Sunday, September 13, 2009

RIP IV: Short Story Sunday (Installment 1)

Admittedly, I'm a couple weeks behind the game on this one, but it's never too late to jump in on Short Story Sunday!

The beginning of fall is my absolute favorite time of year to read. Even though my teaching is going strong and we're busy running here and there to school functions for the Rockets, it's not hard to convince me to settle in for some morning, noon, or nighttime reading. The last few days have been rainy and dreary here in Texas--and quite a bit cooler than our typical 90-105 we've had for the duration of the summer. While it might seem oddball, these overcast, damp days are my favorites, especially when it comes to curling up with a book and a mug of something warm and tasty. Hot chocolate, anyone?

I started ravaging my shelves for short story reading last week, and I began with the most-likely-to-be-creepy in a normal collection, my beloved Joyce Carol Oates. I've had her book, I Am No One You Know, on my shelves for ages. It's kind of scandalous that I love her so much and this book has gone unread for this long. As I was perusing the Table of Contents, one story jumped out at me above the others. The title: "The Skull: A Love Story." Jackpot!

"The Skull" is about Kyle Cassity, a brilliant man with advanced degrees in anthropology, sociology, and forensic science. He's a professor, a forensic expert in bones and reconstruction, and something of a celebrity. He's also been married for 40 years, remained a womanizer and philanderer for most of that time, and he's the father of three aloof children. His life changes when a particular skull comes into his laboratory--so beaten and broken that it takes him much longer than his normal turnaround to reconstruct it. He spends long hours in his lab away from his concerned wife, and one night as he's nearing completion of the project he has something of a dreamy vision of the woman he's reconstructing. She's beautiful, innocent, sweet, and kind. The kind of woman it would be a real tragedy to destroy. It takes only a month or so for her reconstructed portrait to be identified by her parents, and the reality of who she was does not match Kyle's vision in the slightest. He finds himself heartbroken, confused, and angered by the shady reality after coming to love his own vision of the woman.

While the story was far less overtly creepy than I might've expected when I started reading, Oates is still the master. She manages to create something of a sympathetic character in Kyle Cassity despite his unsympathetic actions and choices throughout the story. He reminded me a great deal of a character that Phillip Roth might create, but only Oates could've made me care about him and be interested in him the way she managed to. I'm also completely intrigued by anything to do with forensics, so this story appealed on a number of levels. As signature Oates goes, it was dark, atmospheric, and interesting. Best of all, it stuck with me and remained vivid after the initial reading.

The second story I tackled was from one of Oates's overtly creepy collections that I mentioned in a previous post: The Collector of Hearts: New Tales of the Grotesque. I haven't had much of a chance to read this one since I've been more or less occupied since I picked it up from the library, but I did manage to rush through one story in the car on the way to or from and errand one day. Don't worry, Chuck was driving!

"The Sky Blue Ball" is short, weighing in at only four and a half pages. It reminds me of very classically creepy stories I've read in the past. It's not scary at all, but just enough to make you go, "Wooo wooo wooooooo." <--That's my ghostly, creepy voice. And it gave me a bit of a chill.

It's about a lonely, nameless, girl who is bussed to a new school for 9th grade. She lives on a farm in the country, but the school busses nine "country children" into the town of Strykersville, New York. As she's walking down the street one day, she passes a walled courtyard of sorts marked "EMPIRE MACHINE PARTS" and "PRIVATE PROPERTY NO TRESPASSING." Suddenly a beautiful, pristine, sky blue rubber ball sails over the wall right in front of her. Not thinking about the signs, she assumes it's a young girl--picturing a younger version of herself--that wants to play. She sends the ball back over the wall and the game continues. She becomes so obsessed with the game of catch with the unseen child that she actually dashes into the road into the path of an oncoming dump truck at one point. She's fine, but comes away with some seriously scraped knees and a bruised ego. Finally, she sends the ball over the wall one last time, and it doesn't come back. She's so intensely involved at this point that she is compelled to find a way into the courtyard only to make a startling discovery.

Of course I'm not going to TELL YOU what it is! Go to the library for heaven's sake, and get this book! I'll be reviewing a great deal more from Oates's collection, so I'll try to convince you as long as I'm convinced that it's worth reading myself. The next story looks REALLY creepy. It's called "Death Mother" and is described on the jacket flap this way: "A deep familial bond is given a fatal twist as a mother beckons her daughter into a dark and icy realm where they can never be parted." Woohoo! Bring on the creepy!

If you're interested in reading other Short Story Sunday posts, head off to the RIP IV Review Site and check 'em out! Otherwise I'll see you back here next Sunday for more creeptaculous short reading!

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