Woke up to a winter wonderland. Snow on the ground, on the cars, on the barren branches of trees. The black of the street is a startling contrast to the soft, pristine whiteness of the snow. Outside, it's drowsily beautiful as the sun sets and flakes skirl from the roofs to cover steps and ramps and cars. Inside, it's lazy and sloe-eyed and pottering. There's football on TV, and I'm nibbling York peppermint patties. The sheriff and the weather reports warn of frostbite and black ice, but they are far away, further than the cheap, prefab windows that separate the outside from the inside. They are there, and I am here, and for today, everything is all right.

I started The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares by Joyce Carol Oates. I can't speak for the other five stories that I have yet to read, but "The Corn Maiden" is one of the creepiest stories I've read in a long time. There's no gore, no shocking revelation, no twist ending that casts previous events in a new and sinister light. It's just a steady, unsentimental look at the evil found in unexpected places and the grinding terror of a missing child. The prose itself is the story's strongest asset, a hypnotic fever dream from which you don't emerge until the nightmare is over, and when you do, the shift to more prosaic prose is jarring, as though you've just awakened from a terrible dream you're not sure you want to remember. It's brilliant and more effective than a dozen slavering lunatics rocking in filthy corners and muttering, dark, inscrutable prophecy.

The imagery is also incredibly potent. It's not garish or strident; on the contrary, it's understated, like dust settling into the collar of your blouse and drifting down your back, an itch you can't quite reach. The description of the Onigara Indian exhibit at the museum at the beginning of the story made my belly flutter with unease, though I could not have said why. It was lurid, but not through any fault of its own or any flaw of its creation. Rather, the luridness was imposed upon it by Jude and her alien, jaundiced. It was the first intimation that something was dreadfully wrong here, and wrong in a way that could not be righted.

Likewise with that single blackbird at the end. There was nothing wrong with the bird, bless it, but that closing convocation sent a finger of unease down my spine.


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