Joyce Carol Oates’ ‘Dis Mem Ber’ Paces the Blurred Line Between Horror and Reality

For all the horror, the blood and ugliness, nothing in these pages is all that unthinkable.

Joyce Carol Oates’s Dis Mem Ber is a study in short fiction stripped to its essentials. The reader is addressed directly, excessive language or grammar dispensed with. Happy endings are so much useless frippery. Instead, widows are trapped in basement crawl spaces. Children are strangled and buried in shallow graves. Kittens are hurled off bridges. Birds maim and murder. Nobody — human or animal, adult or child — is spared.

Oates has always written candidly, even bluntly, about children and adolescents. Novels like Daddy Love, Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang, and Because It Is Bitter, Because It Is My Heart, examine adolescent capacity for violence and sexual transgression. Sexual relationships between older men and younger women are a recurrent theme, perhaps most famously in 1987’s You Must Remember This, which chronicles a teenaged girl’s affair with her much older uncle. Oates revists these themes in four of Dis Mem Ber’s seven stories, including the title piece, which is narrated by the teenaged Jill.

The summer between 7th and 8th grades, Jill informs readers, “…was like many years and not just a single year.”

Time warped because of Jill’s older cousin, Rowan. Rowan is a classic bad boy, a drifter who appeared, uninvited and unexpected, looking for Jill, whom he called “Jilly”. One day he appears in his blue Chevy, driving Jilly to a creek, where a body lay among the rocks. Producing a cheap knife, Rowan proudly explained he’d dismembered the corpse himself. Producing a camera, he demanded that Jilly take pictures.

Months later Rowan disappeared. Police searched the house he shared with an older man, finding numerous photographs, clothing belonging dead children, and the snapshots of a terrified Jill. It emerges that Rowan killed these children, burying them in shallow graves.

Questioned by the police, Jill reacts like many Oates characters do: she lies, claiming to recall nothing. She’s trapped between understanding the truth about Rowan and feeling flattered by his attentions. She understands she is wrong. And yet….

In “The Crawl Space”, Brianna, seven years a widow, obsessively drives past the house she shared with husband Jed. As she reflects on her marriage, the reader realizes Jed was dictatorial, bullying, and demanding. He was also scornful of lighter pleasures like watching television or taking vacations, preferring to work excessively. Citing a family history of mental health issues, he refuses Brianna’s wish for children 00 even after she becomes pregnant.

On one of her many drives, Brianna pulls into her former driveway only to encounter the new owners, who invite her to remove some boxes Jed left in the crawlspace. Surprised — Brianna knew nothing of these boxes — she follows the owners downstairs. Into the crawlspace. It’s not difficult to imagine what happens next.

Anyone undecided about gun laws is well-advised to read the aptly titled “Heartbreak”. Thirteen-year-old Stephanie is unhappy about her mother’s new husband, the dictatorial Mr. Lesinger. Awkward, slightly overweight, Stephanie jealously watches as her pretty elder sister Caitlin flirts with their handsome step-cousin Hunt, who is visiting for the weekend. When Hunt, Caitlin, and Stephanie sneak away from a family barbecue, returning home with a few beers, Stephanie is desperate for attention, for a chance to impress. Too desperate. She runs into the house, to her step-father’s bedroom, and grabs his gun from the dresser drawer.

“I did not mean to do anything but scare Caitlin. She was so mean to me, and seemed to be ashamed of me.”

In “The Drowned Girl”, Alida Lucash is an impoverished transfer student whose interest in bacteria draws her to both premed and the gruesome death of fellow transfer student, Miri Krim. After residents of Krim’s apartment building began complaining about their tap water, police search the locked rooftop water tank, only to find Krim’s decomposing body. When her death is ruled a suicide or accidental drowning, Lucash begins asking questions. Then the real trouble begins.

Perhaps the only story in Dis Mem Ber offering something of a satisfying ending — albeit a violently bloody, vengeful one — is “Great Blue Heron”. Like Brianna in “The Crawl Space”, Claudia is a widow. Unlike Brianna, however, Claudia adored her husband Jim. She has no desire to sell their lovely home. Yet her brother-in-law is pressuring her to do just that.

Claudia’s brother-in-law, nameless throughout, is pushy, boorish, and unwilling to accept “no” for an answer. He begins an aggressive campaign of telephoning and door-knocking, intending to wear the frail Claudia down.

Claudia and Jim were avid bird watchers. Now Claudia walks the land surrounding her home alone, entranced by the appearance of a Great Blue Heron. She watches as the bird feeds avidly at a nearby creek. She begins to dream of herself in flight, catching fish and other live beings. Soon, her brother-in-law stops bothering her, as he has met an unusual ending.

“The Situations”, graphically depicting both child and animal abuse, is nearly unbearable reading. It’s horror, yes, but only because nothing about it is unimaginable. “Welcome to the Friendly Skies!”, written before the recent commercial airline fiascos, is indeed horrific, but less farfetched than it should be.

And there’s the rub: Dis Mem Ber may be subtitled “and other stories of mystery and suspense”, but for all the horror, the blood and ugliness, nothing in these pages is all that unthinkable. As the line between reality and “horror” blurs and thins, what are we really afraid of? The imaginary monsters, or the real ones?

RATING 8 / 10