match between two very different bookstore owners, on the other hand, painstakingly builds the tension level to a climax and proceeds to deliver the perfect ending.
The stories in The Doll-Master and Other Tales of Terror are a bit uneven, and are sometimes predictable, but there is a lot to like about the collection. Joyce Carol Oates fans and fans of macabre short stories will want to take a look at this one.
(Review Copy provided by Publisher)